The Right of Return Goes Both Ways


With the growing worldwide focus on displaced Palestinians, Jewish groups are suddenly raising the issue of a different kind of refugee: the almost 1 million Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries after the creation of Israel in 1948.

The timing is no accident. While the effort by groups such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) points to a genuine injustice, it is also intended to neutralize the ongoing effort by the Palestinians and their supporters to insist on an Arab right of return to Israel as part of any peace deal. However, there are important differences between the two refugee situations that will make that a hard sell to a skeptical world community.

Last week, a group called Justice for Jews from Arab Countries published a report documenting the human rights crisis facing Jews in that part of the world following the creation of Israel. The report concludes that the persecution achieved its primary aim — forcing more than 850,000 Jews to flee, roughly comparable to the number of Arabs who fled the new state of Israel.

There was a big difference, though, in how the refugee populations were treated. More than two-thirds of the Jewish refugees quickly found their way to Israel, where they and their descendants now comprise the majority of the Jewish population.

In fact, the Jewish State did too good of a job. Despite some conflict with the European Jewish elite, the refugees were absorbed with little fanfare, and as a result, most of the world has no inkling that these people were once forced to abandon their homes and property. Thousands also came to the United States, laying the base for a vibrant and increasingly influential Sephardi community.

The Palestinian refugees were treated differently.

With the collusion of the United Nations, they were confined mostly in squalid refugee camps in a number of countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank. No effort was made to absorb the refugees. On the contrary, they were kept isolated, living under horrific conditions, to serve as living pawns in the effort to disparage and pressure Israel.

Arab governments professed deep concern for the Palestinian people, but they treated the refugees in their own countries as lepers, refusing to give them citizenship, limiting their civil rights, providing little or no economic aid. Palestinian refugees weren’t absorbed, they were exploited mercilessly.

The international community contributed to this exploitation by failing to challenge the Arab nations. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), created in 1950 to help displaced Palestinians, became the only international agency devoted to keeping refugees in camps, rather than resettling them, in effect creating a permanent refugee population.

Since the disastrous Camp David peace talks in 2000, Palestinian leaders have put the right of return at the top of their list of negotiating priorities. That concept, as they define it, involves the right of refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes — including in Israel.

Israelis have a wide range of views about what their country should give up as part of any comprehensive peace agreement, but on one issue, they speak with a unified voice: granting an unlimited right of return would be national suicide for the Jewish state.

Jewish groups that are raising the issue of Jewish refugees today say it’s a matter of fundamental justice, and that’s true. But the real motive here is political — trying to deflate the Palestinian demand for an unlimited right of return by pointing out, accurately, that Palestinians weren’t the only ones to be wrenched out of their lives and their homes when Israel was created.

Avi Beker, WJC secretary general, recently said that the campaign — which included congressional hearings on the subject — is an effort to bring "balance" to the refugee issue and thereby affect the quest for Middle East peace.

Both sides have legitimate claims, the Jewish groups argue. The most appropriate solution doesn’t involve massive shifts of population, but humanitarian efforts to resettle refugees where they are or in the newly created state of Palestine, or — in the case of Jewish refugees — to provide fair restitution for the property that was stolen from them when they were forced to flee.

The new Jewish strategy for bringing some balance to the refugee debate makes sense, but it is unlikely to sway Israel’s enemies or its many detractors in Europe and elsewhere. The reason is simple: much of the world doesn’t want a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis.

To the Arab nations and to many in Europe, perpetuating a suffering Palestinian refugee population — impoverished, bitter pariahs — is a valuable tool in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state.

Israel did the humanitarian thing by quickly absorbing Jewish refugees. The Arab nations that profess such sympathy for Palestinian refugees have done the opposite, thereby revealing their real motives in the refugee debate.

The Irrelevance of Arab Hatred


The consensus view of the intifada among Israelis, Diaspora Jews and American conservatives — that it’s caused by Arab hatred and rejection of Israel — is nothing but a lousy excuse. An excuse to say Israel is wholly blameless in this affair, and there’s nothing Israel can do except plod on, dying and killing. It’s an excuse to block out any doubt, and to go on with this bleak worldview that does, at least, offer the comfort of certainty.

