Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The "Forgotten Refugees" -- Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

The NY Times reported yesterday on the efforts of a group, "Justice for Jews from Arab Countries," to get recognition for what they call the "forgotten refugees," those Jews who left Arab lands as a result of discrimination, persecution, etc., and whose property was expropriated, etc. The focus of the group will not be demands for compensation, but rather recognition, especially in the United Nations, where the Palestinian refugee problem is often on the agenda, and the origins of the problem commemorated.

In so far as this group wishes to address the violated rights of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, I applaud its efforts, and I urge all supporters of the Palestinian national movement to join. In fact, I think the demands of the group should not just stop at recognition, but should include compensation and the right to return to Arab countries. Although it is wrong to equate the exodus of Palestinians with those of the Jews for several reasons -- primarily, because the Jewish exodus was encouraged by the Zionists as part of the "ingathering of the Exiles" -- that does not reduce the responsibility of the Arab countries for the forced emigration and expropriation, nor does it eliminate the pain of leaving one's ancestral home, losing property, etc.

The Canadian former minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, a noted Zionist and international expert in human rights, who will be speaking at the group's conference, was quoted as saying:

“I know this may sound Pollyannaish, but I believe that if we allow people to understand the truth of what occurred, then they will be able to recognize the other,” he said. “Right now the other is being demonized.”

I agree with Mr. Cotler. From the Palestinian standpoint, any discussion of the rights of refugees to recognition, compensation, and repatriation, can only help raise the awareness of people, including Israelis, that there is no statute of limitations with respect to fundamental injustices. By embracing the cause of the Jewish refugees, the friends of the Palestinians should emphasize the similarities but also the differences between the two exoduses: one group was expelled from its home; another group was expelled to its home, at least according to Zionist and traditional Jewish ideology, and in many cases, into the physical homes of the expelled Palestinian refugees.

The most significant difference between the two exoduses is that the Palestinian refugee problem was caused by the Zionist refusal to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes, but the Palestinians were not at all responsible for the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries; on the contrary, they also suffered from it. The idea that future compensation to be paid to the Palestinian refugees should be reduced by the compensation for the Jewish refugees, an idea apparently accepted by the PA negotiators, is horrendous. The Arab states should pay, not the Palestinians.

It is the significant differences that caused me to raise my eyebrows when I read that, according to the Times,

Another objective is to push for early passage of resolutions introduced in the United States Senate and House that say that any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees in any official document must be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees.

Inasmuch as this forced and artificial balance serves a rightwing and anti-Palestinian agenda, it is offensive to both groups. The Zionists have always accused the Arab countries of using the Palestinian refugees as pawns in propaganda warfare; supporters of Israel should not be doing the same with the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Injustices on both sides should be redressed by the appropriate parties and not forgotten. But one group should not suffer at the expense of the other.

1 comment:

Peter H said...

Another big difference, which I would argue is the primary one, is the function of the two displacements. The flight of the Jews from Arab lands was demographically meaningless; there was no issue of Jews forming a majority in these countries or controlling territory. In contrast, there was an essential strategic function of expelling Palestinians and preventing their return: given that Palestine was 2/3 Arab before 1947, it was the only way to guaruntee a Jewish majority. Not to mention the fact that Jews owned only 7% of the land in Palestine. I think the Palestinian Nakba can be classified as an ethnic cleansing, if ethnic cleansing It really can be said that Israel owes its existence to ethnic cleansing.