Jerusalem Report

Changing the refugee paradigm

Israel demands that Jewish refugees from Arab lands be included as part of a peace agreement.

Danny Ayalon 521
Photo by: OREN NAHSHON
In late September, a unique gathering took place at United Nations headquarters in New York. It was exceptional in that it was Israel driven and allowed to go ahead over Arab and Palestinian objections. And it raised diplomatic eyebrows in that the subject – Jewish refugees from Arab countries – was one Israel had studiously avoided or shunted deep onto the back burner for over 60 years.

Attended by senior UN Secretariat officials and Western ambassadors, and broadcast live on the UN website under the title “The Untold Story of the Middle East: Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries,” the conference reflected a major shift in Israeli policy: That, from now on, Jewish refugees will be a core issue in any peace dialogue with the Palestinians and/or the Arab countries.The aim will be to present the Jewish and Palestinian refugee questions as parallel stories to be resolved in tandem.

The new policy sparked a stormy debate that touched the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It raised fundamental questions such as the degree to which the two sets of refugees could be compared, and the reasons behind Israel’s dramatic policy turnaround. Was the government’s underlying motivation to create yet another obstacle in the way of a two-state solution it doesn’t really believe in, or, on the contrary, to come up with an ingenious gambit for defusing an otherwise intractable issue? In other words, will the new policy help future peacemaking – as the government says it will – or seriously hinder it, as its critics claim?

There were other questions too. If the case of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries was so obviously worthy, why had it been neglected for so long? Indeed, do the estimated 860,000 Israelis who came from Arab countries see themselves as refugees about to get belated justice or as pawns in a game of high politics? And what do the Palestinians and the Arab countries make of it all?

The overarching story of the exodus of Jews from Arab lands is not in dispute. The more the Zionist state-building enterprise succeeded, the more the Jews in Arab lands suffered. There were pogroms in Iraq, Libya and Egypt in the early and mid-1940s, and the November 1947 UN partition resolution providing for a Jewish state in Palestine sparked a wave of anti-Jewish rioting across the region. Jews suffered attacks, bombings, death threats, torture, murder, boycotts, frozen bank accounts, expropriation of property, arbitrary interrogation, annulment of citizenship and other forms of discriminatory legislation. In short, they became hostage to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Between 1947 and 1951, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled, most of them penniless, many having left valuable property and businesses behind. The official Israeli estimate is that up to 1972, well over 800,000 Jews emigrated from Arab countries, leaving behind assets worth around $6 billion in today’s terms. By comparison, the Israeli figure for Palestinian refugees is around 600,000 with lost assets of about $3.9 billion.

While one of the unintended consequences of Zionist success was to put Jews in Arab countries at risk, it also served as a magnet for a return to Zion. Many “Mizrahim” – Jews from Arab countries – answered the call voluntarily. Indeed, large numbers of Mizrahim in Israel today fervently reject any notion of refugeehood. One of the questions the government will be hard-pressed to answer is just how many of the 860,000 can be considered to have been refugees on arrival.

Indeed, for years Israeli leaders nurtured the myth that the waves of Jews from Arab countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s had come to Israel in fulfillment of a deep-seated yearning for Zion. In most cases this was not true. But their unshakeable determination to maintain the myth, which served the Zionist nation-building ethos, was one of the prime reasons why Israeli leaders shied away from the Jewish refugee issue. For them the notion that the “Ma’abarot” – Israel’s tented transit camps for new immigrants in the 1950s – were akin to refugee camps was anathema. They also feared that if they pressed the Jewish refugee issue, Palestinian demands Not all Mizrahim agreed with the government’s lowprofile approach.

From the 1970s, the World Organization for Jews from Arab Countries, and its successor, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, lobbied Israeli governments on the Jewish refugee issue with little success. JJAC, however, continued work to establish the Jewish refugees’ legal and political case. In 2007, it produced a paper entitled “Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries: The Case for Rights and Redress,” which noted, inter alia, that all key Middle East peacemaking documents – UN Resolution 242, the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, the Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the Clinton parameters of 2000, the 2003 Road Map – invariably and deliberately referred to the refugee question in ways that included both Palestinians and Jews from Arab countries.

In other words, if an Israeli government decided to press the Jewish refugee issue, it would have international law on its side.

The turning point in Israeli government thinking came with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, in which he accepted the two-state model as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians. After the speech he instructed then-national security adviser Uzi Arad to prepare negotiating positions. As part of this effort, Arad set up a task force of academics and government officials to formulate a new Israeli stand on the Jewish refugee issue. On May 24, 2011, the panel submitted its groundbreaking recommendation that Jewish refugees be made a core issue in future negotiations with the Palestinians, arguing that Israeli negotiating strategy would be served by linking the two refugee populations and presenting the problem as one inseparable issue. It proposed that compensation for Jewish refugees be made an integral part of negotiations; that Israel insist that both sets of refugees waive the right of return and accept compensation instead; and that it demand a 3:2 ratio in compensation in proportion to the higher number of Jewish refugees and greater assets lost. The underlying idea was to take the sting out of the emotion-laden refugee issue by reducing it from unrealistic Palestinian demands for return to Israel proper, to pragmatic questions of financial compensation for both sets of refugees. So far no Palestinian leader has indicated the slightest readiness to accept a formula of this kind.