So let’s introduce a little doubt. If all this terror is caused by Arab hatred and rejection of Israel, how do we explain Egypt? Egypt’s armed forces haven’t fired a single shot at Israel in over 25 years. Does Egypt hate Israel any less than the Palestinians do? Are its newspapers and bookstores and general public discourse any less loaded with anti-Semitism? Does it have any less abhorrence for the idea of a Zionist state across its border?

Egypt is the biggest, strongest country in the Arab world, an incomparably greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians ever could be. Its society is rampant with Islamic and Arab nationalist militancy, and hatred of all things Jewish. Yet even though the Egyptian "street" erupts in war cries, the Egyptian leadership resists.

If Arab hatred and rejection of Israel is the reason for Palestinian violence, why has Egypt been so thoroughly nonviolent toward Israel for so long?

The same question could be asked about Jordan. Jordan hasn’t touched Israel in 35 years. As a matter of fact, most Jordanians are themselves of Palestinian origin; do they hate or reject Israel any less than do their brethren in the West Bank or Gaza? So why hasn’t Jordan joined the intifada?

Remarkably, we can even raise this issue regarding Syria. Except for when Israel went galumphing through Lebanon in the early 1980s, Syria hasn’t mixed with Israel since the last of the Yom Kippur War.

Which leaves, among Arab nations on Israel’s borders, Lebanon. Here we have to place an asterisk. Hezbollah is without question fighting Israel. But another unquestionable fact is that since the Israeli army pulled out of southern Lebanon over two years ago, Hezbollah has fought Israel with only a small fraction of its previous intensity.

Israel shares borders with five different hateful Arab nations. It has formal peace with two of them: Egypt and Jordan. It has de facto nonbelligerency with a third, Syria. With a fourth, Lebanon, it has a limited border clash. Only with the fifth and smallest neighboring Arab nation, the Palestinians, does Israel find itself in an agonizing war with no end in sight.

What’s special about the Palestinians? Not their hatred of Israel, not their rejection, not their fearlessness and certainly not their strength. What’s special is that they are the one Arab nation whose rightful country — the West Bank and Gaza Strip — has been usurped by Israel.

Every other neighboring Arab nation can tend to its own affairs without any Israelis around, but the Palestinians have 220,000 Israeli settlers, and many thousands of Israeli soldiers, staring them in the face, lording it over them.

This is the way it’s been since 1967. Even in the "good old days" of the Oslo accord, when the "peace camp" was running Israel, the West Bank settlers kept taking more and more Palestinian land. Palestinians still had to pass through Israeli army and border police checkpoints on their way through the West Bank, and the more candid Israeli soldiers, not to mention human rights organizations, can tell about the frequent brutalities and humiliations that went on there.

It’s true the Palestinians turned down a good-faith Israeli offer of land-for-peace at Camp David to launch the intifada, which puts most of the blame for the current bloodshed on them. But not all the blame. For three and a half years, between the bus bombings of 1996 to the outbreak of the intifada, the Palestinian Authority effectively put down Hamas and provided the Israelis with pretty good security. But in return for delivering three and a half years of a decent approximation of peace, the Palestinians didn’t get much more land — only 13 percent more of the West Bank in that fairly quiet period. Meanwhile Israeli settlements and bypass roads kept eating away at what Palestinians and the rest of the world thought was supposed to become their state. So while the Palestinians are guilty of starting the intifada, Israelis can’t say they were innocent of any prior provocation.

It’s also true the Palestinians killed the chance for peace with their demand for the right of return, and for exclusive Islamic rule over the Temple Mount. They’re going to have to drop these demands if the fighting is ever to end. But why is it unimaginable that the Palestinians might change? Egypt provoked the Six Day War, and later joined Syria to attack Israeli forces on Yom Kippur 1973, killing 2,600 of our soldiers. Who would have thought that four years later Egypt’s leader Anwar Sadat would be cheered wildly on the streets of Jerusalem, and that one-quarter century of peace would ensue? A cold peace, even freezing — the important thing is that no one gets hurt.

The Egyptians would love to be rid of Israel. So would the Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese. But they don’t dare try it, because they’re afraid of Israel’s superior power. As long as Israel leaves them alone, the Arabs, with the minor exception of Hezbollah, don’t do anything more than mutter. And if Israel leaves the Palestinians alone — if it gets the settlers and soldiers out of the West Bank and Gaza — there’s no inherent reason why the Palestinians shouldn’t eventually come around and join the other neighboring Arabs to hate and reject Israel, but to leave them in peace.