Open Zion

08.14.12

Lyn Julius Responds to Lara Friedman

In her rebuttal to my response, Lara Friedman makes various accusations against me. I do not want to bore Open Zion readers with a sterile debate about semantics—rather, allow me to re-state certain incontrovertible truths.

The overwhelming majority of Jews arriving in Israel and the West from Arab countries were refugees forced from their homes. The 1948 war, started by their own side, caused a Palestinian exodus. What these two groups of refugees have in common is that roughly equivalent numbers exchanged places in the Middle East. This irreversible exchange, a not unusual feature of 20th century conflicts, opens a political window of opportunity for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute.

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A Palestinian refugee girl walks past graffiti in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West bank city of Nablus in 2011. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP / Getty Images)

The Jewish refugees differ from the Palestinians in two ways: The Jews were non-combatants hundreds of miles from the theatre of battle, scapegoated only for being Jews. They were victims of mass ethnic cleansing: only 4,000 Jews remain in the Arab world out of a million.

Once displaced persons are granted full civil rights in their new countries, they cease to be refugees.  No one should ever remain a refugee—except Palestinians, whose refugee status, with the UN’s blessing and connivance, is preserved in perpetuity. (Where are the protests condemning the non-resettlement of Palestinian refugees as an abuse of their  human rights?  The silence is deafening.) 

Becoming a citizen of a new country, however, does not detract from a refugee’s right to obtain redress for past wrongs. Outstanding claims must be dealt  as a matter of justice: this is what the US congress bill and other initiatives are all about. Human rights law, developed in the 1980s, emphasises the right to recognition, memory and redress, no matter how much time has elapsed since the injustice was committed. 

Naturally—even if material claims are settled, nothing can heal the mental scars of humiliation and dispossession, or replace loved ones abducted or murdered in Arab lands, or those who did not survive for long the trauma of their uprooting. In that sense, Israel remains one big refugee camp.

Nostalgia for one’s country of birth may still be an important component of an ex-refugee’s identity, but it does not give him a right of return. A substantial number of Jewish refugees became citizens of the West. Integrated Jews are not a foreign subgroup in France or Canada. 
 
It is unfortunate that Lara Friedman chose to quote the writings of Professor Yehouda Shenhav, whose far-left political agenda drives him to muddy the waters on the issue of refugees.  Shenhav views Palestinian rights as having been uniquely harmed, so that no comparison with any other group’s rights can be legitimate. Any assault on Palestinian exceptionalism must be resisted. As a post-Zionist, Shenhav resents any initiative that enhances the Israeli state’s authority to speak or act on behalf of former Jewish refugees. 

To claim, as Lara Friedman does, that the new US and Israeli initiatives to enshrine Jewish rights in law are exploitative, intrinsically demeans the rights of Jewish refugees. She advocates prioritising the settlement of Palestinian grievances and denies any linkage between the two groups. But that link has existed since the 1930s when the Palestinian leadership became complicit in victimising Jews in Arab countries and dragged five Arab states into the 1948 war against Israel. 

Ironically it was the Arab side which first linked the two sets of refugees in 1949, by proposing to exchange Palestinians for 140,000 Iraqi Jews. Iraq reneged on the deal and only resettled 14,000 Palestinians, while Israel took in 650,000 Jews. Jews from Arab countries resettled in former Arab communities in Israel are inextricable from Palestinians who moved into former Jewish property in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. A Palestinian ‘right of return’ without regard for the rights of resettled Jews is a surefire recipe for upheaval, mayhem and more injustice.

Genuine peace-seekers should not deceive themselves, hoping that if they ignore the Jewish refugees issue, it will go away.  Recognising the narrative of 50 percent of the Israeli population who descend from Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries is the key to reconciliation: Palestinians will realise that they are not the only wronged party, and that the other side has already paid a heavy price.