The issue of "Palestinian refugees" is often brought up as one of the major sticking points of the Israeli-Arab conflict. But just as often ignored (at least by the likes of the UN) is the fact that there were even more Jewish refugees produced by the 1948 Israeli-Arab war.
Over the course of the past 100 years, there have been numerous refugee exchanges as a result of major conflicts. Greece and Turkey exchanged ethnic refugees in order to not prolong their own conflict. The same happened between Pakistan and India.
Israel sought to do the same by fully absorbing and integrating the 850,000 Jews who were booted from the Arab nations round about and their millions of descendants.
Israel's Foreign Ministry insists that for a genuine and lasting peace to be achieved, this fact must be acknowledged, and the Arabs must adopt a similar approach. Below is the text of a Foreign Ministry resolution recently published in Jerusalem:
Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries
Between 1948 and 1951, about 850,000 Jews were expelled or forced out of Arab nations, and became refugees. Between the late 1940s and 1967 the vast majority of the Jews from Arab countries were uprooted from their lands of birth.
Up until the present day, an injustice was done to the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. Their property rights and their historic justice were abandoned.
During various efforts and talks in pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, negotiators have overlooked an important element pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict - the uprooting of around 850,000 Jews living in Arab nations, the loss of their assets and property, and the difficulties they underwent upon migrating to Israel and their absorption.
Close to half of Israel's Jewish citizen's today, including their descendents, came from Arab countries. Thus during the attempt to resolve the conflict through a political process, which will resume at some point in the future, this issue should be expanded, raised to the forefront, and addressed from every angle.
Thriving, prosperous Jewish communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa a thousand years before the rise of Islam and more than 2500 years before the birth of the modern Arab nations. These communities, which extended from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west, enjoyed a lively fabric of life and were influential in the local economies. Until the 10th century C.E., 90% of the world's Jews lived in regions now known as Arab countries.
Between the late 1940s and 1967 the vast majority of the Jews from Arab countries were uprooted from their lands of birth, most of the Jewish communities in these countries had vanished, leaving behind a few thousand Jews scattered throughout a small number of cities.
Even before the Partition Plan of November 1947, increasing hostile measures were taken by the Arab nations, led by the Arab League, against their Jewish communities. Following the Partition Plan, Arab governments started confiscating Jewish property. Simultaneously riots and massacres broke out against the Jewish communities throughout the Arab world. Jewish-owned stores and synagogues were looted and burned, hundreds of Jews were killed and thousands were imprisoned.
As Israel was established as an independent state in May 1948, the Arab League Political Committee convened and drafted a series of recommendations for all Arab and Muslim countries on how to take action against the Jews in their countries. Among other recommendations, the citizenship of Jews was revoked, and they were henceforth considered citizens only of the newly established Jewish state. Their assets were confiscated, their bank accounts frozen, and property worth millions of dollars nationalized. Jews were barred from government ministries, their entry in to the civil service was severely restricted, and many lost their means of livelihood.
The anti-Jewish trend only increased over time, and an organized plan of oppression and persecution was implemented against Jews in Arab states. Between 1948 and 1951, about 850,000 Jews were expelled or, as explained above, forced out of Arab nations, and became refugees. In fact, a two-way migration of populations began, along with the creation of two different refugee groups. The Arab nations, led by the Arab League, were responsible for causing both groups of refugees, Jews and Palestinians.
The ratio between the two refugee groups was 2:3, with the Palestinian group numbering around 600,000 as opposed to the Jewish refugees, which numbered about 850,000 (up until 1968), and their descendents now account for about one half of the population of the State of Israel.
Another important aspect of this subject is that of lost property. A 2008 study estimated that the ratio of lost property stands at almost 1:2; the Palestinian refugees lost property totaling roughly 450 million dollars (in today's prices around $3.9 billion) whereas the Jewish refugees lost property totaling 700 million dollars (around $6 billion dollars).
The Arab nations, led by the Arab league, perpetuated the refugee problem (except for Jordan, which conferred citizenship on its Palestinian citizens), as opposed to Israel which integrated the Jewish refugees and saw to their rehabilitation. The Palestinian refugees' situation was also perpetuated by the international system through UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which has no mandate to find sustainable solutions for the Palestinian refugee problem.
According to the criteria set by the UN regarding the definition of a refugee, the Jewish refugees are considered full-fledged refugees, and when the Security Council passed Resolution 242 in November 1967, no differentiation was made between Palestinian and Jewish refugees. The Palestinian refugees had their refugee status perpetuated, while the Jewish refugees from Arab countries engaged in building new lives for themselves.
The issue of Jewish refugees in the Middle East came up as far back as the 1970s, and was spearheaded at the time by former MK Mordechai Ben-Porat, among others. The first relevant organization to be established was WOJAC - the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries.
