As a descendant of a family forced out of Algeria, my father and I – and the millions of other Jews from families who were expelled from Arab countries after 1948 – are entitled to redress.
The Jerusalem Post, 2 Sept 2010
As a sitting member of a democratic government, it might appear strange to declare that I am a refugee. However, my father, his parents and family were just a few of the almost one million Jews who were expelled or forced out of Arab lands. My father and his family were Algerian, from a Jewish community thousands of years old that predated the Arab conquest of North Africa and even Islam. Upon receiving independence, Algeria allowed only Muslims to become citizens and drove the indigenous Jewish community and the rest of my family out.
While many people constantly refer to the Arab or Palestinian refugees, few are even aware of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
While those Arabs who fled or left Mandatory Palestine and Israel numbered roughly 750,000, there were roughly 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands. Before the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, there were almost one million Jews in Arab lands, today there are around 5,000.
An important distinction between the two groups is the fact that many Palestinian Arabs were actively involved in the conflict initiated by the surrounding Arab nations, while Jews from Arab lands were living peacefully, even in a subservient dhimmi status, in their countries of origin for many centuries if not millennia.
In addition, Jewish refugees, as they were more urban and professional, as opposed to the more rural Palestinians, amassed far more property and wealth which they had to leave in their former county.
Financial economists have estimated that, in today’s figures, the total amount of assets lost by the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, including communal property such as schools, synagogues and hospitals, is almost twice that of the assets lost by the Palestinian refugees. Furthermore, one must remember that Israel returned over 90 percent of blocked bank accounts, safe deposit boxes and other items belonging to Palestinian refugees during the 1950s.
Even though the number of Jewish refugees and their assets are larger than that of the Palestinians, the international community only appears to be aware of the latter’s plight.
There are numerous major international organizations devoted to the Palestinian refugees. There is an annual conference held at the United Nations and a refugee agency was created just for the Palestinian refugees. While all the world’s refugees have one agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Palestinians fall under the auspices of another agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
UNWRA’s budget for 2010 is almost half of UNHCR’s budget.
Equally impressive is the fact that UNHCR prides itself on having found “durable solutions” for “tens of millions” of refugees since 1951, the year of its establishment. However, UNRWA does not even claim to have found “durable solutions” for anyone.
If that is not distorted enough, let’s look at the definitions and how they are applied: normally the definition of a refugee only applies to the person that fled and sought refuge, while a Palestinian refugee is the person that fled and all of their descendants for all time. So, according to the UNRWA definition of conferring refugee status on descendants, I would be a refugee.
However, I do not consider myself so; I am a proud citizen of the State of Israel. The Jewish refugees found their national expression in Israel, so to, the Arab refugees should find their national aspirations being met by a Palestinian state.
With direct negotiations about to resume between Israel and the Palestinians, the spotlight will be returned to this issue. The so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ is legal fiction. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, the supposed source for this ‘right’ does not mention this term, is not legally binding and, like all other relevant United Nations resolutions uses the intentionally ambiguous term ‘refugees’ with no appellation.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, still seen as the primary legal framework for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict asserts that a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement should necessarily include “a just settlement of the refugee problem.”
No distinction is made between Arab refugees and Jewish refugees.
In fact, one of the leading drafters of the resolution, Justice Arthur Goldberg, the United States’ Chief Delegate to the United Nations, said: “The resolution addresses the objective of ‘achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.’ This language presumably refers both to Arab and Jewish refugees.”
In addition, every peace conference and accord attended or signed between Israel and its Arab neighbors uses the term “refugees” without qualification.
During the famous Camp David discussions in 2000, president Clinton, the facilitator and host of the negotiations said: “There will have to be some sort of international fund set up for the refugees. There is, I think, some interest, interestingly enough, on both sides, in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land”.
In 2008, the US Congress passed House Resolution 185 granting, for the first time, equal recognition to Jewish refugees, while affirming that the US government will now recognize that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict must be treated equally.
I am proud of the fact that the Knesset passed a resolution in February of this year that will make compensation for Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries after 1948 an integral part of any future peace negotiations. The Israeli bill stipulates that “The state of Israel will not sign, directly or by proxy, any agreement or treaty with a country or authority dealing with a political settlement in the Middle East without ensuring the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries according to the UN’s refugee treaty.”
Before 1948 there were nearly 900,000 Jews in Arab lands while only a few thousand remain. Where is the international outrage, the conferences, the proclamations for redress and compensation? While the Palestinian refugee issue has become a political weapon to beat Israel, the Arab League has ordered its member states not to provide their Palestinian population with citizenship; Israel absorbed all of its refugees, whether fleeing the Holocaust or persecution and expulsion from Arab lands.
People like my father, the hundreds of thousands who came to Israel and the millions of Israelis descended from these refugees are entitled to redress. It is vital that this issue return to the international agenda, so we don’t once again see an asymmetrical and distorted treatment of Arabs and Jews in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The writer is Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.