This is part two of a three-part series on Israel's forgotten Jewish refugees. If you have not done so already, we recommend starting with Part I and Part II.
Arab leaders consistently deny accusations that their nations' mistreatment of Jews led to an exodus and the creation of a Jewish refugee problem in 1948. They regularly make a show of offering that those Jews who left return to their Arab homelands as compensation for any past misdeeds.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authtority's chief negotiator, was quoted by the Palestinian news agency Maan as saying, “We are not against any Jew who wants to return to Morocco, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. I believe no Arab state rejects the Jewish right of returning to their native lands”.
Dr. Yitschak Ben-Gad, a former Libyan Jewish refugee who served as Consul General of Israel in Florida, USA (2005-2007) responded with fierce criticism, stating that the offer was unacceptable.
Dr. Haim Saadoun of Israel's Open University agreed. “Jews cannot go back, and it’s not the matter of the Arab Spring. It has more to do with the gap between the Jewish drive for modernization and Arab societies’ desire to stick to their traditions, often at the expense of modernity”.
But if home-coming is out of question, what’s the alternative? The answer to this question was suggested in a report by Israel's Foreign Ministry that offered to establish a special fund that would “compensate the Jewish and the Palestinian refugees… [as well as those] countries that had already been working on absorbing and rehabilitating [them]… [It] will also deal with the issue of Jewish property that is still in the hands of Arab and Muslim countries…”
This approach is nothing new. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the settlement of the refugee issues, both Jewish and Palestinian, but the call fell on deaf ears, with Arab government representatives voting against it.
Another attempt to settle the problem was made during the Camp David peace talks of 2000, when President Clinton offered to create an international fund that would compensate the refugees, both Arab and Jewish. His project, however, just like other initiatives, has never seen the light of day.
In fact, the pleas of Jewish refugees have always been sidelined by the much more popular Palestinian refugee issue. Comparing numbers on both sides, BBC notes: “856,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries [were registered between] 1948-1952 [as compared to] 860,000 Palestinian refugees [recorded] by 1951,” adding that “now with their descendants they total 5 million (UNRWA)”.
But the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs comes up with another figure. “Studies suggest that in 1948 there were about 740,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel. During the war some 190,000 either remained or left and returned soon thereafter. Thus, the most plausible number of refugees is 550,000…”
Using the same methodology, the think tank indicated that the 1967 war created about 100,000 refugees in addition to some 25-46 thousands of internally displaced persons, most of whom were compensated by either the Israeli authorities or international donors.
If these numbers are accurate, the two wars produced some 650,000 Palestinian refugees, the majority of whom continue to live in camps scattered across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Addressing this issue, Ben-Gad pinned the responsibility on the Arab community.
“Arab leaders are not trying to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees, who are used as a football in the hands of their politicians, aimed at de-legitimizing Israel,” he charged. “On the other hand, Jews, who escaped persecution in Arab lands, were absorbed by Israel and received assistance [especially from charity organizations funded by the Jewish diaspora]. They turned from refugees to the constructive basis of the society. You can see them in all walks of political and social life.”
Will the suffering of Jewish refugees ever be acknowledged? “I have always raised this question. I believe that a drop can make a hole in concrete, if it only persists,” concluded Ben-Gad.