The Jewish refugees represent the most effective, but least popular solution to the Palestinian Arab refugee crisis: assimilation. But the success of the Jewish assimilation should not obscure the tragedy of being uprooted from their birthplaces. Thoughtful opinion piece written in December 2007 by Michael Gryboski in Broadside online magazine.
Few modern repatriation disputes evoke as much emotion in global politics as the Palestinian Right to Return. It began in 1948 with approximately 750,000 refugees who fled the Levant during the first Arab-Israeli War and it continues to be a situation to the present day, with as many as four million refugees and their descendants scattered mostly in other Middle Eastern nations and North America.
Many organizations have been founded with the intention of getting the whole population of refugees into the country they abandoned 60 years ago. For many, it is that easy to solve the problem. After all, Israel has already absorbed 850,000 refugees of Middle Eastern descent. However, that piece of information deserves clarification, for those 850,000 Middle Easterners were given refugee status when they entered Israel, having fled Arab nations due to violence that was often state-sponsored. These are the forgotten refugees. The acknowledgement of Jewish refugees in the Arab-Israeli conflict creates a new perspective on the Right to Return.
Important to stress regarding the Arab refugees is that contrary to what some believe Israel’s creation did not require their removal. When Zionist communities were first organized in the Levant during the Victorian Era, the influential leader Emir Faisal stated, “The Jewish Movement is national and not imperialistic. Our movement is national and not imperialistic, and there is room in Syria for us both.” The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, ratified May 14, 1948, calls for cooperation between the two: “We appeal . . . to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” During the initial violence of the 1948 war, British and Jewish officials urged Arab communities to remain in Israel proper.
Regardless, the reasons for the mass exodus, the fact remains that the Arab refugees were never allowed to return. Yet neither were the 850,000 Jewish refugees, a population much larger and much more ignored. Whole Middle Eastern Jewish communities, many which had existed for millennia by the time the Arabs first entered the Levant, were destroyed by hostile regimes and ethnic violence between the Israeli War of Independence and the Six Day War. Aden had virtually every native-born Jew either driven out or killed by the time the Israeli military occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Iraq, once an epicenter for Mizrahi culture, had its Jewish population decrease by 130,000 between 1948 and the Yom Kippur War. These are just samples of what was a trend found throughout the Middle East. Compensation of any kind for these refugees has yet to be seriously considered by the United Nations. They do not even get name recognition; when people think of Right to Return, Jews do not come to mind, Palestinians do.
So why then are these Jewish refugees overlooked and in particular when it comes to the debate over right to return? Because they present the most effective and least popular solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis: assimilation. Few believed in the 1950s that the Jewish refugees fleeing to Israel would ever return home, so what ended up happening over time was an arduous but successful absorption of these refugees. This is significant, since Israel, a country smaller than the Commonwealth of Virginia, incorporated 850,000-plus into its society while the neighboring Arab states did no such service for Palestinian Arab refugees. As historian Cyril Falls recorded in 1964, “It has been calculated that Syria alone could absorb all the refugees in the Jordan Valley, but the Arab states together still admit only a trickle.” Rather than aid their Arab brethren, Middle East nations like Jordan and Syria exploited the poor conditions of the refugee camps in order to further their political bashing of Israel. Breaking from the fold, the late King Hussein of Jordan admitted the reality of the situation: “Since 1948 Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible mannerthey have used the Palestine people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and, I could say, even criminal." (...)
A program of assimilation would have to include removing refugees from their squalid conditions and giving them homes and jobs, something that the Jordanian monarchy certainly could afford to fund. It would be harder for Lebanon to do the same. Certainly if all the wealthy intellectuals who say they want the Palestinians to have decent living standards combine their monetary efforts, their international charity would alleviate that problem area as well.
Assimilation is the best and most realistic solution for the Palestinian refugees, just as it was the best and most realistic solution for the Jewish refugees. Maybe that is why no one ever talks about them: the success of incorporation into Israeli society was such that it was as though they had never suffered the tragedy of being driven from their birthplaces. Just because the scars healed fast does not mean they were never inflicted. After 60 years, it should be realized that it is the obligation not of Israel but of Jordan et al to end the camps and welcome their Arab brethren to their new homes just as Israel did the same for the forgotten refugees, who get no recognition by those involved in this regional dispute.
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