A few weeks ago, the government passed a bill that will commemorate February 17 –
the date of an Arab League call on member states to impose restrictions on the
lives, property and legal status of Jews.
Will similar recognition of the
Jewish persecution in, and eventual expulsion from, Muslim lands occur in the
current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which negotiations will certainly
address the Palestinian refugees of 1948? A Google search for “1948 refugees”
produces about 6 million results. All but a few (at least through page six) are
about the Palestinian Arab refugees, as if they were the only refugees of 1948.
But it is estimated that from the beginning of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War through
the early 1970s, up to 1,000,000 Jews fled or were expelled from their ancestral
homes in Muslim countries.
Two hundred sixty-thousand of those refugees
reached Israel between 1948 and 1951 and comprised 56 percent of all immigration
to the fledgling state. By 1972, their numbers had reached 600,000.
1948, Middle East and North African countries had considerable Jewish
populations: Morocco (250,000), Algeria (140,000), Iraq (140,000), Iran
(120,000), Egypt (75,000), Tunisia (50,000), Yemen (50,000), Libya (35,000), and
Syria (20,000). Today, the indigenous Jews of those countries are virtually
extinct (although Morocco and Iran each still has under 10,000 Jews).
most cases, the Jewish population had lived there for millennia – long before
Muslims conquered those territories. Few know this history because the Jewish
refugees of 1948 were granted citizenship by the countries to which they fled,
including Israel. By contrast, many Muslim countries refused to integrate the
Palestinian refugees, preferring to leave them as secondclass citizens in order
to maintain a domestic demographic balance and/or a political problem for
Media bias also explains why so few people know about the 1948
Jewish refugees from Muslim lands. A search for “1948 refugees” on the BBC news
site generates 41 articles (going back to 1999); 40 discuss the Palestinian Arab
refugees of 1948. Only three of those 40 (dated September 22, 2011, September 2,
2010, and April 15, 2004) even mention the Jewish refugees from Muslim lands,
and two do so only in a single, superficial sentence that presents the issue as
a claim rather than a historical fact.
A search for “1948 refugees Jews
from Arab lands” on The New York Times site produces 474 results, while “1948
Palestinian Arab refugees” yields 1,740 results.
Consider a comparison
using Sri Lanka, another wartorn, multi-ethnic country that gained its
independence from Britain in 1948. The nearly 26-year ethnic conflict there
began in 1983 and claimed 80,000- 100,000 lives, many multiples of the total
casualties from the nearly 100-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sri Lanka’s
conflict also produced hundreds of thousands of refugees, including at least
200,000 Tamil refugees in Western Europe alone. Yet a search for “Tamil
refugees” generates only 483 articles – under 5% of the 10,700 results for
“Palestinian Arab refugees.”
Institutionalized favoritism at the UN has
also enabled the Palestinians to monopolize the refugee issue, which undoubtedly
reinforces the media’s bias.
All non-Palestinian refugees around the
world (nearly 55 million) are cared for by the UN High Commission for Refugees,
which works under the guidelines of the Convention on Refugees of 1951. But
Palestinian refugees (whose original population was under one million) have a UN
agency dedicated exclusively to them (UNRWA).
UNRWA’s unique definition
of “refugee” includes anyone “whose normal place of residence was Palestine
between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of
livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”
addition to families who lived in the area for generations, UNRWA’s definition
includes any migrants who arrived as recently as 1946 but were then displaced.
And because the definition includes “descendants of fathers fulfilling the
definition,” UNRWA’s refugee population has grown from 750,000 in 1950 to
5,300,000 today (making resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue even
harder). Despite these problems, the United States continues to support UNRWA
(with over 4.1 billion dollars since 1950).
The rest of the world’s
refugees are assisted by the High Commission, which is mandated to help refugees
rapidly rebuild their lives, usually outside the countries that they
Jewish refugees from Muslim lands did just that: they rebuilt their
lives in Israel and elsewhere. But the fact that they quietly adapted and Israel
granted them full citizenship doesn't lessen the wrongs committed by their
countries of origin.
These Jewish refugees from Muslim lands suffered
legal and often violent persecution that resulted in immeasurable emotional and
physical loss. They lost billions in property and endured huge socioeconomic
disadvantages when forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. Israel was
unfairly burdened with the colossal social and economic cost of suddenly
absorbing so many refugees. So any suggestion that Jewish refugees from Muslim
lands don’t deserve compensation is resoundingly wrong.
On the World
Refugee Day last June, the Israeli Knesset member Shimon Ohayon, whose family
fled Morocco in 1956, called on the Arab League to “accept their great
responsibility for driving out almost a million Jews from lands [in] which they
had lived for millennia.”
He explained that “In 1947, the Political
Committee of the Arab League drafted a law that...called for the freezing of
bank accounts of Jews, their internment and [the confiscation of their
Various other discriminatory measures were taken by Arab nations
and subsequent meetings reportedly called for the expulsion of Jews from member
states of the Arab League.”
Ohayon challenged the League to accept
responsibility for “the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish population from most of
the Middle East and North Africa... [and] to provide redress to the
A just and comprehensive Mideast peace is possible only
when Muslim states recognize their role in two historic wrongs. The first is
displacing one million indigenous people only because they were Jews, and the
second, perpetuating the plight of Palestinian refugees by denying them
The first wrong requires financial compensation to the
families of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands, which reparation can be
administered by the states that absorbed them and should be a formal part of any
comprehensive peace plan. The second wrong should be remedied by granting full
citizenship to Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who have resettled
in Muslim lands. Both wrongs have festered for too many decades.Noah
Beck is the author of
The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian
nukes that also discusses the expulsion of Jews from Muslim lands.