Let there be justice for all
America's Israel lobby scores another questionable victory
One of the thorniest questions in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, if it ever happens, will be what recompense to give the 4.5m Palestinian refugees and their descendants, of whom only a tiny minority, if any, are likely to be allowed to return to what is now Israel. But now a coalition of Jewish organisations has managed to get a no less thorny problem onto the agenda: compensation for Jews who fled the Arab world. (...)
Five years of work by Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a lobby group based in Washington, paid off earlier this month in the form of a resolution passed by America's House of Representatives, which calls on the government to make a policy of insisting on restitution for Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian ones. Though non-binding, the resolution is a big symbolic step for the campaign.
Its advocates claim that putting Jewish restitution on the table is not only a question of justice, but could help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by leading to mutual recognition of the plight of each side's refugees. “Dealing with [both refugee issues] honestly and upfront will increase the odds of a peaceful resolution,” says Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat congressman who was one of the bill's sponsors.
But he also mentioned another goal: to show how Arab leaders, by keeping the Palestinian refugees in misery while the West accepted Jewish ones, have used the Palestinians as pawns to whip up anti-Israel feeling. Though true, it makes this look like little more than an effort to reduce the cost to Israel of a peace deal. Certainly, Palestinians will see it as a way to cancel out any restitution they might get. And to Jewish critics of the campaign it looks like just an attempt to derail the peace process. “To say that there is a Jewish refugee problem is to negate the success of Israel as the refuge for all Jews who choose to live there,” says M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, a doveish think-tank in Washington.
Mr Rosenberg is optimistic that the resolution, being non-binding, will “disappear from view”. Restitution for Arab Jews is not a hot topic in Israel, where the press largely ignored the congressional vote, though a group of prominent Israelis has started a campaign to publicise the issue. The government is avoiding it for now, for fear of jeopardising the current fragile talks with the Palestinian leadership. In any case, restitution would have to be resolved not with the Palestinians but with Arab countries where Jews used to live; up to now, Israel has not demanded it from countries such as Egypt and Morocco, with which it has long had diplomatic relations.
But the fact that a resolution of doubtful value even to Israel's government, let alone American foreign policy, passed with bipartisan support shows once more the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. The lobby's critics often complain that it represents not Israel but the Israeli right wing. This month a more left-wing Israel lobby group dubbed the “J-Street Project” is due to be launched, based on the premise that unstinting support for Israel's hardliners that exacerbates its confrontations with the Arab world is not actually in Israel's best interests. Whether it can dent the power of the existing lobby on America's Congress remains to be seen.
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As The Economist invites readers' comments, here is mine:
The article misses the point of the Congressional resolution. It's not a question of restitution, but of recognition. For too long the existence of the Jewish refugees has been ignored in the discourse on the Middle East conflict and has led to a lopsided and unbalanced narrative in which Palestinians are viewed as the sole victims. Yet Jewish refugees from Arab countries actually outnumbered Palestinian Arab refugees.
Their situation was also more egregious. Unlike Arab refugees, the Jews did not flee a wholly avoidable war started by their own side (and the fact that one million Arabs still remain as Israeli citizens showed that most did have a choice), the peaceful Jewish citizens of 10 Arab countries were the object of a coordinated policy of 'collective punishment' by Arab governments resulting in ethnic cleansing.
It is unfair to penalise Israel for not politicising the issue of the Jewish refugees, who were successfully absorbed with little fuss and who together with their descendants constitute half Israel's Jewish population.
The Jewish refugees do indeed constitute a model for the absorption and resettlement of Palestinian Arab refugees, who for 60 years have been denied citizenship, jobs and in some cases even property rights in Arab countries, but whose absorption amongst people who largely share the same Islamic culture, Arabic language and religion should have presented no problem. Rosenberg et al please note: the point of the congressional res. is to recognise that there is no longer a Jewish refugee problem.
The article also misses the fact that the resolution does not refer solely to Jewish refugees but also to Christians and other minorities, who have been severely depleted. The impulse to repress and ultimately 'ethnically cleanse' the Arab world of its minorities has its roots in the intolerant nature of Arab nationalism. Even in countries like Morocco where the Jews were not expelled and where they nominally had the protection of the King, Jews felt marginalised, intimidated and unfairly branded as 'enemy aliens.'
The resolution on Jewish refugees is ultimately about setting the record straight and ensuring equal rights for people whose rights the international community has long neglected. Far from being a stumbling block to peace, it will create a foundation for reconciliation. The nasty little sidewipe at the power of the Jewish lobby is frankly unworthy of a publication like The Economist.