Last month saw an assault in Congress on Palestinian refugees—an effort to use legislation to re-define the Palestinian refugee issue out of existence. This week the other shoe dropped, when a bipartisan group of members of Congress introduced a new bill embracing the cause of “Jewish refugees from Arab countries” in a way that Congress has never replicated on the Palestinian side (for more info, see this list of all bills/resolutions dealing with Palestinian and/or Jewish refugees since 1989).
Perhaps not coincidentally, in what one Israeli paper described as a “sea change” in Israeli policy, the Israeli Foreign Ministry recently launched a diplomatic offensive focused on this very issue. The Foreign Ministry makes clear that its focus is not only (ore even primarily) seeking justice for Jews from Arab countries. The main goal is to impose new terms of reference on future peace negotiations—terms that place full responsibility on the Arab world both for Palestinian refugees of 1948 and for Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries in the wake of the creation of Israel.
Moreover, these terms propose that the grievances of Jews from Arab countries actually outweigh those of Palestinian refugees, based on their numbers and the value of the property they lost. Indeed, back in 2008, then-Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen stated that
The uprooted Jews' problem is equal to, if not greater than, the Palestinian refugees’ problem.
The implication of this argument is that in future peace negotiations, Jewish refugee claims can be used to cancel out or trump Palestinian refugee claims. Finally, according to these new terms of reference, Arab countries must immediately absorb Palestinian refugees into their own populations. This demand appears to reflect the belief that, just as Israel is the homeland of the Jews, any Arab country can be a homeland of any Arab, regardless of whether said Arab has any ties to the country in question.
This cynical exploitation of Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries dishonors their history and tarnishes the legitimacy of their claims. The respective suffering and losses of Palestinian refugees and Jews from Arab countries cannot be denied, but neither should one be pitted against the other for cynical political purposes. The painful history of some Jews from Arab countries doesn’t negate the historic, moral and political responsibility—shared by Israel and the world—to address the plight and grievances of Palestinian refugees. Trying to use it do so is antithetical to the achievement of peace and the two-state solution. And make no mistake: Israeli-Palestinian peace is the only path to truly resolving the Palestinian refugee issue, and, by extension, to building relations between Israelis and the Arab world that will permit the resolution of claims of Jews who came to Israel from the Arab world.
The fact that, in the years following the establishment of the state of Israel, many Jews came to Israel from Arab countries is indisputable. Some emigrated voluntarily; others fled an atmosphere of growing discrimination, oppression, and threats. Unquestionably, many of these Jews have legitimate claims for property that was confiscated or left behind. For various reasons, including the absence of bilateral relations between Israel and most of the relevant Arab countries, as well as Israeli concerns about fueling Palestinian refugee claims, there has thus far been neither the mechanism nor the political will to address this issue.
But is the term “refugee”—and all that it implies emotionally and politically—an intellectually honest way to describe Jews from Arab countries living in Israel? Around the time of Israel’s creation, it indeed appears to have described many of them, referring to someone who:
...[o]wing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…
However, the term “refugee” connotes more than this. It brings to mind people forced by unmanageable circumstances to live, temporarily or sometimes permanently, as strangers in a foreign land, yearning in their hearts for their lost homes and homeland, hoping that they can someday return. Is this an appropriate way to describe Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries? Former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, doesn’t think so:
It’s true that many Jews found themselves in Israel without having made plans to come—they escaped from Arab countries. But they were accepted and welcomed here. To define them as refugees is exaggerated.
Do supporters of this effort inside Congress, and its backers outside Congress (including those who support a Jewish right to every inch of biblical “Greater Israel”) believe that Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries see themselves as unwilling exiles in a foreign land, dreaming of the day they can return to their true homes in, say, Yemen, Egypt, or Tunisia?
Clearly, this isn’t how Israeli governments—who actively encourage the immigration of Jews from around the world—have seen it. As one advocate of the rights of Jews from Arab countries admitted,
No doubt successive [Israeli] governments saw Jews from the Muslim world as Zionist immigrants, not refugees.
As early as 1975, at the time of WOJAC's formation [an organization formed in the 1970s around this issue], Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu declared: “We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations.” Shlomo Hillel, a government minister and an active Zionist in Iraq, adamantly opposed the analogy: “I don't regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.” In a Knesset hearing, Ran Cohen stated emphatically: “I have this to say: I am not a refugee.” He added: “I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”
Again, this is not to suggest that Jews from Arab countries don’t have legitimate claims for their losses—they do. But Palestinian refugees aren’t responsible for what happened to them, any more than those Jews are responsible for what happened to Palestinians. Both groups are victims of historical forces beyond their control. As Professor Shenhav notes:
The unfounded, immoral analogy between Palestinian refugees and Mizrahi immigrants needlessly embroils members of these two groups in a dispute, degrades the dignity of many Mizrahi Jews, and harms prospects for genuine Jewish-Arab reconciliation.
Speaking at the United Nations last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu, delivered the following description of what Israel represents to Jews everywhere and throughout history:
…for those Jews who were exiled from our land, they never stopped dreaming of coming back: Jews in Spain, on the eve of their expulsion; Jews in the Ukraine, fleeing the pogroms; Jews fighting the Warsaw Ghetto, as the Nazis were circling around it. They never stopped praying, they never stopped yearning. They whispered: Next year in Jerusalem. Next year in the promised land. As the prime minister of Israel, I speak for a hundred generations of Jews who were dispersed throughout the lands, who suffered every evil under the Sun, but who never gave up hope of restoring their national life in the one and only Jewish state…”
So which is it? Is Israel the homeland of the Jews—the place where full citizenship is the birthright of any Jew born anywhere, or is it a generic country that magnanimously gave what has turned out to be permanent refuge to a group of foreigners (who happened to be Jewish) fleeing persecution in their native countries of the Arab world?
It can’t be both.