Jewish Journal

Jewish Refugees Re-emerges as Issue for Israel-Palestinian Peace

New effort seeks to re-energize existing recognition of Jewish refugee status

by Michael Friedson, The Media Line

Posted on Sep. 10, 2012 at 10:54 am

A conference in Jerusalem has launched an element new to the mix of public prattle but nevertheless replete with historical bona fides: the rights of 850,000 Jewish refugees forced from Arab countries between 1948 and 1951 and certified as refugees by the United Nations.

Organized by the Israeli government and the World Jewish Congress, the Monday parley signaled an effort that will doubtless be tagged as a new issue by some and derided for adding fuel to a process already hostile to the point of stagnation. But the key component of the campaign is rather than inserting another non-starter for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to wrangle over; an issue well-established by international law according to the United Nations and backed by a resolution of the American Congress is being put forth with the demand that both sides be given equal consideration when discussing the region’s refugees.

Dan Diker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, explained to The Media Line that, “it’s time for the Jewish people to assert rights-based diplomacy; to learn from the Arabs and Palestinians, who for the past twenty-five years we’ve helped to assert their rights.” Rather than being seen as a new matter, Diker said it should be viewed more correctly as “dusting-off the cobwebs, greasing the wheels, and re-energizing a 64-year old issue.”

Canadian parliamentarian Prof. Irwin Kotler, a leading human rights attorney and former justice minister and attorney general of Canada, set the historical table by arguing that when the Arab nations rejected the 1947 resolution partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, it actually launched two wars of aggression: one versus the nascent state of Israel and the other against their own Jewish nationals, effectively creating two, not one, sets of refugees: Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands. Kotler called it “double rejectionism” – the Arab rejection of the Jewish state and the forced exodus by each Arab nation of its own Jewish citizens. The purpose of the campaign, Kotler said, is to “rectify historic injustice.”

As to why the Arab refugee issue has resonated and the Jewish counter-point not, speakers suggested it was because the Jews who were affected were successfully absorbed by the state of Israel while Palestinian refugees were kept state-less in camps inside the host nations, all of which -- with the exception of Jordan -- denied basic rights to the Palestinians. The refugees, they argue, were used as political fodder rather than being afforded the treatment a refugee population deserved.

Beyond educating the masses about the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the campaign has the goal of instituting legal requirements that all references to refugees include both Palestinians and Jews. As difficult as it is to expect Palestinian proponents to broaden their refugee references to include Jews from Arab lands, a 2008 resolution passed by the House of Representatives serves as a cornerstone of the legal and political effort the attendees at Monday’s conference seek to energize.

H. Res. 185, sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), asserts that “the United States Government supports the position that, as an integral part of any comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, the issue of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf must be resolved in a manner that includes recognition of the legitimate rights of and losses incurred by all refugees displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.” Nevertheless, few, if any, references to Jewish refugees from Arab lands have been asserted by American interlocutors in the face of the virtually automatic demand from Palestinian negotiators on the subject, whether in the context of efforts by the Quartet (international sponsors of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process including the US, UN, European Union and Russia) or between American diplomats and the parties. This, despite the suggestion of President Bill Clinton during the course of the 2000 Camp David negotiations that if an agreement is reached, a fund should be created to compensate both Arab and Jewish refugees.

Can it change? Rep. Nadler sounded a cynically-optimistic note when he told the gathering that there has been “hostile reaction” to the campaign by Arab media, which according to the Congressman is a positive step. “They recognized it,” Nadler said. “That’s good.”

When asked by The Media Line whether administration support for the issue was in the cards, Rep. Nadler suggested that although little time remains in the current Congress, greater support will be forthcoming when his bill is re-submitted in the next session.

The next step in the campaign will come in New York when the United Nations resumes its sessions and its delegates will be reminded of the determination by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1957 that, “Jews fleeing from Arab countries were refugees within the mandate of the UNHCR;” and that Security Council Resolution 242, arguably the UN act most often cited by the pro-Palestinian community, itself calls for a “just settlement of the refugee problem” absent any distinction between Arab and Jewish refugees.

As the WJC’s Diker explained, it’s time to reverse the “lack of discourse in the international community.”

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