Along with its acceptance of the main thrust of the Arad committee recommendations, the government launched a campaign to promote awareness of the long-neglected Jewish refugee issue. Spearheaded by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who anchored a video clip purporting to tell “the truth about the refugees,” it entailed approaches to diplomats and legislators across the globe, as well as international conferences in Jerusalem and New York.

Ayalon also called on Israelis from Arab countries to upload their personal stories onto the web.

Ayalon’s own personal story highlights the complexity of the issue. His father came to Israel from Algeria in 1947, out of free Zionist choice. After working for a while on the Algerian coast helping illegal immigrants from Morocco on their way to Palestine, he boarded one of the ships headed for Marseilles and then Palestine himself. He was just 16 and by no stretch of the imagination a refugee. His parents, however, were forced to flee in 1962 after a wave of anti-Jewish riots in the wake of Algeria’s independence from France. They left considerable assets behind and could certainly be considered refugees with bona fide property claims. But they went to Strasbourg, not Israel.

Interviewed in his spacious Foreign Ministry office, the soft-spoken Ayalon, a former ambassador to the US, is relaxed and informal. A leading member of the far- Right Yisrael Beytenu party (now allied to the Likud), he is convinced that highlighting the Jewish refugee issue is not only justified but that it will help bring peace. “Primarily, we needed to bring it to the fore at home, so that the people of Israel would know their own history and give the Jews from Arab countries the recognition and respect they deserve. But of course, it is also a very significant argument we have vis-a-vis our neighbors on the road to real reconciliation,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.

Ayalon speaks of reconciliation “based on truth,” in South African style, in which both sides presumably recognize the others’ suffering, loss of property and dislocation.

The new Israeli policy, he says, is not an obstacle to peace, but on the contrary, points to a solution – an international fund to compensate both sets of refugees as prescribed in president Bill Clinton’s peace plan of 2000, known as the “Clinton parameters.”

And if Jewish refugees are included in the compensation package, the chances are that raising money for the Palestinians will be that much easier. “I say very clearly our raising this issue is not meant to deny any Palestinian rights. On the contrary, if the Palestinian would cooperate along these lines, everyone would benefit,” he declares.

Ayalon strongly denies that the new policy is a tactic to neutralize Palestinian demands for a right of return to Israel proper, because, he says, “there is no such right.”

He notes that throughout the 20th century, tens of millions of refugees were resettled in the countries to which they fled. Only the Palestinians, used by the Arab side as pawns in the conflict with Israel and aided by UN agencies, deliberately maintained an openended refugee status, now in its seventh decade. Like other refugees, they should be resettled and compensated, but not allowed to return to Israel proper, Ayalon says. “Most people in the international community already understand this,” he asserts.

“So we didn’t need any new argument.”

Nevertheless, the new policy led to heated intellectual sparring between Palestinian and Israeli supporters.

Palestinian human rights advocate Hanan Ashrawi argued bluntly that if Israel claims to be the homeland of the Jewish people, Jewish people returning to it could not be considered refugees. Israeli spokesmen retorted that in her eagreness to deny the Jewish refugee claim, Ashrawi actually seemed to be recognizing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a staunch pro-Israel advocate, added that according to Ashrawi’s criterion for refugeehood, Jews fleeing the Nazis could not be considered refugees either – challenging her to a public debate on the subject.

The important political fact, though, is that the Palestinians reject the new Israeli approach out of hand. They make two staple political arguments. If Israel has a refugee problem, they say, it is with the relevant Arab states, not them. And in an effort to turn Israel’s parallel solution argument on its head, they suggest that instead of both sets of refugees being compensated, both be allowed to return. Bottom line: The fact that Israel took in refugees from Arab countries, they say, has no bearing on the Palestinian refugee issue and the Palestinian right of return. Israel only raised the issue to avoid dealing with the Palestinian question altogether, they charge.

Palestinians were not the only ones aggrieved at the government’s new refugee policy. Left-wing Mizrahi intellectuals were also deeply offended. Some saw the Israeli proposal as a conspiracy that would enable Arab countries to keep Jewish property and Israel to keep Palestinian property with neither giving anything to the refugees or the dispossessed owners.

Most outspoken was Tel Aviv University sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, co-founder of the Mizrahi advocacy group, Hakeshet Hamizrachit (The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition). He pointed out that the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty regarded lost property as belonging to the state and precluded claims by individuals. He also observed that immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, when an Iraqi Jew who had been a victim of a Scud bombing in Ramat Gan made a property claim against Iraq, he was not allowed by the state to include a claim for property he had left behind in Baghdad when forced to flee in 1951. Shenhav also dismisses the attempt to place the Jewish and Palestinian refugee issues side by side as a “false parallelism,” because there is no question of return on the Jewish side. It is, he says, simply an “accounting trick that exacerbates friction with the Palestinians and widens the chasm between the parties.”

Beyond compensation and beyond polemics, the basic question is this: Will raising the Jewish refugee issue help resolve the wider refugee issue, or prove to be yet another spoke in the already severely encumbered negotiating wheel?


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