In 2008, during a presentation at a panel discussion on the Middle East conflict at Santa Clara University (Santa Clara, CA), a young Arab-American lady claiming to be a “Palestinian refugee” posed to the present writer the following question:
“Why can any ‘Moishe Pipik’ from Brooklyn go to live in Israel, but I, a child of Palestinian parents living in the USA, cannot go back to my ancestral homeland, Palestine, where our families lived since time immemorial?”
The response to that question may be useful to readers who find themselves confronted with similar questions by friends, relatives, colleagues, or others.
The first thing to note is that “Palestinians” have not been living in Palestine (now Israel) from time immemorial. Turkish and British records are clear that Palestine was flooded with Arab immigrants from the late 1850’s onward due to the salutary effects of British colonial and Zionist developments from the mid-19th century onward. Groundbreaking work on the Arab historical demography of Palestine during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries has been done by Professor Justin McCarthy in his book The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate (Institute for Palestine Studies Series), summarized here. McCarthy, not a Jew nor an Israeli nor a Zionist, writing for a Palestinian institute, demonstrates that the Arab population of Palestine almost quadrupled from c. 1855 to 1947. Only a tiny minority of Arabs can claim ancestral attachment to this territory, and even those claims are based solely on anecdotal accounts for which there is no empirical evidence.
Then one must recall that the Arab side started the war, and lost the war. Israel accepted the UN partition plan in 1947. The Arab states launched a war. When an aggressor loses a war because the victim country successfully repulses the aggression, and in doing so captures some of the aggressor’s land, the disposition of that captured territory, and its inhabitants, must await a peace treaty between the belligerents. Refugees from the aggressor country have recourse to repatriation only in the context of a peace treaty. Most Arab countries have refused to make peace. It was Arab aggression that started the war. Had there been no war there would have been no refugees, and there would have been a state for the Palestinians since 1947.
Moreover, a careful analysis of the evidence from Arab sources indicates that the Arab side encouraged, and in some cases even forced c. 90% of the refugees to flee. Therefore the Arab leadership bears the onus of culpability for creating the problem, and thus the Arab side, and not Israel, bears responsibility for solving the problem. Because Israel was not threatening that 90% who fled, there is no legal claim for refugee status. Refugee status accrues to those who flee due to persecution or danger. Just as that 170,000 stayed and encountered no danger, so too could many hundreds of thousands more have stayed.
It was not Israel, but Arab countries’ refusal to respond to Israel’s call for peaceful negotiations that made it impossible for refugees to be repatriated. At the Rhodes Armistice talks in 1949, Israel offered reparations, resettlement assistance, and repatriation, but only in the context of peace treaties. The Arab leaders refused all talk of peace. Had there been peace, there could have been repatriation, and perhaps even the creation of a Palestinian state after the war. It was the Arab side that slammed the door on that option.
To the onus of culpability for creating and maintaining the refugee problem at the onset one must add the calumny of Arab states’ exacerbating it for decades thereafter. Except for Jordan, Arab host countries denied citizenship to the refugees, locked them in barbed-wire camps, kept armed guards to prevent their leaving, and legislated laws against integration of refugees in to their host country. Lebanese law, for example, lists more than 70 professions in which the Arab refugees were prohibited from engaging. It is illegal for a Palestinian refugee to buy land in Lebanon. There is ample evidence from Arab sources that the Syrian government transported fleeing refugees, at gunpoint, in cattle cars to far-flung borders in 1949, in order to keep them away from Palestine, to thus prevent their repatriation, and to eternalize the “refugee problem.”
But Arab guilt in stymieing any solution does not stop there. At the Lausanne conference of 1949, Israel offered unconditionally and unilaterally to repatriate 100,000 Arab refugees even without any peace accords. The Arab leaders refused.
Israeli offers of repatriation and reparation continued until June, 1967. The Arab side refused all offers. Not Israel, but the Arab refusal to countenance any possibility of peace treaties offered by Israel condemned the refugees to penury and homelessness.
Despite this criminal treatment of their brethren by Arab states, Israel succeeded in repatriating many. Between 1949 and June, 2005, Israel repatriated more than 127,000 Arabs who claimed refugee status, in the context of programs for family re-unification and spousal accommodation, or in programs where refugees sought asylum in Israel due to persecution in their host countries (usually Christian Arabs or homosexuals). Israel ended this policy in 2005 when it was discovered that Palestinian terrorists were using this policy to enter the country and gain Israeli citizenship, and with that the ID cards and automobile license plates which allowed them to travel freely around the country and perpetrate acts of terror.
While Israel was seeking resolution to the problem, Arab host countries exploited their refugees, keeping them as prisoners in refugee camps. Yasir Arafat describes, in his authorized biography, the brutal treatment of refugees in the Gaza Strip by the Egyptians. The Arab host countries did this in order to perpetuate the problem and use it as a moral bludgeon against Israel and Europe and the USA. Were it not for this unconscionable Machiavellian use of their own people’s suffering for political gain, there might have been resolution to the problem decades ago.
International law weighs in on Israel’s behalf. There is no refugee status for the second and following generations. There is no international law which accommodates demands of second or third generation children born of refugees who have relocated and resettled. Per international law, the status of refugee does not extend to the children and later generations of refugees once they are resettled elsewhere. Children and grandchildren of refugees have no legal or moral claims to property which they may claim to be ancestral. A relocated and resettled family is no longer a refugee family, and that family’s children are not refugees. See “Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees,” for a detailed discussion of this issue, with citations to international conventions and legal sources relating to refugees.
A further complexity is that the war has not ended! There is no sovereign nation in the world, and across all of world history, which could ever be expected to accommodate the influx of civilians from the population of a belligerent and hostile enemy WHILE THAT ENEMY IS STILL, DE IURE AND DE FACTO, AT WAR with that nation.
So Israel, as all sovereign states, accrues to itself the right to make whatever immigration laws it feels will most benefit the state and its citizens. It decided to decree a “right of return” to all Jews world-wide. Those laws offer special privileges for Jews. That is bias, indeed. But it is the same kind of bias that American minorities have enjoyed thanks to an accommodating, forward-looking and sensitive American society and government which declared that Affirmative Action was a moral enterprise worth pursuing to assist in righting the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow and anti-Asian sentiments and misogyny.
Israel offers the same immigration options to non-Jews that Denmark offers to non-Danes; and it offers more generous and accommodating immigration options to Jews who wish to live there in order to right the wrongs of European and Islamic societies’ millennia of oppression and repression and mass murder and pogroms and exiles and genocide of Jews. These laws inconvenience native-born Israelis of all religions – and that is unfortunate; but it is the price that they have agreed to pay in order to help the oppressed and disadvantaged and threatened Jews world-wide.
The Israeli “right of return” does indeed allow any “Moishe Pipik” from Brooklyn to enjoy the benefits that these laws offer to Jews even though this Moishe Pipik and most of his friends and family are not oppressed. The reason for this is because Israel has decided, for good reason, that in order for Israel to continue to exist and to serve as the Affirmative Action state for all Jews everywhere and anywhere any time and forever, it needs all the help it can get from Jews everywhere. So not-oppressed Jews are encouraged to come and live in Israel so that they can strengthen the state and contribute to its society, so that that state and society are there to help other Jews….for as long as Jews are oppressed elsewhere.
And for those who chaff at the idea of a “Jewish” state, it seems appropriate to ask: do you have the same problem with a Christian state such as Ireland, or an Islamic state such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslim states of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, not to mention the most Muslim of all: Saudi Arabia.
Since there is no problem with states self-defining as Islamic, why is there a problem with a state which self-defines as Jewish?
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