Who Is(n’t) a Refugee?
In December 1949, seven months after the fledgling State of Israel was granted membership in the United Nations, the UN established the United Nations Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA). Intended as a “temporary” agency, its sole purpose was to provide aid to a vastly inflated number of 860,000 Palestinian “refugees.” (Their actual number, according to historian Ephraim Karsh’s meticulous research, was between 583,000 and 609,000). A “refugee” was defined as any person “whose normal place of residence was Palestine” between June 1, 1946 and May 15, 1948 “and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
Twenty-five years later, after the UN proclaimed Zionism as “racism,” it also recognized “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted.” A Palestinian “refugee” was then redefined to include “descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition.” The UN thereby created a permanent cohort of impoverished, stateless and dependent people. Jordan had already stipulated that Palestinian refugees in its West Bank (where most lived) were citizens of the Kingdom. But Syria and Lebanon (like Egypt and now Hamas in Gaza) have cruelly preserved their degraded status in squalid neighborhoods without citizenship rights, the better to stoke the fires of hatred against Israel for the Palestinian “refugee” problem that by now the passage of time has all but obliterated.
In addition to the estimated 30,000 actual Palestinian refugees from sixty-five years ago who are still alive, UNRWA provides the protective cover of international legitimacy for 5 million “refugees” (by definition an ever-growing number) to assert claims on Israeli land that they never inhabited. Indeed, there now are nearly as many UNRWA employees, whose jobs depend upon the perpetuation of Palestinian refugee status, as there are genuine Palestinian refugees. To date the United States alone has contributed $4 billion to preserve their refugee status. No other group of “refugees” enjoys such generous benefits. All others fall under the jurisdiction of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, which appropriately decided that refugee status ends with acceptance by a host country.
What about Jewish refugees from Muslim countries, who confronted hostile rulers and angry mobs before and after the establishment of Israel? In Iraq, where Jews had enjoyed productive, often prosperous, lives ever since the Babylonian exile, the spread of Nazi hatred in the 1930s exploded in the 1941 pogrom known as the Farhoud. Nearly two hundred Jews in Baghdad were murdered and many hundreds were wounded by Arab mobs incited by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Hussayni, who had taken refuge there after wreaking similar havoc in Palestine.
By 1947 nearly one million Jews living throughout the Arab world, from Algeria to Yemen, were endangered by surging Muslim fury. Within two years 800,000 had fled from their homes to safety in Israel, which absorbed more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and to Europe and North America. The value of their abandoned property vastly exceeded claimed Palestinian losses. Nobody cared. By now the United Nations has passed more than one hundred resolutions concerning Palestinian refugees, but not one focusing on Jewish refugees. There is no UNRWA for them. Seven Jews now live in Iraq; one hundred each in Egypt and Syria, and 4000 in Morocco (compared to 75,000, 30,000 and 265,000 respectively in 1948).
A belated (and hotly debated) effort is being made to rectify the imbalance. Justice for Jews in Arab Countries (JJAC) recently convened in Jerusalem to spark an international campaign “to ensure that Justice for Jews from Arab Countries assumes its rightful place on the international political agenda and that their rights be secured as a matter of law and equity.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon has brought the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries to the United Nations, claiming that they are entitled to restitution for their property losses.
Far more remarkable than millions of invented Palestinian refugees receiving UNRWA largesse is the even larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab states who, along with their children, have rejected perpetual dependence and special pleading to build fulfilling lives elsewhere. Indeed, a Committee of Baghdadi Jews in Ramat Gan (Israel) opposes the effort to equate Jewish and Arab refugees as a politically driven effort to offset Palestinian claims, rather than a genuine attempt to rectify individual losses. The son of once prosperous Iraqi Jews explained: “It’s not part of the family heritage that we’re waiting to regain what we left behind . . . . The best asset I can get is that we’d have peace with Iraq,” thereby enabling him to visit his ancestral home.
The likeliest scenario, however, is that UNRWA, with international collaboration and bountiful financial support from the United States, will continue to invent, inflate and degrade Palestinian “refugees,” who seem content to retain their dependence to stoke hatred of Israel. Meanwhile the descendants of Jewish refugees from Arab countries will continue to build new lives and prosper in the adopted homelands that Arab persecution drove them to embrace.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author most recently of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey, published in June by Quid Pro Books.