The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR, "Basic Facts" / "Who Is a Refugee?") offers the following definition of a refugee, based on the 1951 Geneva Convention:
A refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..." The 1951 Geneva Convention, the main international instrument of refugee law, does not specifically address the issue of civilians fleeing conflict, though in recent years major refugee movements have resulted from civil wars, ethnic, tribal and religious violence. However, UNHCR considers that persons fleeing such conditions, and whose state is unwilling or unable to protect them, should be considered refugees.
By that definition, the over 800,000 Jews of Arab lands who were coerced into leaving their countries of origin certainly qualify. An estimated 600,000 to 700,000 of these Jews immigrated to Israel after 1948, comparable to the approximately 650,000 Palestinian refugees that fled Israel in 1948. There was, therefore, an even exchange of refugees of both peoples. At the Camp David peace talks in June 2000, President Bill Clinton acknowledged the comparability of Jewish refugees from Arab countries to Palestinian refugees, and the need to consider their losses as well as those of the Palestinians in a final settlement of refugees' claims:
"There is, I think, some interest ... on both sides in also having a fund which compensates the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land." (Jerusalem Post Staff, 2003)
The Arab claim that the Middle East consists only of "Arab lands" is belied by the historical evidence that Jewish communities existed on those lands throughout history. As much land was forfeited by Jews living in Arab countries as was granted by the United Nations to Jews in the founding of the Jewish state, and financial losses were at least as great as those of the Palestinians, if not greater (Jerusalem Post Staff, 2003). The only difference was that Israel was willing to absorb the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, whereas the Arab countries have refused to absorb the Palestinian people. Instead, the Lebanese Prime Minister openly proclaimed, "The day of realization of the Arab hope for the return of the refugees to Palestine means the liquidation of Israel" (Gilbert, 1975, p. 14).
Since that statement was made, peace efforts (most notably the Oslo Accords of the 1990's and the Road Map of 2003) have attempted to institute a two-state solution to the conflict. In all cases the Arabs have insisted on inclusion of a Palestinian "right of return" to pre-1948 lands (Kessler, 2003; Kissinger, 2002); in fact, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross has said that a reason the Camp David talks failed was Arafat's refusal to relinquish a Palestinian "right of return" even if their own separate state and monetary compensation were provided (Fox News Channel, 2002). As the Lebanese Prime Minister has declared, such a right would end the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. A Palestinian official at the June 2003 Aqaba summit repeated this point, saying that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas deliberately did not call for a "Jewish" state as part of the Road Map because "it would suggest that Palestinian refugees who left their homes when Israel was founded in 1948 have no right of return" (Kessler, 2003).
The existence, let alone persecution, of thousands of Jewish refugees of Arab countries has been deliberately forgotten in the Arab world. But if rights or compensation for refugees of 1948 are considered, this must include the Jewish refugees, who were treated far more brutally than the Palestinian refugees ever were, who were driven out of their native countries in greater numbers, whose property was confiscated, whose homes were lost, and whose communities were destroyed. A comprehensive solution to the "refugee problem" in the Middle East must take into account the historical facts and claims of both peoples, as President Clinton suggested at Camp David. This includes recognition that the outcome of 1948 was not Jewish theft of Arab land, but one of the many population exchanges that took place in the twentieth century (Gilbert, 1975, p. 14). Only such recognition would make true peace between two peoples, both natives of the same region, possible, each with their own legitimate state and right of self-determination. (go back)(continue)
Peace with Realism