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January 20, 2003

The Middle East's other refugees

Great editorial in the Canada's National Post

Sadly, the 20th century was an era of involuntary migration. Ottoman Turkey ejected two million Armenians during the First World War. Czech authorities expelled three million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland after the Second World War. When the British partitioned India and Pakistan in 1948, a total of 10 million moved between the two countries, with fearful Hindus fleeing for their lives one way, Muslims the other. And yet none of these refugee movements gave rise to the festering conflict caused by a smaller refugee migration -- the flight of about 800,000 Palestinian Arabs from Israel. Why?

The difference is that unlike the Armenians, the Sudetenland Germans or South Asia's mid-century migrants, the Arabs believe they can turn back history. When Israel bested five invading Arab armies and established its independence in 1948, the Arabs' collective psyche sustained an existential wound from which it has never really recovered. To this day, a majority of Arabs cling to the comforting delusion that Israel might somehow be destroyed through force of arms, terrorism or demographic pressures -- and that history can be set "right," with Muslims on top, Jews on the bottom. This is one of the reasons Arab society is so pathological: Nowhere else in the world will you find an entire civilization living in collective denial.

For ordinary Palestinians, this mindset has produced disaster. Throughout history, refugees have been settled by their allies and kinfolk in neighbouring lands. This was true for the Germans who fled what was then Czechoslovakia, the Hindus who fled to India and the Muslims who fled to Pakistan. Others driven from their places of birth during the 20th century -- the Vietnamese boat people, the Russian czarists, the Armenians -- relocated to strange lands that encouraged them to build new lives and assimilate.

But for Arab leaders to allow Palestinians to settle in neighbouring countries would be to admit that the wars of 1948 and 1967 really ended as they did. Thus, Arab leaders pushed Palestinians into squalid, "temporary" camps. Their goal was not to protect fellow Muslims but to provide the world with a pathetic, swarming testament to -- as they see it -- the barbarity of "the Zionist entity."

Meanwhile, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned to 3.5-million. Allowing this many Palestinians into Israel would destroy the state's Jewish character and invite civil war. And yet Arab ideologues continue to nourish Palestinian refugees' pathetic delusion that they will one day all return to the hamlets their great-grandparents abandoned 55 years ago. To this day, Palestinian refugee camps are organized according to the occupants' ancestral villages -- villages they have never seen and never will see.

The West, through the United Nations, has helped fuel this fantasy. The 1951-1967 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person forced to flee due to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted" on the basis of some characteristic -- race, nationality, religion, caste membership, etc. That definition applies to the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948: Many were chased out by Jewish violence and threats. But it does not apply to the later descendants of these refugees. Nothing in this document implies that refugee status can be transferred to one's children. Yet, under Arab pressure, the UN carved out a special exception for Palestinians that includes descendants.

The perpetual refugee status gives Arab countries an excuse to treat Palestinians like serfs. Though they endlessly profess their undying solidarity with the Palestinian cause, every neighbouring Arab state (with the exception of Jordan) bars the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living within their borders from citizenship -- even if they were born in those countries. In many cases, Palestinians are barred from jobs and other basic rights. The conceit is that the Palestinians will be returning to their ancestral homes soon -- so it would be a Zionist sell-out to assimilate them in other nations.

At this point, it is worth talking about another refugee population that emerged around the same time as the Palestinians: the Jews who were forced out of Arab nations around the time of Israel's birth.

In 1948, the year Israel declared its independence, about 900,000 of these Mizrahim lived throughout the Arab world. Today, fewer than 20,000 remain. Of those who left, two-thirds made their way to Israel, the rest to North America. Pro-Arab academics typically cast this population shift as purely voluntary. But such an interpretation is just as faulty as that of the militant Zionist historians who pretend that Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians in 1948.

In fact, as Zionist activists moved closer to their dream of a Jewish state during the 1940s, the Arab world began expelling the Mizrahim and looting their property. Some states, such as Syria and Libya, did not wait for Israel's founding, and made themselves Judenrein in the mid 1940s. Others -- Yemen, Egypt and Iraq, notably -- threw out their Mizrahim populations after 1948.

The details varied greatly from country to country. But the general pattern was one of state-fomented violence followed by Mizrahim flight or expulsion. As a group, these people were refugees no less than their Palestinian counterparts.

Everyone knows about the plight of the Palestinians. Yet few know about the Mizrahim. There's a simple reason for that: Unlike Arab states, Israel did not dump its displaced co-religionists into wretched tent cities for 50 years so it could exhibit them to the rest of the world as a sympathy prop. Rather, Israel did what any enlightened society would do: It worked to integrate these people, at tremendous expense and with varying degrees of success, into its society.

Many Mizrahim Jews still bemoan the land and riches that were stolen from them three generations ago. But it is not an obsession that precludes them from building new lives, as is the Palestinian dispossession of 1948 and 1967. It is part of history, they realize, and history cannot be turned back. If only the Arabs understood that simple truth, millions of Palestinians might lead vastly better lives.
When Resolution 242 was passed in '67 it called for a "just settlement of the refugee problem". This meant that all refugees, jews included were to be taken into account.

You'd never know it from the current discussion.