Later JJAC - Justice for Jews from Arab Countries - was founded, and near the time of the Annapolis Conference it exposed UN documents proving that the Arab League nations planned and employed an organized program of oppression and persecution against Jews in Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel. Accordingly, claims JJAC, hundreds of thousands of Jews should be recognized as refugees exactly as the Palestinians are.
During the Camp David peace talks of 2000, President Clinton announced that if an agreement would be reached, then an international fund should be established to compensate the refugees, both Arab refugees and Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Clinton's proposal was seconded some years later by the U.S. House of Representatives' decision in April 2008 which stated that Jewish refugees should be recognized as refugees by the UN Convention, and so an international fund should be set up to compensate Jewish and Palestinian refugees for the loss of their property. This House of Representatives decision, known as House Resolution 185, determined that one refugee population problem should not be resolved without also resolving the second refugee problem at the same time.
Nevertheless, the issue of Jewish refugees was pushed to the sidelines of the international debate.
In February 2010 the issue did gain recognition in Israel, with the legislation of the Law for Preservation of the Rights to Compensation of Jewish Refugees from Arab countries and Iran, passed by the Knesset.
The law upholds safeguarding the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab states. According to law, the State of Israel is obligated to make sure that any negotiations for peace in the Middle East include the subject of compensation for the Jewish refugees as well. At the same time, the National Council for Jewish Restitution, chaired by Rafi Eitan, was established under the auspices of the Ministry for Senior Citizens which was given the task of advising the government and the Prime Minister regarding the issue of restitution.
Foreign Ministry's actions
The Foreign Ministry, led by the Deputy Minister, has promoted this issue in the governmental, public diplomacy and media arenas. During the 60 year celebrations of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (December 2011) DFM Ayalon spoke in the United Nations plenum in front of the international community. DFM Ayalon raised the issue of Jewish Refugees from Arab countries, the need for historic Jewish justice and providing a solution for the lost assets of the Jewish refugees. During the event DFM Ayalon held an international media briefing where he showed a video which deals with issue of Jewish refugees, the historic injustice and the problem of perpetuating Palestinians as refugees.
Furthermore, DFM Ayalon wrote a number of articles on the subject that were published in the media such as The Guardian and the Jerusalem Post.
Summary and Recommendations
1. A true solution to the issue of refugees will only be possible when the Arab League will take historic responsibility for its role in creating the Jewish and Palestinian refugee problem, as documented.
2. There should be a joint solution between the Arab countries and the international community in order to provide compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees. In order to achieve this goal an international fund will be created that will be based on President Clinton's suggestion from 2000 and the Congress resolution 185 from 2008 in which Israel will also take part, even only in a symbolic way.
> This fund will also compensate the countries that had already been working on absorbing and rehabilitating refugees; amongst others Jordan and Israel (retroactively) and perhaps Lebanon if it is willing to rehabilitate the descendants of Palestinian refugees in its territory. Here we should emphasize that the basis for compensation will be the value of assets of the refugees at the time, which according to research was much greater on the Jewish side than on the Palestinian side.
> The fund will also deal with the issue of Jewish property that is still in the hands of Arab and Muslim countries, however the so-called Right of Return will not be relevant as the Jews are not interested in returning to the places from which they were deported from.
> The State of Israel will not accept the principle of a Palestinian "right of return" but will prefer to provide compensation by an authorized third party. This demand has historic precedents as in the case of Cyprus.
3. Our embassies and diplomatic delegations around the world are requested to act with Parliaments in their host countries in order to adopt a resolution in the spirit of House Resolution 185 from April 1, 2008 which determines that the definition of a refugee applies also to the Jewish refugees who were pushed out of Arab countries.
4. The issue of Jewish refugees should be raised in every peace negotiation framework whether it is opposite the Palestinians or Arab governments.
5. The Palestinian refugees will be rehabilitated in their place of residence just as the Jewish refugees were rehabilitated in theirs - Israel. There should be an immediate discontinuation of the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee issue.
6. The rehabilitation process in their place of residence will minimize the demand for the "right of return" during peace talks and in any case the insistence of some Palestinian refugees to be given a right of return will be resolved by their immigration into the future Palestinian state that will be established through a peace agreement.
7. During the peace negotiations (with the Palestinians or Arab countries) the demand for financial compensation for both Palestinian and Jewish refugees should be raised.
8. The Foreign Ministry, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, will lead a Hasbara campaign on the issue of Jewish refugees in coordination with the PM's office which will consolidate the issue into any future negotiations.
9. As part of the negotiation framework, all of Israel's delegations around the world will be directed to distribute and to pass along these messages to any governmental body and public diplomacy forum in their host country.
10. Israel's delegations around the world will also be directed to approach Jews from Arab countries that reside in their host country in order to have them speak on this issue.