Hanan Ashrawi, the telegenic, kinder, gentler face of Palestinian politics, knows how to attract a headline, but one wonders if she is becoming reckless with the years. This week, she claimed that Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries were not refugees because they left their homes voluntarily.

This suggests Palestinians officials are alarmed at Israel’s intention to include an agenda item on compensation for Jewish refugees in any future peace negotiations bearing on Palestinian refugees.

In a recent article, Ashrawi asserted that the “claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’... is a form of deception and delusion.” With a touch of the casuistical, Ashrawi explained: “If Israel is their homeland, then they are not ‘refugees’; they are emigrants who returned either voluntarily or due to a political decision...Jews voluntarily and collectively left [Arab lands].”

THERE IS an element of the surreal to this, quite apart from its flat-earth factual quality. By Ashrawi’s logic, the millions of Muslims who fled India and the millions of Hindus who fled Pakistan around the same time were not refugees either, since each ended up in their respective nation states.

In fact, refugees are those who flee their homes with due cause, irrespective of whether or not they end up, as the bulk of Jews from Arab lands did, in their historic homeland. Moreover, the record shows that Arab states expelled, intimidated or ransomed their own Jewish communities during the 1940s and 1950s. It also shows that most of these Jews were on the receiving end of murderous violence months and even years before Israel came into existence. And unlike Palestinian refugees, the Jewish refugees had not fled a war zone or taken up arms.

Iraqi Jews were subjected to a pogrom in 1941 by pro-Nazi forces which claimed the lives of several hundred Baghdadi Jews. A raft of anti-Jewish legislation culminated in April 1950 with Iraqi authorities encouraging Jewish emigration by legislation. Anti- Jewish violence and vandalism persuaded many of the virtues of this course and, within a year, most of the country’s 130,000 Jews had registered for this purpose.

The Iraqi government then legislated in secret session to confiscate the assets of the departing Jews. This is the emigration of a 2,500-year-old community which Ashrawi calls “voluntary.”

Egypt’s Jewish community, dating back to the Middle Ages, also did not have to await Israel’s creation to be subjected to violence.

The “Young Egypt” movement of Ahmed Hussein attacked the Cairo Jewish quarter in November 1945, torching synagogues, old age homes and hospitals.

With the creation of Israel, Jewish neighborhoods were bombed and Jews attacked in the streets, 250 being killed between June and August 1948. Some 25,000 Jews – over a third of the community – had already left the country by 1950.

This sequence of pogrom, persecution, expropriation and flight was replicated in Syria and Libya, accounting between them for the creation of a further 50,000 refugees. In Yemen, a pogrom in Aden in December 1947 claimed the lives of 82 Jews. Widespread looting of Jewish property followed in 1948 after six Jews were accused of ritual murder. As a result of these events, almost this entire age-old community determined on what Ashrawi would call voluntary emigration.

Between June 1949 and June 1950, 43,000 Jews arrived in Israel from Yemen, with a small trickle of latecomers following in the early 1950s.

The only major exceptions to this pattern were Algeria and Morocco, most of whose Jews were also to leave, but only some years later, in response to the climate of anti-Jewish menace and hysteria which, in the case of Morocco, even enlightened leadership was unable to deter.

SO WHY has Ashrawi chosen to risk looking petulant, dishonest and stone-hearted in refusing to speak the truth about the Jewish refugees? Because the paramount object of Palestinian politics remains the nullification of Jewish statehood. Since World War II, the plight of refugees the world over has been alleviated by resettlement rather than repatriation.

But compensation has often been a feature of such resettlement. As a result, resettlement of Palestinian refugees not only lacks enticement but the compensation of Jewish refugees this would encompass heralds danger.

Till now, Arab countries have combined risibly low levels of material support with high levels of vocal support for Palestinian refugees and their millions of warehoused descendants. But if Arab states are called upon to pick up the tab for their depredations against their historic Jewish communities as part of a peace settlement, this could abruptly change and the regional pressure on Israel to concede to implacable Palestinian demands like the legally baseless “right of return” might abruptly end.

The writer, a PhD, is director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy and author of H.V. Evatt & the Establishment of Israel (2004).


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