Refugees and peace

Only when the Palestinian people acknowledge their own and the Arab nations’ complicity in their own displacement, as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, will true, lasting peace be attainable.

September 10, 2012 23:03
3 minute read.
Jewish refugees from Yemen cross desert

Jewish refugees from Yemen cross desert 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Israeli National Photo Archive)


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‘Palestinians” are the first people to come to mind when the word “refugee” is uttered in a Middle East context. And Palestinians have paid dearly to reinforce this misconception.

Largely dispossessed by their fellow Arabs, Palestinians have lived as second-class citizens in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the region. Palestinians’ dismal treatment by their Arab brethren is undoubtedly due in part to strongly held prejudices and exclusionary nationalist loyalties.

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But the perpetuation of the Palestinian “refugee” problem has also served as a means of undermining the legitimacy of Israel, as if it was the Jewish state – not extremist, uncompromising and sorrowfully incompetent Palestinian leadership – which was responsible for the flight of Palestinians from Palestine after the failed attempt to violently snuff out the State of Israel at conception.

In reality, however, there was at least one additional population movement in the region around the same time. Since the 1948 War of Independence, during which the fledgling Jewish state successfully repulsed both Palestinian militias and the combined armies of the neighboring Arab states, about 850,000 Jews were displaced from Arab countries – more than about 700,000 Palestinians estimated to have left Palestine in the wake of the war.

Frustrated by their defeat on the battlefield and incensed at the supreme chutzpah of the Jews daring to establish a state of their own, Arabs across the region lashed out at easier prey.

Some of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world, such as the one in Iraq dating back to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, were emptied of Jews.

In short, the nightmare of dispossession is not unique to the Palestinians.


In recent years, a concerted effort has been launched to raise international consciousness of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who saw their businesses, homes and savings confiscated, never to be returned.

In 2008, Justice for Jews from Arab Countries was instrumental in obtaining a US House of Representatives resolution recognizing the need to resolve “all outstanding issues relating to the legitimate rights of all refugees, including Jews, Christians and other populations displaced from countries in the Middle East” as part of a “credible and enduring” Middle East peace agreement.

And in the same year, Sidney Zabludoff, a former CIA and Treasury official and a Holocaust restitution expert, published the first methodical calculation of the amount lost by Jews who fled, or were expelled from, Arab countries.

He estimated that Jews’ losses amounted to $6 billion, while Palestinians’ losses were $3.9b.

In April, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced that his ministry would put the issue of Jewish refugees at the top its agenda, marking a sea change in traditional diplomatic policy. Ayalon received backing from the Prime Minister’s Office.

At the beginning of August, a bipartisan group of six Congress members said they would sponsor a bill that would ensure recognition of the plight of Jewish refugees.

And this week in Jerusalem an international conference entitled “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” is being hosted by the World Jewish Congress, the Foreign Ministry and the Senior Citizens Ministry. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the conference via video.

In the past, Israel has balked at raising the topic of Jewish refugees. Part of the reason has to do with Jews’ tendency to move on instead of dwelling on past setbacks and self-victimization. Indeed, both Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees largely set aside past traumas and confronted the task at hand: The building of a Jewish state.

But the time has come to raise consciousness – not, as Columbia University’s Edward Said professor of Arab studies Rashid Khalidi has claimed, as a part of an “insidious” plot to “cancel out the debt of Israel toward Palestinian refugees.”

Rather, recognition of certain historical facts and the scrapping of distorted narratives can be a form of therapy, a way of attaining true reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Only when the Palestinian people acknowledge their own and the Arab nations’ complicity in their own displacement, as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, will true, lasting peace be attainable.

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