Posted by: sean | November 5, 2007

Jewish refugees

The Times has a article on a Jewish group that’s doing its best to spotlight the plight of Jews forced from Arab countries after the war in 1948. Ordinarily, I’d applaud such an act, because it’s always a good idea to shed light on lesser known historical events.

In this case, however, the entire enterprise seems possibly less interested in history than in using history as a rhetorical bludgeon to undermine the Palestinian refugees’ internationally recognized right of return:

Another objective is to push for early passage of resolutions introduced in the United States Senate and House that say that any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees in any official document must be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees.

The American-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis is planned to take place before the end of the year to address core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like borders, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

“We want to have this meeting now, in advance of the Annapolis conference, to ensure that this issue is front and center in the international awareness as it should be,” Mr. Urman said.

I’ve always maintained that both morally and politically speaking, the choice of countries like Libya, Iraq and Egypt to push out their Jewish citizens was a huge mistake. I also believe that Lebanon, for example, where the Jewish population actually increased after 1948 but all but disappeared during the civil war, should actively pursue the return of its Jewish citizens, most of whom seem to be in Paris and Montreal. This could be done with a law of return and an active rebuilding of the Jewish quarter, including the Synagogue downtown and the Jewish cemetery.

Today’s article in the Times gives little nuance to the question and neglects to mention the principle difference between Palestinian refugees and Oriental Jews forced from Arab countries: many of the former remain stateless and continue to live in refugee camps, whereas the latter were successfully resettled and given citizenship in Israel or North America.

I came across another article in the Times, this time from 2003, that gives a much more nuanced discussion of the issue:

“This is not a campaign against Palestinian refugees,” said Stanley A. Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, a coalition of 27 groups that includes the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “On the contrary, we believe the legitimate rights of the Palestinian refugees must be addressed in any peace process.” He added, “We’ve got to make sure Palestinian refugees receive rights and redress, and Jewish refugees receive rights and redress.”

Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, disagrees. “This is a bait-and-switch tactic that does not serve either Palestinians or Oriental Jews or a just peace,” he said, using the umbrella term for Jews from Arab countries. “Leaving both of these groups aggrieved guarantees that whatever quote, unquote settlement results would be unstable. There are just claims here. They should be addressed by the Arab states. But it shouldn’t be a bait-and-switch that will make Oriental Jews pay the price for Israel’s confiscation of a very large amount of Palestinian property.”

[…]To Professor Khalidi, the very notion of making Palestinians citizens of Arab countries ignores significant distinctions between the Jewish and the Palestinian refugee experiences. “The idea of comparing them to Palestinians isn’t valid,” he said of Jewish refugees. “In a Zionist narrative, they should’ve wanted to go to Israel in the first place. The Palestinians didn’t want to leave and weren’t going back to their homeland. But some people have tried to tell Arabs what their nationalism should be and have tried to tutor the Palestinians in the proper understanding of their own national identity.”

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland at College Park, said it was legitimate to consider the claims of both sets of refugees simultaneously in the peace process. But for Israel, he warned, the strategy might lead to unintended consequences.

“Putting the issue of Jews in the Arab world on the table helps in the compensation arena, but not the resettlement arena,” he said. “In that arena, exposing the issues of Jewish refugees could be a kind of drawback. It can give the Arab countries a political edge, a rhetorical edge over Israel. They can say, instead of compensation, you’re welcome to come back. Jews will always be a minority in those countries. And Jewish refugees won’t want to come back to them. So it can be a negative by highlighting the fact that Israel will not accept Palestinian refugees.”

Politically speaking, of course, Telhami is correct. The only way that Arab regimes are likely to invite their Jewish citizens back is as a political maneuver to morally outflank Israel on the refugee question.

This is unfortunate, because everyone I talk to in Lebanon who remembers a time when the Jewish population lived openly in Beirut, remembers the time and their connections to their Jewish neighbors very fondly.

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