For some weeks now, governments and opinion-formers have been waiting with baited breath for President Donald Trump to unveil his peace plan for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
We’ve had a foretaste of how he sees the “refugee” issue—a “final status” question that has hitherto been pushed to the back burner in Middle East peace talks. Trump has decided to curtail funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that cares exclusively for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. These are now said to number more than 5 million. Yet there were no more than 711,000 original refugees, or fewer, according to some estimates. Only 30,000 of these are reckoned still to be alive.
At about the same time as the Palestinian refugees, a greater number (850,000) of Jewish refugees fled Arab countries in one of the most dramatic examples of 20th-century “ethnic cleansing.” All but 4,500 have been forced out by state-sanctioned discrimination, arrests, synagogue burnings and murderous riots. They abandoned billions of dollars’ worth of land and property—equivalent to four times the size of Israel itself. Returning to Arab countries would have put their lives at risk; it still does.
At the time, there was no internationally recognized definition of what constituted a refugee. In 1951, the U.N. Refugee Convention agreed the following:
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or … is unwilling to return to it.”
This definition certainly applies to the Jewish refugees. The burden of rehabilitating and resettling the 650,000 who arrived in Israel was shouldered by the Jewish Agency and U.S. Jewish relief organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The refugees were shunted into putrid transit camps or ma’abarot (refugee absorption camps), but were soon absorbed into Israeli society.
Historians are now revealing that in the early 1950s, in addition to the Marshall Plan to rehabilitate Europe after World War II, the United States gave money to Arab states and Israel to solve the refugee problem created by the 1948 War of Independence. The American aid was supposed to have been split evenly between Israel and the Arab states, with each side receiving $50 million to build infrastructure to absorb refugees. The money to resettle the Arab refugees was handed over to the U.N. agency founded to address the issue, and the Americans gave Arab countries another $53 million for “technical cooperation.” In effect, the Arab side received double the money given to Israel even though Israel took in more refugees, including Jews from Arab lands.
But none of this aid went into resettling Arab refugees. Instead, an exclusive agency, UNRWA, set up camps to perpetuate the delusion that the Palestinians are in transit to their permanent home in Israel, and that one day they will return. The great “March of Return” on Israel’s border with Gaza demonstrates emphatically that the marchers’ ultimate objective is not a two-state solution, but to overrun the Jewish state with “returning” Arabs. As long as the “right of return” is the cornerstone of the Palestinians’ strategy, the Jewish refugees from Arab lands remain its antidote.
It is extraordinary that UNRWA should grant inherited refugee status only to Palestinians; that it should attract one-third of the budget for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that deals with all refugees globally (some 65 million); and that it should have four times the number of staff.
Trump seems to have recognized that UNRWA has been fueling the single biggest stumbling block to peace, if not a recipe for continuing bloodshed. If the “refugees” come under the umbrella of UNHCR, the focus will be on rehabilitation and resettlement in their host countries.
The skewed mandate of the United Nations
From an early stage in the conflict, the United Nations was co-opted by the powerful Arab-Muslim voting bloc to skew its mandate and defend the rights of only one refugee population: the Palestinians. Hundreds of U.N. resolutions were passed affirming the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Not one concerned Jewish refugees.
For decades, the Israeli government failed to raise the question of Jewish refugees in a clear and forthright manner. The result was vague, generic reference to the “solution of the refugee problem.”
In the last decade, however, justice for the Jewish refugees has become a strategic objective. Since February 2010, Israeli governments of all political stripes have been bound by a Knesset law committing them to secure compensation for Jewish refugees in a settlement.
Why should the Jewish refugees feature in an Israel-Palestine peace deal? The 50.2 percent of Israel’s Jews who descend from refugees forced out by Arab and Muslim persecution have a right to expect that a peace deal will be signed that does not ignore their painful history. They cannot reasonably be asked to approve a plan that only provides rights and redress for Palestinian refugees without providing rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress for Jews displaced from Arab countries, as mandated under humanitarian law.
Both refugee populations were created by the Arab League countries’ belligerent refusal to accept the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan; both groups became refugees during the same period in history; and both were declared to be bona fide refugees, under international law, by the appropriate U.N. agencies.
The common objection to including the Jewish refugee issue in an Israel-Palestine deal—that the Palestinians had nothing to do with it, and that Jewish refugees should address their grievances to the Arab states which drove them out—is an easily demonstrable fallacy. Seven Arab states declared the 1948 war against Israel, but an extremist Palestinian leadership, which collaborated with the Nazis and incited anti-Jewish hatred across the Arab world in the decades preceding the creation of Israel, played an active part in all Arab League decision-making and goaded Arab states into conflict with the new Jewish state—a conflict they lost and whose outcome cannot be reversed. The Palestinians cannot escape some measure of responsibility for both the Arab and the Jewish nakbas (“catastrophes”).
Indeed, the idea of expelling the Jews of Arab countries was adopted by the Palestinians as a policy, according to the well-connected Egyptian-Jewish journalist Victor Nahmias.
Still today, most Palestinians appear both uncompromising and unrepentant. Therefore, any proposed solution that calls for return of Palestinian refugees, even in paltry numbers, without taking into account the Jewish refugees, perpetuates the injustice to Jewish refugees by letting both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states off the hook.
Two sets of refugees exchanged places in roughly equal numbers in the region. A “right of return” for one set of refugees is morally untenable; it’s not equitable to give one set such a right without giving the same right to the other. But to give Jews from the Arab world, now resettled in Israel and the West, a “right of return” to countries that spat out them out is like asking a prisoner who has tasted freedom to go back to jail. The fairest solution is for neither set of refugees to “return” to their countries of birth. Palestinian Arab refugees need to follow the model of successful Jewish refugee resettlement by being allowed to acquire full citizenship in their host countries or in a future Palestinian state (a right that the Palestinian leadership has, to date, declared no intention of granting them).
When Trump discloses the final terms of his peace deal, the rights of Jews refugees to compensation must not be forgotten. An international fund, as proposed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, should compensate refugees on both sides for lost property and also be used to finance the rehabilitation of refugees in host countries. The West and Israel would pay into the fund, but it is imperative for reconciliation that Arab countries should also contribute. Compensation should also go to the 200,000 Jews who did not go to Israel but settled in the West. They, too, are entitled to justice.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).