As we anxiously and hopefully await the next opening for negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to, one day, bring peace, security, and stability to the region, there is a key issue which has not garnered the attention it deserves: Jewish refugees from Arab countries. For more than 2,500 years, the lands of the Mediterranean and Middle East have been home to thousands of vibrant Jewish communities. And, for generations, these communities contributed to their nations like any other, while simultaneously maintaining and supporting their own Jewish communities.
However, following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the status of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries changed dramatically. When virtually all of Israel’s neighbors declared war on the nascent state, many Jews in these countries were forcibly expelled. Jews were either uprooted from their countries of birth or became subjugated political hostages in the Arab world’s conflict with Israel. In all, approximately 850,000 Jews left or were forced from their homes. In virtually all cases, individual and communal properties were seized or confiscated by governments without any compensation.
According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the international definition of a refugee clearly applies to Jews who were expelled, or fled, from Middle Eastern countries:
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...”
And, on two separate occasions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ruled that Jews fleeing Arab countries were ‘bona fide’ refugees who fall within the mandate of that UN office. Despite these facts, there has been virtually no international response to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have been displaced from Arab countries, and this omission by the international community of an entire category of people renders the fair discussion of Israeli-Palestinian needs and realities virtually impossible.
For example, of the 1,088 United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions on the Middle East conflict adopted between 1947 and 2010, none contains any reference to Jewish refugees. By contrast, 172 of those resolutions refer directly and exclusively to the plight of Palestinian refugees. It is simply wrong to recognize the rights of Palestinian refugees without recognizing the rights of Jewish refugees, many of whom suffered terrible outrages at the hands of their former compatriots.
Thankfully, this oversight is becoming more widely understood within political circles around the world, and more and more people recognize that the injustices visited upon Jewish refugees need to be acknowledged. This is, in part, thanks to efforts by the Israeli government, which recently announced plans to hold a national day of recognition of Jewish refugees. Palestinian officials and Arab media have also taken notice, a recognition which, even if hostile at this point, represents a positive step forward.
To do my part to help remedy the issue of Jewish refugees, I have worked for the past several years in the House of Representatives to ensure that the U.S. government leads the way in addressing this head on. In 2008, the House passed my bipartisan resolution recognizing the reality of Jewish refugees.
And, just this July, I introduced a bipartisan bill in the House designed to secure equal treatment of Palestinian and Jewish refugees. The bill strongly encourages the U.S. administration, when speaking on the issue of Middle Eastern refugees at international forums, to pair any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees with similar reference to Jewish and other refugee populations.
The bill explains key facts concerning the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced from Arab countries. And, it would require a periodic report from the president, which would explain how the Executive Branch has carried out the mandate of the 2008 resolution, detail any assistance the United States has provided on the issue of Jewish refugees, and provide recommendations on how to ensure equal consideration of all refugees in any final Middle East peace deal.
This important legislation has real momentum behind it. Besides being bipartisan, it is supported by the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. I am working hard to see that the bill is enacted into law.
Those of us who care about the issue have certainly made progress in increasing awareness, both in the U.S. and around the world. We must continue this effort, making clear that we will not retreat from the obvious injustice these Jewish refugees face and the imbalance with which the refugee issue has so far been considered. Standing steadfast and continuing to emphasize that the plight of all refugees must be considered equally and fairly in any final peace agreement is the only possible way forward.
U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D) represents the Eighth Congressional District of New York.
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