Remembering the ‘forgotten’ Jewish refugees

Recognizing their story is to do more than just right an overdue, historical injustice. It is to change the understanding in the United Nations and international community for why peace remains elusive.

Jewish refugees at a Ma’abarot transit camp in Israel, 1950. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jewish refugees at a Ma’abarot transit camp in Israel, 1950. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Danny Danon
Ambassador Danny Danon is a senior member of Knesset and chairman of World Likud. He previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, minister of science and technology and deputy minister of defense.

The United Nations held its annual plenary session last week on the 72nd anniversary of the passing of Resolution 181, which partitioned the British Mandate for Palestine into potential Jewish and Arab states. As Israel and the Jewish people around the world celebrate Nov. 29-30 (kaf tet b’November on the Jewish calendar), for more than 40 years, the Palestinians and their Arab allies have hijacked this day to pass resolutions that affirm the world body’s support for the “inalienable rights of the Palestinian people,” with special emphasis on Palestinian refugees.

Notably absent from any discussion in the United Nations on this or any other date is the plight of the Jewish refugees. This year, I am correcting this historical injustice by introducing a resolution to remember these “forgotten” Jewish refugees.

The 1948 Arab war against Israel created two refugee populations: Palestinian Arabs and Middle Eastern and North African Jews. Following the signing of the armistice agreements, approximately 700,000 Arabs that had been living in Mandatory Palestine before the war found themselves displaced in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries. The creation of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) formalized this group as Palestinian refugees.

Although an estimated 30,000 of the original refugees are still alive, because UNRWA uses a singular definition that passes refugee status onto descendants in perpetuity, those classified as Palestinian refugees today have ballooned to more than 5 million. This group is the darling child of the international community, receiving financial and political resources unmatched by any other refugee group.

In contrast, history and the international community have largely forgotten the story of the second refugee population.

Having failed to push Israel’s Jews into the sea despite multiple wars of aggression, countries throughout the Muslim world instead forcibly evicted their own Jews through state-sanctioned terror policies. This mass expulsion was an early example of anti-Semitism manifesting itself as anti-Zionism. Just as Germany’s government turned against its Jewish citizens in the 1930s, so, too, did governments across the Middle East and North Africa turn against their own Jewish populations throughout the 1940s all the way into the 1960s. In total, about 850,000 Jews from across Arab and Muslim lands found themselves no longer welcome in places where their families had lived for more than 2,500 years.

Today, a few tens of thousands of Jews—a small remnant of what was once the biggest centers of Jewish life—are all that remains throughout the Muslim world.

In contrast to the Palestinian Arab refugees, who largely left at the behest of their Arab leaders after initiating a war against Israel, and have received an immense amount of aid and resources, the Jewish refugees were evicted due to no cause of their own and have received barely a footnote in history.

In my remarks before the General Assembly last week, I announced my intent to right this historical injustice and introduce a resolution that will recognize these “forgotten” Jewish refugees.

It is true, in part, that these Jewish refugees are “forgotten” because they were not refugees for very long. France, the United States and other countries in Europe and Latin America absorbed many of them, though most arrived in Israel. With a population of little more than 800,000 in 1948, Israel nearly doubled in size in its first decade of existence through absorbing refugees and migrants. As the United Nations established UNRWA to care for the Palestinian refugees and keep them in perpetual refugee status, Israel took in the Jewish refugees and integrated them into our society.

Today, more than half of Israel’s Jewish citizens hail from Arab and Muslim lands. When they arrived in Israel, they brought with them their heritage and culture. While differing in some of their traditions, these communities were all rooted in the same Jewish values.

Though they shed their refugee status years ago, the story of this Jewish population still deserves to have its place in history and ensure its rights are recognized. The General Assembly will not be able to ignore this resolution, as it is incumbent upon them to correct the wrong done to the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.

This resolution will be an important step to begin reframing the context when discussing the conflict. Too often, Israel’s founding is erroneously cited as the cause for Palestinian refugees. In truth, the real cause was the Arab decision to exact a war of extermination against the Jewish state. Israel’s declaration of independence allowed for Palestinian Arabs to remain in its borders; indeed, those who did not flee became Israeli citizens.

Recognizing the story of the Jewish refugees is to do more than just right an overdue, historical injustice. It is to change the understanding in the United Nations and the international community for why peace remains elusive. The fundamental issue is not about land or borders; it’s about the Jewish right to sovereignty in the Land of Israel. It is whether the Muslim world can accept the presence of a Jewish state. It is about showing the world that the rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States has deep roots and powerful in the Middle East.

It is time to correct the historical record in order to begin an honest conversation about the future.

Danny Danon is Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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