Refugees and Zionist propaganda

November 11, 2009 § 5 Comments

Agence France Press (AFP) reported the following today:

A draft law stipulating that any Middle East peace treaty must mention compensation for Jews forced to leave Arab states has passed a preliminary reading in the Israeli parliament, a spokesman said on Wednesday.The draft bill, presented by a member of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, a member of the government coalition, passed the preliminary vote 49 to 5 last week, said spokesman Giora Pordes.

The draft, which the Maariv daily called “a curious and provocative bill,” still has to pass three more votes before it becomes law.

It calls for the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab states to be raised whenever the question of Palestinian refugees comes up in Middle East negotiations.

“The government should raise the issue about payment of compensation to Jewish refugees for the loss of their property and about granting to Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Arab countries a status similar to that of Arab refugees who lost their property when the state (of Israel) was created,” the proposed law states.

Shas had initially wanted a tougher bill stating compensations for Jewish refugees must be agreed before any further peace negotiations are held. The paragraph, which would have made it virtually impossible to reach a peace accord, was eventually removed so the government could support the text…

‘Israel mulls draft law tying peace, Jewish refugee issue’, AFP, 11 November 2009

The following is an extract from the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section of my book, ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide‘:

People talk about the Palestinian refugees, but weren’t a similar number of Jewish refugees kicked out of Arab countries and welcomed by Israel? Couldn’t this be seen as a ‘fair swap’?

The creation of the state of Israel led to two substantial population movements in the Middle East. Between 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes, and forbidden from returning by the new Jewish state, while from 1948 through to the 1970s, around 850,000 Jews left Arab countries, with the majority moving to Israel. But the rough equality in scale is just about the only similarity.

Israeli professor Yehouda Shenhav once wrote that “any reasonable person” must acknowledge the analogy to be “unfounded”:

Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Jews from Arab lands came to this country under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some came of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.

Some prominent Israeli politicians who themselves come from Arab countries, reject the ‘refugee’ label. Former Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu once said “‘We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations’.” MK Ran Cohen, who emigrated from Iraq, made it clear: “‘I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee’.”

As well as the fact that Jews in Arab countries were actively encouraged by the Zionist movement to move to Israel, there is another big problem with the ‘swap’ theory – timescale. Dr. Philip Mendes points out how “the Jewish exodus from Iraq and other Arab countries took place over many decades, before and after the Palestinian exodus” and “there is no evidence that the Israeli leadership anticipated a so-called population exchange when they made their arguably harsh decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees”. Mendes also concludes his analysis by affirming that “the two exoduses…should be considered separately”.

But the ‘swap’ idea is anyway illogical. One refugee’s right – in the case of the Palestinians, a right affirmed by UN resolutions – can not be ‘cancelled out’ by another’s misfortune. Furthermore, “the Palestinians were not at all responsible for the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries” – while “the Palestinian refugee problem was caused by the Zionist refusal to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes”.

Given the historical and logical flaws, the only way this analogy can be so tempting for some is its propaganda value. The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC), for example, claim on their website that their mission is simply “to document the assets Jewish refugees lost as they fled Arab countries”. Professor Shenhav, however, describes how WOJAC “was invented as a deterrent to block claims harbored by the Palestinian national movement, particularly claims related to compensation and the right of return”.

Dismayingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the US House of Representatives was persuaded to pass a bill in April 2008 that not only equated Jewish and Palestinian refugees, but also urged “the administration to raise the issue every time the issue of Palestinian refugees is brought up”. The Economist magazine described the non-binding resolution as having “doubtful value”, as well as showing “once more the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington”.

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