Every year on November 29th the international community marks the anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution 181(II). It is often forgotten that this resolution, dating back to 1947, was the very first blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian “two states for two peoples” solution. While this resolution was accepted by Jewish leaders, it was renounced by Arab and Palestinian leadership who also, by their own accord, declared war on the fledgling Jewish State – while simultaneously targeting their own Jewish populations with tangential displacement, and dispossessing Palestinian people from the Mandated State.
Had Resolution 181(II) been accepted by the Arab States contiguous to contemporary Israel, there would have been no 1948 Arab-Israeli War, or the ensuing refugee problems. Instead, the annual UN-organized International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People may well have marked peace within the entire Middle East, as a direct result of the co-existent establishment of Israel and Palestine.
Instead, in May 1948, the local Arab population of Mandated Palestine were joined by seven Arab States in a collective, UN-violated attempt to destroy the newly re-established Jewish State. This conflict would become known to Israelis as the “War of Independence,” and to Palestinians as “The Catastrophe.” This distinction in narratives is vitally important in understanding the plight of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees over the past sixty-seven years.
As a direct outcome of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, 500K Palestinians fled to camps in neighbouring Arab States as refugees, while 160K accepted Israel’s offer to remain. Today, there are more than 1.6M Israeli-Arabs living in Israel – twenty percent of Israel’s population!
The subject of refugees remains one of the core issues for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, the rights and claims of one group have come to be promoted at the expense and displacement of the other. This need not be the case, as the question of peace is never a zero-sum game. In fact, the opposite ought to hold true. As Jewish and Palestinian refugees are reciprocally and intrinsically linked, light shed on one ought to shine on the other.
With the rejection of Resolution 181(II), a vast exchange of populations took place in the Middle East between the years 1947 and 1952 – with the number of displaced Jews from Arab states exceeding that of Arabs from Mandated Palestine. Despite this fact, the revisionist Middle East narrative holds that there was only one victim population: the Palestinians – and that Israel was responsible. Not only is this factually incorrect, but it rejects the pain and plight of almost one million Jews who were expelled from Arab States for no reason other than being Jewish.
Moreover, this revisionist narrative not only concealed the forgotten exodus from memory and remembrance, but it also denied that it was forced. Simply put, the Arab States rejected a proposed Palestinian State by declaring a UN-violated war on the fledgling Jewish State, and targeted the Jewish population living in their respective Arab states. This created two refugee groups: the evacuee Palestinian refugee population resulting from the UN-violated Arab war against Israel, and the Jewish refugees resulting from Arab hostilities against its own expelled Jewish population – which included forced expulsions, illegal confiscation of property, denationalization, arbitrary arrests, torture, and murder.
The UN also bears express and continued responsibility for the distorted narrative of Jewish refugees. Since 1948, for instance, there have been more than 150 UN resolutions that have dealt unequivocally with the Palestinian refugee plight. Not one, however, has made any reference to, or expression of concern for, the plight of almost one million displaced Jews from Arab states.
The Palestinians are also the only group of refugees out of the more than one hundred million from the Second World War who were provided with their own special UN agency – the UNRWA – which, according to its mandate, cannot help but perpetuate their tragedy. Every other refugee in the world is administered by the UNHCR.
Taking into account the imbalance of attention and resources given to Palestinian refugees over Jewish refugees, this essay recommends five steps to rectifying an historical wrong and on-going injustice. Taken individually, these steps would bring attention, retribution, closure, and/or compensation to the victims. Together, however, these steps would bring a sustainable and balanced solution for Jewish and Palestinian refugees to live and thrive in co-existent peace.
First, each of the Arab states – and the Arab League – must acknowledge their role and responsibility in their triple aggression of launching a UN-violated war against the newly created State of Israel, the perpetration of human rights violations against their Jewish population, and the tangential Palestinian displacement and disposition from Mandated Palestine. Second, reparations must be invoked for Jews displaced from Arab states – including financial compensation. Third, the UN must recognize the perpetuation that is caused by UNRWA, and transfer responsibility for Palestinian refugees to the UNHCR. Fourth, the international community’s perception of Jewish refugees must change, including referencing and addressing their plight in balanced measure to that of Palestinian refugees. And, Fifth, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian Peace negotiations must include reference to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees.
The exclusion and denial of rights and redress of Jewish refugees from Arab states continues to distort comprehensive negotiations between the peace-negotiation parties, and to distort a just and lasting settlement plan. As the Honourable Irwin Cotler, a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada once noted, “where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace – which we all seek.”
This call to guarantee the rights and reparations for Jewish refugees from Arab states will not counter Palestinian rights and claims. Rather, it will encourage all parties to recognize the fact that there were two groups of refugees, each of whom are entitled to redress and to an enduring peace and co-existence.