Opinion

Palestinians Should Push the Muslim World to Compensate Jewish Refugees

Israel is demanding reparations for the assets lost when 856,000 Jews were forced from their homes after 1948 - claims that are no less just than those of the Palestinians. It's time for both sides to see past their own exclusive victimhood

Iraqi Jewish refugees leaving Lod airport (Israel) on their way to to a transit camp, 1951
Wikipedia

Israel's Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel said Saturday that after 18 months of research involving an international accountancy firm, the government was preparing to issue demands for compensation amounting to a staggering $250 billion for the lost property of Jews who were forced to flee from Arab and Muslim countries after 1948.

According to reports, this will include lost assets from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

The property was left behind by Jews from ten countries (Algeria and Lebanon are apparently not included in the $250 billion bill being presented by the government) who either fled or were expelled as the Muslim world erupted violence directed against their local Jewish communities after Israel declared its independence in May 1948.

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According to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries there were 856,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East, most of whom arrived penniless in either Israel or Western countries, after many centuries, if not millennia, in their old homes.

Three Kurdish jewish family members from the the small town of Rowndiz in the Kurdish mountains in northern Iraq, photographed by a traveling missionary in 1905
Wikimedia

But to the Palestinians and their supporters, talk about 1948 Jewish refugees - whose number was roughly comparable to the number of Arabs who left their homes - is infuriating.

They see the subject as nothing but a brazen attempt to change the subject from their efforts to highlight the plight of the millions of descendants of Palestinian Arabs who fled or were, in some cases, forced out of their homes during what Jews call Israel’s War of Independence and what they call the Nakba, or disaster, that befell their people.

While Palestinian refugees have been at the forefront of anti-Zionist advocacy, the Arab and Muslim world has been silent about the Jewish part of what was, in effect, a massive population transfer in the late 1940s.

While no one disputes that a massive displacement of Hindus and Muslims took place around the same time when the British left the Asian subcontinent, as partition created the modern states of India and Pakistan (though the numbers involved and the loss of life in that conflict was far greater), as far as much of the world has been concerned, the flow of refugees when Israel was born was a one-way affair.

Young Jewish refugees from Yemen at the Beit Lid transit camp, Israel, 1950
Wikimedia

The reason for that was, in contrast to the plight of the Palestinians, Israel and the West absorbed Jewish refugees. Though they didn’t have an easy time of it, especially in Israel - where many lived for years in tented transit camps and faced discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi and Labor Zionist elites - they were not kept homeless in camps as political props the way the Palestinians were treated. Indeed, a separate United Nations agency - UNWRA - was created specifically in order to treat Palestinians differently from other refugees and to keep them in place awaiting Israel’s destruction.

Many, if not most, of the millions of descendants of those Arabs who fled in 1948 are genuinely needy. The refugees could use the compensation that a peace deal might bring them even though their demands for “return” have, along with their belief in Israel’s illegitimacy, largely prevented their leaders from concluding such an agreement.

By contrast, the Jewish refugees have, like every other such population in an era when borders shifted in the wake of WWII, moved on and built productive lives in their new homes, principally in the Jewish state. Nevertheless, their claims for compensation for lost property are no less just than those of the Palestinians.

Ruins of the Central Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria after it was pillaged and burnt during the 1947 Aleppo pogrom
Wikimedia

Whatever failings one might attribute to Israeli decision-makers, Palestinians Arabs have been cursed by shortsighted leaders over the last century. They have not only been allergic to compromises that might have given them a state long ago, but all too often remained trapped by rhetoric that treated their Jewish antagonists as lacking any legitimate claims.

Though Palestinians may regard Israel’s bringing up compensation claims for Jews as irrelevant to the peace process, it actually provides them with an opportunity. This is exactly the moment when they might score some points in international forums by actually embracing them.

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It’s true that the eight countries named by Israel as liable for up to a quarter of trillion dollars in lost property have no intention of paying dispossessed Jews a single cent.

But why should the Palestinians, who have spent the last 70 years being used and abused by the Arab and Muslim world, care about that? That’s especially true now since many Sunni Arab governments have embraced Israel as a tacit ally against Iran, and are no longer willing to pay anything more than minimal lip service to the Palestinian cause.

If instead of ignoring the Jewish claims as a ploy by the Netanyahu government to cause the world to think less about Palestinian refugees, if the Palestinian Authority were to say they agreed that both sides should be compensated, it would strengthen their current shaky negotiating position.

Palestinian children walk past paintings depicting the 1948 'Naqba' or catastrophe, and the UNRWA site in the Fawwar Palestinian refugee camp, near Hebron, on September 2, 2018
AFP

At the very least it would make their continuing demands for a "right of return" for their refugees - a term that is synonymous with the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state - seem less intransigent, and make it easier for European countries to pressure Israel about conditions in Gaza.

The inability of either side to see past their own narrative of exclusive victimhood has helped perpetuate a conflict that, at least in theory, is capable of being resolved by mutual recognition and compromise. As much as it may gall them to think of even some Jews as having suffered loss, Palestinians have one more opportunity to demonstrate that coexistence is possible.

But if, as appears to be the case, Palestinians continue to treat the subject of Jewish refugees as a ruse, or a conspiracy aimed at harming their cause, they will be confirming the worst suspicions of their foes - that the root cause of their animus for Israel is hatred for Jews, no matter their origin.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin