Joan Peters died on Monday night at her home in Chicago at the age of 76. A former CBS news documentary producer and an author, she was best known for her landmark book, From Time Immemorial, published in 1984. It was the first major study that documented how the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, perpetuates the refugee status of Arabs who were displaced, or left voluntarily, in the wake of the 1948 War of Independence.
A 1984 review of her book by Daniel Pipes analyzed the strength of her research: “Making use of work done by Kemal Karpat in the Ottoman records, Miss Peters ascertains the non-Jewish population in 1893 of the area that would later form Palestine under the British Mandate.
She then divides this area into three parts: one without Jewish settlement, one with light Jewish settlement, and one with heavy Jewish settlement.
“She compares the non-Jewish population of each of these parts in 1893 and 1947, on the eve of Israel’s independence. In the area of no Jewish settlement, the non-Jewish population stood in 1893 at 337,200; in 1947 it was 730,000, a growth of 116 percent. In the area of light Jewish settlement, the non-Jewish population grew in the same period from 38,900 to 110,900 or 185 percent.
“Finally, in the area of heavy Jewish settlement, the non-Jewish population grew from 92,300 in 1893 to 462,000 in 1947 – or 401 percent.
From these figures Miss Peters concludes that “the Arab population appears to have increased in direct proportion to the Jewish presence.”
Only a year after the publication of From Time Immemorial, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in December 1985 that rejected any efforts to require UNRWA to help Arab refugees engage in resettlement and rehabilitation.
Peters wrote her book at the same time that Mordechai Ben-Porat, a minister in the government, was asked by then-prime minister Menachem Begin to research ways to settle the Palestinian Arab refugees in humanitarian conditions.
However, Ben-Porat was thwarted in his efforts by a 1985 UN resolution which stopped UNRWA from resettling any Arab refugees or any of their descendants in permanent conditions.
Peters would often cite Ben-Porat’s book Will there Always Be Refugees, in which he wrote: “Preservation of the image of miserable, homeless, and penniless refugees has... ruled out any possibility of dealing with the issues... the funds initially intended to erase the refugee problem have instead become a powerful instrument intent on preserving this very problem.”
Peters gave her last interview, in November 2014, for the Women in Green’s Sovereignty Journal (Issue No. 4) updating her scathing analysis of how Arab refugees have been manipulated for political purposes: “UNRWA has been perpetrating fraud against the Jewish nation and against the world since they became the only ‘refugee’ organ solely dedicated to one group of the world’s refugees.
The Arab refugees, who really ran or were displaced during Israel’s War of Independence, were a small group when compared to the world’s hundreds of millions displaced during wars and strife.
“The Arabs were also a much smaller actual number than the Jewish Arab-born refugees forced to flee from Arab countries. But the Arabs were counted over and over, going back and forth from the refugee camps. As American congressmen have attested, fraud was committed constantly, aided by the almost totally Arab staff in the UNRWA employ.”
Nadia Matar and Yehudit Katsover, the co-chairwomen of Women in Green, said in a statement that Peters “went the entire way with her truth, despite the fact that it entailed a total change in her worldview.
“Joan Peters paid a heavy price for her work,” they said. “People on the Left, including some Israelis, claimed that her work was not based on accurate data, but authors Barbara Tuchman, Elie Wiesel and Robert St. John stood by her side, as well as history.”
Now for a personal word.
I met Joan Peters in 1987 and listened to her as she carefully explained that unless and until the UN “right-of-return” mantra was reversed, there could be no peace.
She inspired a metamorphosis in my career, as a social worker and as a journalist.
Twenty-seven years of professional news coverage of UNRWA emanated from that seed that Joan Peters planted.
Joan should be remembered as the pioneer who first generated concern over the fact that a bona fide agency of the United Nations, dedicated to peaceful resolution of wars, works instead to preserves the Arab refugee illusion of the “right of return” to villages that existed before 1948.
Peters was laid to rest on Thursday in Chicago. She is survived by her husband, Dr. William A. Caro, and daughter Lori Peters and stepsons Mark and David Caro.
The writer is the founder and director of The Center for Near East Policy Research Ltd.