Mention the words “refugee” and “Middle East”—in the media, at universities, at the United Nations and elsewhere—and the image of a Palestinian living in a makeshift camp will immediately pop into one's mind. That is because the world has neglected the plight of an equal or greater number of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries. One rarely hears any discussion of the hundreds of thousands of Jews, whose families had lived throughout the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and who were made refugees between 1947 and the early 1970s.
There are differences, of course, between Palestinian and Jewish refugees. Palestinian refugees have deliberately been kept in camps and not resettled so that they can be used as political footballs by Arab and Muslim states in their continuing effort to delegitimize Israel. Jewish refugees were quickly resettled in Israel, in the United States and in several European countries.
There are other differences as well. The Palestinian refugee problem was caused by a war started by the Arab nations of the Middle East, and wars inevitably cause dislocation. In the 1940s, tens of millions of other refugees were created by the Second World War and its aftermath. These refugees have all been settled, and they and their decedents are living normal lives. This is not to suggest that Israel was entirely blameless in forcing some Arab residents to leave the newly-created Jewish state. It is to say, however, that the fault of the Arab countries that forced its Jewish population to leave was far greater.
Historical evidence conclusively establishes that the forced exile of Jews from Arab countries was part of a general plan to punish Jews in retaliation for the establishment of Israel. There were organized pogroms against Jewish citizens. Jewish leaders were hanged. Jewish synagogues were torched. Jewish bank accounts and other property were confiscated. Jews remained in Arab lands at risk to their lives.
Yet Hanan Ashrawi and others dispute the applicability of the label of “refugee” to these Jews. Their argument is that since they are not seeking a right to return to their native lands, they do not qualify as refugees. Under that benighted definition, Jews who escaped from Germany and Poland in the early 1940s would not have been considered refugees, since they had no interest in returning to Berlin or Owicim.
In 1967, the United Nations’ Security Council took a different view of this matter. I know, because I worked with Justice Arthur Goldberg, who was then the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations, on the wording of Security Council Resolution 242, on which the Middle East peace process has long relied. That resolution dealt with the refugee problem. The Soviet Union introduced a draft which would have limited the definition of refugee to Palestinian refugees. The United States, speaking through Justice Goldberg, insisted that attention must be paid to Jewish refugees as well. The American view prevailed and the resulting language referred to a “just settlement of the refugee problem.” Justice Goldberg explained: “The Resolution addresses the objective of ‘achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.’ This language presumably refers to both Arab and Jewish refugees, for about an equal number of each abandoned their homes as a result of the several wars.”
Accordingly, the Jewish and Arab refugees have equal status under international law. There is now pending in Congress H.R. 6242, a law which would grant Jewish refugees from Arab countries equal status under American law. The time has now come, indeed it is long overdue, for these refugee problems to be granted equal status in the court of public opinion, and in the realm of morality.
If Hanan Ashrawi really believes that Jews who were forced to leave their homes are not refugees, let her defend her views in a public forum. I hereby challenge her to a debate on that issue.
If there are those who doubt the historical accuracy of the Jewish refugee narrative, let an international commission of objective historians take testimony from living refugees. Indeed, it would be useful for an archive now to be created of such testimonies, since many of those who were forced to flee from Arab lands are now aging.
There are some who argue that the issue of Jewish refugees is a makeweight being put forward by cynical Israeli politicians to blunt the impact of the Palestinian refugee narrative. But this is not a new issue. I and many others have long been concerned about this issue. Since 1967, I have consulted with Iranian, Iraqi, Egyptian and Libyan families who lost everything—life, property and their original homeland—as the result of a concerted effort by Arab and Muslim governments. What is cynical is any attempt to deflect attention from the real injustices that were suffered, and continue to be suffered, by hundreds of thousands of Jews and their families just because they were Jews who were born in Arab lands.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion.