With a modicum of media coverage, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution of historic significance with regard to Middle East refugees. The resolution encompassed not only Arab refugees, but Jewish refugees and their descendents. It demands that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) set out a course of action for the settlement of the descendents of the Palestinian refugees - either in their countries of residence, in Arab countries or third countries that agree to take them in - no later than six months after the passing of the resolution (at the end of October, 2003).
The resolution points out that there are two separate refugee problems in the Middle East, one Arab and one Jewish, and notes that the problem of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has not been afforded a great deal of international attention.
As a result of "ethnic cleansing," some 900,000 Jews fled from Arab countries where they had lived for 2,500 years, and were forced to leave "lands, homes, private property, businesses, community assets and thousands of years of Jewish heritage and history," the resolution states. It calls on the international community to officially recognize the distress of these Jewish refugees as part of any solution to the Middle East conflict.
Congress is right when it says that the problem of Jewish refugees is not on the international agenda today - through our fault as well - and that it involves a most difficult case of ethnic cleansing by Arab countries.
Whoever doubts this should read the article by Carol Basri, a lecturer at the Law Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, in the World Jewish Congress publication, "Gesher" ("The Jews of Iraq: A Forgotten Case of Ethnic Cleansing," winter, 1984). The reader will be shocked at the similarity between the actions of the Iraqi regime, even before the UN decision to partition Palestine, and those of the Nazis toward the Jews of Germany in the 1930s - collective punishments, pogroms, executions, mass firings of Jews from their jobs, denial of civil rights (including two laws similar to the Nuremberg Laws - denial of citizenship to Jews and confiscation of their property).
This ethnic cleansing, which reached its height in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was not the result of a unbridled popular outburst, but rather, like Germany's "Night of Broken Glass," it was organized by the regime and its institutions.
During UN debates on the partitioning of Palestine, the Egyptian delegate, Heikhal Pasha, threatened the "massacre of many Jews," if the Partition Plan was passed. The Iraqi delegate threatened that it would be impossible "to restrain the masses in the Arab world," if a Jewish state was established.
The prophecy came to pass: About one million Jews were forced to flee for their lives - most of them to Israel, and some to western countries - and to abandon their property. Even moderate Tunisia was attacked by a wave of racism and deprivation of civil rights to Jews. These racist actions against law-abiding citizens were strongly condemned by MK Toufiq Toubi in a speech to the Knesset in March 1951, in which he called them "fascist measures" and "part of a campaign of racial persecution."
The U.S. Congress' resolution stems not only from political considerations. From every perspective of international law, the Jews from Arab countries that came to Israel or emigrated to western countries are refugees in every sense of the word. No discussion of any measure regarding refugees should be held without correcting this historic injustice, as the U.S. Congress did in its resolution.
Israel gave citizenship to the refugees and absorbed them. They suffered for years in immigrant transit camps, but Israel saw them as its sons and daughters returning from the Diaspora. The Arab countries, on the other hand, imprisoned the Palestinian refugees and, with the exception of Jordan, denied them basic human rights.
Israel's actions toward the refugees it absorbed do not in any way absolve the Arab countries of their responsibility for their crimes, or of their obligation to compensate the refugees and their descendents for the injustice caused them and to restore their families' property.
There would be no logic and no justice in any settlement between Israel and the Arab countries if this matter was not dealt with. Although the Jews from Arab countries are not refugees today, they still must be compensated for lost property and civil rights resulting from racist laws enacted in those countries. This matter will become very relevant if a legitimate government arises in Iraq. Israel's demands from Iraq in the framework of a peace agreement would be strengthened by the historic resolution of the U.S. Congress.