Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Redress plights of Jewish and Palestinian refugees

NEW YORK (JTA) — Whenever the issue of the Middle East conflict is raised, people invariably refer to the Palestinian refugees. They almost never refer to Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

The world has long recognized the Palestinian refugee problem without recognizing the other side of the story — the 850,000 Jewish refugees of Arab countries. Yet for any Middle East peace process to be credible and enduring, it must ensure that all bona fide refugees receive equal rights and treatment under international law.

World Jewry hopes and expects this principle will inform American diplomacy as it facilitates the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and works for peace and justice at the United Nations. To highlight the issue, the World Jewish Congress will host an event this week at the United Nations with the Israeli Mission, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.

The Jewish refugees of Arab countries were expelled or fled in waves starting in 1948 and continuing until after the 1967 war. They were even more numerous than the Arab refugees from Palestine; their losses of property and institutions were in fact far greater.

Jews lived in what came to be known as the Arab world for 2,500 years. They were part of the social fabric of the multinational empires of the region and contributed much to the culture. They were sometimes persecuted but mostly tolerated.

But the rise of Arab nationalism and the conflict in Palestine changed all that. The new Arab regimes orchestrated a campaign of massive violations of the human and civil rights of their Jewish citizens. These states expropriated the property of the native Jewish populations and stripped them of their citizenship. Jews were murdered, arbitrarily arrested, tortured or expelled by government agents or by marauders who operated as governments turned a blind eye.

The persecutions of Middle Eastern Jews started even before the establishment of the Jewish state. The infamous Farhud pogrom in Baghdad killed or injured hundreds in 1941.

That is why I have called upon U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and all world leaders to acknowledge the truth and place the plight of the Jewish refugees of Arab countries on the agenda together with the rights of Palestinian Arab refugees.

Under international law, the legal rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries are no less legitimate than those of other Middle East refugees. As Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz explained to our conference at the United Nations last year, the rights of Jewish refugees of Arab countries are in fact enshrined in Security Council Resolution 242, which refers to the rights of “refugees” in the Arab-Israel conflict without specifying their nationality. Notwithstanding, few international leaders have had the courage to speak out on behalf of the rights of Jews displaced from Arab countries.

Two American presidents have. Bill Clinton, after Camp David II in 2000, said there would have to be an “international fund set up for the refugees … on both sides,” including “Jewish people who lived in predominantly Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land.” And even Jimmy Carter said in 1977 that the Middle East’s Jewish refugees “have the same rights as others do.”

In April 2008, the U.S. Congress unanimously adopted a historic resolution that granted first-time recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. It declared that no comprehensive Middle East peace can be reached without recognition of, and redress for, the legitimate rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Further, Congress said that all bilateral and multilateral discussions and documents should refer to the multiple Middle East refugee populations that arose from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At its core, the issue is not about money. It is about recognition — that Jews were victimized and displaced from their countries of birth; legality — that under international law, Jews were legally determined to be refugees; and equality — that all refugees must receive equal rights and redress.

Now is the time to set the historical, diplomatic and legal record straight. Lasting peace can only be built on historical facts. Both the issues of the Jewish refugees and the Palestinian refugees must be addressed.

(Ronald S. Lauder is the president of the World Jewish Congress.)