Don’t Forget the Other Mideast Refugees: Mizrahi Jews
All refugees deserve a permanent home; governmental action is integral to the protection of this fundamental human right. Looking at the Middle East, we see two very different pictures: Israel’s handling of its Jewish refugees has led to their prosperity and integration, while Arab governments’ (including the two Palestinian governments — Hamas and the Palestinian Authority) handling, if not neglect, of their refugee populations has perpetuated stagnation and misery.
During the 20th century, more than 800,000 Jews were expelled from their homes across the Middle East and North Africa. Displaced from their lands and robbed of their property, these refugees turned to the newly created Jewish state of Israel — a state that, to this day, serves as a refuge for Jews from all parts of the globe.
As Mizrahi refugees trekked to Israel in droves, the newly-created Israeli government provided the resources and support that these individuals needed. Ma’abarot, the immigrant and refugee absorption camps established in the early days of Israel’s founding, provided accommodations for the large influx of Jewish refugees. Although the Israeli government only had access to limited funding, its budgeting plans prioritized the absorption of this diverse population.
Zionism’s importance was affirmed as these Jews, lacking access to their basic human rights, found support through the modern-day manifestation of Jewish self-determination. These Mizrahim, culturally attached to Israel by their Jewish identity, represented a diverse sector of Jews newly introduced to the Zionist endeavor. Their Jewish identity saved them from being stateless.
By contrast, surrounding Arab nations have left their Palestinian residents and neighbors to languish in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)-run camps for decades. Settlement and integration are not offered; in fact, Arab countries refused Israel’s 1949 offer to unconditionally admit 100,000 Palestinians, because recognition of the State of Israel was too much to bear for the Arab governments. Instead, they have perpetuated the Palestinians’ plight, harnessing their poverty as a tool to attack Israel.
Importantly, the more than five million current Palestinian “refugees” — mostly descendants of those who fled or were expelled in 1948 — are currently awarded this supposed status by UNRWA.
In comparison, fewer than one million Palestinian refugees existed in 1948; this unique definition of “refugee” has never been applied to other refugee populations around the world — only Palestinians. Arab governments limit the integration of Palestinians into their societies and instead push for an eventual mass Palestinian “return” to Israel. This exclusive “right of return” framework, unfortunately, necessitates the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state, and only harms Palestinians who seek realistic permanent homes.
Hamas is funded by foreign governments and by heavy internal taxation of its people. Unfortunately, Hamas diverts much of this annual budget towards terrorism against Israelis rather than internal developments, settlement, or education. In 2014, some 20% of this budget was funneled to armed groups and advanced weapons, tunnel construction, combat training, and salaries for Hamas fighters. This harms Hamas’ hopes for international legitimacy, approval from its citizens, and the greater Palestinian goal of self-determination. When faced with the option to support their own people or harm their enemies, Palestinian leadership continues to choose the latter.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) prioritizes intimidation and violence over citizen welfare. Although in dire financial straits and completely dependent on foreign aid, the PA spends millions annually on its “martyrs” fund, which doles out direct payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are convicted terrorists. The PA also pays living terrorists in Israeli jails directly. According to a 2016 Congressional hearing, “One prominent Palestinian says that these inducements have become ‘sacred in Palestinian politics.’” By incentivizing murder and acts of war, the Palestinian Authority delegitimizes itself as a responsible government to lead the fight for Palestinian self-determination and true peace with Israel.
Allocating funds toward internal improvements, providing adequate refugee support and integration, and entertaining discussions of peace would be more successful avenues of governmental action for any Palestinian leader. The current framework, where neighboring Arab governments provide support primarily to terrorist objectives, refuse to discuss potential solutions with Israel, and justify the Palestinian plight as a Zionist ploy, ultimately sustains this refugee crisis.
The successful integration of Mizrahi Jews into Israeli society following their expulsion from Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrates the tremendous power that self-determination can have in the hands of those who want to build peace and a better future. Taking a page out of Israel’s approach to integrating Mizrahi Jewish refugees, Arab leaders should approach their Palestinian refugees with governments that prioritize the protection of Palestinian citizens over the deaths of Israeli Jews.
Toby Irenshtain is a 2020-2021 Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.