Palestinian refugees 224.
(photo credit: AP)
One of the topics to be discussed at the November meeting of Middle East leaders in Washington is the Palestinian refugee issue. UN Security Council Resolution 242, which remains the sole agreed basis for an Arab-Israel peace agreement, contains a reference to "a just solution of the refugee problem." It makes no reference to Palestinian refugees. The omission was not accidental, because the council understood there was also the problem of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Over the years, Arab and Palestinian spokesmen have presented a strong case regarding the plight of the Palestinian refugees. They have argued that the Palestinians are the original owners of the land, the Jews were foreign invaders who took it by force, and as a result, the Palestinian refugees became the innocent victims of the Arab-Israel conflict. Hence, they insist on the "right of return" of the Palestinians to the land and properties they left in 1948.
This narrative ignores another aspect of the story. Shortly after the November 1947 Partition Plan was passed by the UN, a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms took place in several Arab countries. By May 1948, the situation of Jews in these countries became untenable. The Arab invasion of Israel triggered a massive movement of populations in opposite directions. Jews fled to Israel and Arabs fled to the countries bordering on Palestine. In making their case, the Arabs have consistently refrained from acknowledging the mass exodus of some 800,000 Jews from Arab countries. Jewish communities had lived in the Arab world long before the advent of Islam - and before the Arabs gained their identity as a people.
SUCCESSIVE governments of Israel have embraced a proposal to conduct a survey of Jewish property which was confiscated by Arab governments, or left behind by Jews who were expelled or who emigrated to Israel. The idea is to prepare a dossier for negotiations on the refugee issue and addressing possible claims for restitution by both sides.
Referring to the refugee issue in a recent statement in the Knesset, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said: "Clearly, a Palestinian state is the sole, complete solution for Palestinians everywhere, the integral national solution to the refugee problem."
Unfortunately, she made no mention of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, thus missing an opportunity to call the world's attention to the fact that there were two refugee crises and both should be addressed.
Recently, the US Congress conducted hearings on the refugee issue in two sub-committees. They were held at the behest of the US-based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC), which functions under the umbrella of WOJAC - the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.
Summing up the deliberations, Rep. Tom Lantos called on the Bush administration to ensure that from here on, any forum that addressed the problem of Palestinian refugees would be required to address equally the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
The Jewish refugees have all been absorbed in Israel, while the Arab refugees have been deliberately kept in limbo, pending the fulfillment of their "right of return."
Palestinian leaders have insisted that the "right of return" takes precedence even over the quest for a Palestinian state. The recognition of this right, so they insist, would be a vindication, at least in principle, of their historical claim to Palestine.
IN NOVEMBER, JJAC will be convening a meeting of its international steering committee in New York. In coordination with the Israel government, we plan to launch what we hope will be the final phase of our campaign to register all private and communal properties that belonged to Jews throughout the Arab world.
Jews who have not yet registered their claim and recorded their personal and communal history - until their expulsion or departure - will be called upon to come forth and do so. Completion of the dossier would do minimum justice to the plight of the Jewish refugees, and provide the government of Israel with an important resource to be used in negotiating with the Palestinians as well as the Arab governments.
The writer, a former director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, is a board member of WOJAC.