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
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.
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
The “Young Egypt” movement of Ahmed Hussein attacked the Cairo
Jewish quarter in November 1945, torching synagogues, old age homes and
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
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
Between June 1949 and June 1950, 43,000 Jews arrived in
Israel from Yemen, with a small trickle of latecomers following in the early
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.
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