Jewish and Arab Refugees Must be Compared

A few weeks ago the Al-Jazeera Arabic channel carried a report on starving Palestinian refugees in a Syrian camp. In a sequence that must have slipped the editor's notice, an elderly man moaned in desperation to the camera: "Take us to the Jews. They will feed us!"

In that unguarded moment, two things were revealed: first -- Palestinian refugees are being deprived of a humanitarian solution to their plight. Second -- Arabs know full well that Israelis look after their own -- and not only their own -- but try and help others.

Nowhere is the contrast more stark than in the treatment of the two sets of refugees which arose out of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. A fair proportion of the 711,000 Arab refugees were left to languish -- and now starve -- in refugee camps as a longstanding reproach to Israel. Some 850,000 Jewish refugees were ultimately absorbed and given full citizens' rights in Israel and the West.

In the last month, the Canadian House of Commons decided to back a government committee recommendation to recognize the experience of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Yet Jewish voices, especially on the left, argue that, simply because one problem has been solved and the other hasn't, the Jewish refugees from Arab countries should not be tied to the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Some like to see the Jewish refugee issue as 'right-left' issue, an unnecessary impediment to a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. 'Right-wing Zionists', some leftists claim, have long used the issue of Arab Jewish refugees to 'compete with' and 'derail' the claims of Palestinians.

It is true that the 'right-wing' Netanyahu government has been the most pro-active so far in raising the issue of Jewish refugees. But 'right-wingers' have been particularly reluctant to undermine the classic narrative that these Jews were not refugees, but Zionists returning to their ancestral homeland. For instance, the 'right-wing' government under Menachem Begin did little to champion the rights of the Mizrahi constituency that elected him.

In fact, Israeli governments of all stripes have been accused of neglecting the Jewish refugee issue.

However, far from being the preserve of shadowy interest groups, the issue attracted a rare consensus in Israeli politics when a 2010 Knesset law requiring compensation for Jewish refugees to be on the peace agenda was passed.

The call for recognition and compensation predates the current push by the Canadian government, and even the 2008 US Congressional resolution, demanding equal treatment for all refugees.

The legal underpinnings of Jewish refugee rights are unassailable. All bilateral and multilateral agreements signed by Israel use generic language about refugees. UN Security Resolution 242, for instance, refers to a solution to the 'refugee problem' -- carefully worded to cover both sets. On two occasions, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled that Jews fleeing Arab states were bona fide refugees.

Advocates for Jewish rights do not seek to delegitimize Palestinian claims. But it is a feature of the prevailing discourse that Jewish refugee rights are dismissed as an impediment to peace, denigrated or ignored, while Arab rights -- including the much-vaunted 'right of return' -- are put on a pedestal. Only Arab refugees may enjoy the exclusive support of the UN agency UNWRA. Only Arab refugees may pass on their refugee status from generation to generation so that, exceptionally amongst the world's displaced peoples, five million people can now claim to be Palestinian 'refugees'.

For precisely these reasons Jewish and Arab refugees must be compared.

It is beyond dispute that there were two sets of refugees in 1948. It is not a suffering competition, but the rights of refugees carry no statute of limitations. What about the human rights of these Jews who fled violence and persecution with one suitcase ? Would they or their descendants ratify a peace referendum that ignored their rights?

Recognizing the narrative of 50 percent of the Israeli population who descend from Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries could well be the key to reconciliation.

What have Jewish refugees got to do with the Palestinians, critics ask? The current negotiations are between Israel and Palestine, not Israel and its neighbors.

The conflict has linked Jewish refugees with the Palestinians since the 1930s when the Palestinian Arab leadership became complicit in victimizing Jews in Arab countries and dragged five Arab states into the 1948 war against Israel. This war resulted in the displacement of some 40,000 Jewish refugees from Jerusalem and the West Bank, in addition to the 850,000 forced to leave Arab states.

Arab states themselves cemented the link when they criminalized Zionism, persecuted their innocent Jewish citizens as 'the Jewish minority of Palestine' and stole their assets.

More proof of such a link is the fact that the Arab League plays an active role in the present 'bilateral 'peace talks. Moreover, Arab states such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt hosting populations of Palestinian refugees have an essential role to play in solving the refugee problem. A good start would be for the Arab League to rescind the 1950s Law prohibiting Palestinians from becoming citizens 'to avoid the dissolution of their identity'.

It is not Israel bombing and starving refugees to death in Syria. The desperate pleas of an old man in a Syrian refugee camp demands a humanitarian solution for all the citizens of that miserable country.

To fail to call to account the Arab League for their mistreatment of Palestinian refugees, however, would be to reward them for their deliberate policy of political exploitation.

Equally, to ignore the human rights of Jewish refugees will not make them go away.

Arabs and Israelis could only bring about an overall end to their conflict if the rights of displaced refugees on all sides are recognized.

Is it not right that both sides should have their claims taken into account? What sort of reconciliation would be built on cock-eyed justice?