Negotiating justice for Arab Jewish refugees

Conference highlights how Arab Jewish refugee case might further complicate Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Deputy FM Danny Ayalon at Jewish refugee event 370 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram / GPO)
Deputy FM Danny Ayalon at Jewish refugee event 370
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram / GPO)
On Monday, advocates for Arab Jewish refugees gathered in Jerusalem for the “Justice for Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries” conference. The conference followed Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s launch of the “I Am a Refugee” Facebook campaign, which invites Arab Jews to submit testimonials in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The conference sought to raise public awareness of the refugee issue, and included talks by lawyers and politicians, as well as personal testimonies. Nevertheless, the conference also drew attention to the ways in which the Arab Jewish refugee case might further complicate Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Diaspora relations.
First, if the refugee issue is one of historic injustice, in which international law was violated, then redress and recognition must be sought from the international community and the perpetrating states. Yet throughout the conference, speakers compared their case with Palestinian exceptionalism, rather than focusing on the international laws and customs that were violated.
Statements such as “The Arab world turned refugees into pawns. Israel turned refugees into productive citizens,”and “Palestinians need to recognize that there were two refugee populations” might appeal to populist sentiment, but are tangential to the issue of international recognition. If individual Arab states are to blame for the disappearance of Arab Jewish communities, Palestinian recognition of Arab Jewish refugees should not be required in bilateral Israeli-Palestinians negotiations, despite Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler’s suggestion to the contrary. Recognizing Israel? Yes. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state? Perhaps. Recognizing Syrian refugees living in Brooklyn? No. The fact that Israel has a large Arab Jewish population is irrelevant, since Palestinians were not the perpetrators and have no shared history whatsoever with Arab Jews outside of Israel. 
Second, the vehement manner in which speakers reacted to PLO Executive Member’s Hanan Ashrawi’s recent comments does not justify forcing Palestinians to be accountable for Arab Jewish suffering. Her comment, that “if Israel is their homeland, then they are not 'refugees'; they are emigrants who return either voluntarily or due to a political decision," infuriated speaker after speaker at the conference.
Ashrawi, however, did not deny that Jews suffered emotionally, physically or materially; in fact, the majority of Arab Israelis actually recognize this suffering. Rather, Ashrawi simply reiterated what has been a central theme of Israeli Zionism: regardless of financial circumstances, Jews who settle in Israel cannot be “refugees” because Israel is ostensibly their true homeland. Hence the Law of Return, which ensures that Jews never arrive in Israel as refugees, but as new immigrants. Some Prominent Israeli politicians before Ashrawi resented being called refugees. "I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees," Iraqi-Israeli former Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel once claimed. "They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists." 
Third, if Israel is to become the vanguard of the refugee recognition movement, then certain questions must be addressed to prevent fractures within the Jewish community. The first questionis one of terminology. Exodus? Nakba? Or Shoah? Referring to the “Shoah in North Africa,” as one speaker did, is bound create tension between those who lost family in the Holocaust and those who did not.
The second question is one of representation. In the case of Holocaust reparations, Israel’s actions divided both Israel and the Diaspora, as well as the state and its citizen survivors. In the case of compensation for Arab Jews, the government must negotiate its right to represent the many Arab Jews who live outside of Israel and possibly, to receive claims on their behalf. Attention to these issues will best ensure that the rights of Arab Jewish refugees are secured in a just and equitable manner.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago, who has worked for think tanks in North America and the Middle East.