With all the irony of President Richard Nixon’s famous quip that, “there can be no whitewash at the White House,” the ivory tower played host to a September 25 “debate” at Columbia University’s Casa Italiano that exonerated the United Nations Relief Works Agency in Palestine (UNRWA) and human rights violators throughout the Arab-Islamic world.
The conference was held in a small auditorium, decorated in classic Greco-Roman style with ornate columns and crimson curtains. The audience of about 100 filtered in slowly, filling the room with students, UNRWA employees, and professors.
In a debate entitled, “UNRWA historical performance in a changing context” and a roundtable labeled “The contribution of Palestine refugees to the economic and social development in the region,” Rex Brynen of McGill University and Susan Akram of Boston University’s School of Law distinguished themselves by castigating Israeli “occupation” while engaging in apologetics for Arab leaders who have violated Palestinian refugee rights.
Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University also made an appearance as the debate’s moderator—an indication of the spectrum of opinions present—deviating from his role as an objective overseer only to reiterate his colleagues’ anti-Israel and anti-Western diatribes.
To provide some context, UNRWA was established to accommodate the needs of several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The organization was originally intended to serve for a transitory period, during which Palestinian refugees would resettle in Jordan (including the Jordanian-administered West Bank), Egyptian-administered Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
Sixty-years later, UNRWA oversees a massive welfare organization that perpetuates the economic dependency of 4.5 million Palestinians and nurtures their impractical belief that they will one day return to the homes their families abandoned in modern-day Israel.
The Arab states, as one former UNRWA commissioner general noted, want to “keep [the refugees’ situation] as an open sore, as an affront to the UN and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.”
That history seems to have escaped the panel’s academics, who, along with two former commissioner generals of UNRWA and the current commissioner general, urged the audience to “draw lessons from [UNRWA’s] 60 years of service.”
Brynen stole the forum’s first half with a witty but deceptive portrayal of the refugees’ status. He related the tragedies of Palestinian history, ending with the first and second intifada.
“It sounds like a Christmas carol,” he said of his list of Palestinian and (unmentioned) Israeli suffering.
He went on to implicitly chide the West for confronting UNRWA over the complete lack of Holocaust education at its schools. UNRWA initially said it would rectify the situation, yet waffled under pressure from militant Palestinian groups. Over a week after the conference ended, UNRWA announced it would incorporate Holocaust studies in its schools’ curricula.
“I’m surprised you haven’t sprouted horns,” Brynen joked with the current UNRWA commissioner general, Karen Abu Zayed.
Akram and Khalidi chose a different path: exculpating the Arab states for their abuse of Palestinians at Israel’s expense.
“I’ve written articles critical of Arab treatment of (Palestinian) refugees,” Khalidi stated. “But the areas where the least rehabilitation (of refugees) has taken place are those under Israeli occupation (the West Bank and Gaza Strip).”
History begs to differ: Before the First Intifada, the Palestinians under Israeli administration had the fourth fastest growing economy in the world. At the same time, Arab Shi’ite and Maronite militias were hunting down Palestinians in Lebanon, while Palestinians in Jordan were reeling from the Black September massacres.
Susan Akram was even blunter than Khalidi in dismissing criticism of the Arab states’ failure to take responsibility for the Palestinian refugees within their borders.
“Arab states are under no legal obligation to provide for Palestinian refugees,” she said. Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have hosted the Palestinians “at great social and economic cost” (a particularly ironic statement for a forum entitled, “The contribution of Palestine refugees to the economic and social development in the region”).
She noted the “surprising respect of Arab states for Palestinians,” and singled out the Casablanca Protocol, a document published by Morocco in 1965 that ostensibly gives “Palestinians the same rights as Arab citizens of the host states.” There are only two minor caveats: Morocco is not a primary host of Palestinian refugees, and the Arab World has expressed little interest in its “Protocol.”
Unmentioned is that of the three major Arab host states of Palestinian refugees only Jordan has unilaterally granted the Palestinians citizenship, and that step was taken before the 1967 Six-Day War as part of the Jordanians’ annexation of the West Bank. It is also noteworthy that in the Israeli-administered West Bank only one-sixth of Palestinian refugees live in UNRWA camps, while in Lebanon, two-thirds of the country’s approximately 400,000 Palestinians live in UNRWA housing.
Israel and the West have tried to convince UNRWA and the Arab States to repatriate the Palestinians to the nations in which they now reside. Conferences like this one only feed the impractical notion that UNRWA’s program of maintaining the Palestinians’ refugee status indefinitely will prevail. Akram, Khalidi, and Brynen know that there is no chance that democratic Israel will commit demographic suicide by allowing millions of Palestinian refugees to settle within its borders. Their defense of UN excesses and Arab human rights abusers does a disservice to the very people they claim to want to help.
Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.