The Forgotten Refugees
The Plight of Jewish Exiles from Arab Lands
When referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict the word refugee is nearly synonymous with Palestinian. The reality is that when Israel became a modern nation in 1948 there were more Jewish refugees than Palestinian. As five Arab nations launched a regional war against the state of Israel, an estimated 670,000 Arabs fled the war and an estimated 860,000 Jewish refugees were expelled from Arab lands.
Historically this process is considered a “population exchange.” Arabs fled to neighboring Arab states and Israel became the beacon of hope for hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who were expelled from Arab lands losing substantial assets and the historical heritage of their families. Israel also became the haven for 600,000 European Jews who survived the holocaust.
Thus, in 1948 over a million Jewish refugees found security in the state of Israel. The infant state welcomed the refugees and sacrificed as a corporate community to provide housing, food, and even education to quickly transform their feeble refugees into functioning, prosperous members of society.
The Arab nations did exactly the opposite. Believing their armies would soon destroy Israel, they made a calculated decision not to absorb the Palestinian refugees as citizens or to re-establish their lives in any way. Untouched by the suffering of their fellow brothers, they chose to exploit the misery of the Palestinians as a political weapon against Israel continuing the war they began in 1948.
Sixty years and four generations later, the Palestinian refugees have grown to a number of over 4.4 million. Still all Arab nations continue to refuse citizenship to Palestinians. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the definition of a refugee pertains to an individual who has lost both their home and livelihood. The status of refugee is not transferred to his/her descendants. The UNHCR is responsible for all refugees worldwide, except for the Palestinians.
Under the pressure of several Arab nations, on December 8, 1948, the UN formed the agency of UNRWA, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The only agency in the UN dedicated to just one group of people, the Palestinians. Under UNRWA the definition of a Palestinian refugee is different from all other refugees worldwide in that the status of refugee is transferred indefinitely from generation to generation. Because of this the Palestinians are the only group of refugees whose numbers are growing rather than shrinking.
The US taxpayer supports 40% of UNRWA’s annual $300 million budget while the oil rich Saudi Arabia contributes a token 2% to the care of its Arab brothers in refugee camps the Arab League refuses to dismantle. The best solution is simply to shut down UNRWA and to transfer its responsibilities to UNHCR in order to break the refugee cycle and to provide Palestinians with the ability to build a brighter future.
UNRWA’s mandate, however, keeps being extended year by year and will continue to be so until enough people cry out against the injustice of the Arab nations toward Israel and the disenfranchised Palestinians in their midst. According to that same mandate the descendants of those Arabs displaced in 1948 will remain refugees until they are able to build communities inside all of Israel.
Under these terms there will be no end to the Palestinian “refugee” issue until there is an end to the State of Israel, a nation built by over a million forgotten Jewish refugees.
Kasey Bar is a freelance writer, living in Israel. She is a former co-ordinator of the ICEJ's Young Adults Ministry: Grafted. This article was first published in August 2008 in the US edition of the ministry's flagship monthly magazine, Word from Jerusalem
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