NOVEMBER 16,2017 – At first glance, the two refugee groups seem similar. The approximate size for each group was about 700,000, and members of both had left their homes during the same time period from 1948 to 1952.
There the similarities stopped. The Palestinians had left their homes because of wartime conditions. These relocations were a combination of orders to move by Arab authorities, added to voluntarily leaving a dangerous war zone and being ordered out by the Israeli military. These factors produced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living as refugees beyond the borders of the new Jewish state.
For almost 70 years, Palestinians have remained locked in a state of instability as refugees. No Arab countries would give them citizenship; all would use the Palestinians as pawns in the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By remaining refugees, the Palestinians served as an obstacle in the struggle, never allowing resolution. The insistence on the “right to return” of millions of Palestinian refugees to their former homes has defeated any attempts for peace. There they stay, in refugee camps that have perversely proven to be both transitory and permanent.
This Palestinian refugee limbo is well financed. Billions of dollars to maintain this artificial existence comes from many sources. Arab states contribute millions as does the European Union, all on a continuing basis. The United States does its share with a current Trump pledge of $300 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This stream of money has been criticized as enabling an otherwise untenable refugee situation to continue. With Palestinian leaders well paid and thousands on public payrolls, there is little economic pressure to end their refugee status.
The sharp contrast of how Jewish refugees were settled is instructive and a credit to the Zionist doctrine of a Jewish homeland. This doctrine included the promise that a Jewish homeland would be a safe haven for all Jews.
That promise was kept in 1950 when David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of the new state of Israel, announced the Law of Return. This law gave Jews the right to move to Israel and become citizens; approximately 700,000 Jews from Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa claimed that right. They came to Israel after being expelled from Muslim countries they had lived in for hundreds of years.
The new state of Israel and the ensuing Arab-Israeli conflict had made them enemies to their former Muslim neighbors. With little notice, these Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews were forced to leave their homes, worldly possessions, and family businesses in Muslim countries. Fortunately they found an open door in Israel.
The intake of so many Jewish refugees was a tremendous economic strain on Israel. Israel’s economy in 1950 was just getting started and, by necessity in a hostile world, it had to maintain a large and expensive military. The cost of housing, feeding, and educating hundreds of thousands of new arrivals was staggering.
The Israelis bowed to the task and, besides heavily taxing themselves, they received millions of dollars of help from Diaspora Jews, especially from the United States. The lives of these new Jewish refugees from Muslim countries were not easy. There was sharp discrimination from the Ashkenazi Jews who felt superior to their Sephardic cousins. But Israel is a democracy and these Sephardic Jews soon found representation in the Knesset and, with that, were able to establish their rights as Israeli citizens.
The contrast between the handling of Jewish and Palestinian refugees is the difference between what their religious brethren offered them and what they see in their future. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians want stability for their people. Both have become rigid in their positions regardless of empty words that have lost meaning.
A major difference between them, perhaps the central issue, is the future of the Palestinian refugees. No change in their status as refugees and no change in their leadership in recognizing Israel as the sovereign Jewish state means no peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Dr. Eli Davidyan is a dentist who lives and practices in Beverly. Davidyan will speak at a program on Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Shirat Hayam, 55 Atlantic Ave., Swampscott, commemorating the 70 years since the start of the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. There will be a showing of the award winning movie, “The Forgotten Refugees,” followed by a panel discussion. The program is free. RSVP to MaryLou@ShiratHayam.org.