January 20, 2003
Sadly, the 20th century was an era of involuntary migration. Ottoman Turkey
ejected two million Armenians during the First World War. Czech authorities
expelled three million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland after the Second
World War. When the British partitioned India and Pakistan in 1948, a total of
10 million moved between the two countries, with fearful Hindus fleeing for
their lives one way, Muslims the other.
And yet none of these refugee movements gave rise to the festering
conflict caused by a smaller refugee migration — the flight of about 800,000
Palestinian Arabs from Israel. Why?
The difference is that unlike the Armenians, the Sudetenland Germans or South
Asia’s mid-century migrants, the Arabs believe they can turn back history.
When Israel bested five invading Arab armies and established its independence
in 1948, the Arabs’ collective psyche sustained an existential wound from
which it has never really recovered.
To this day, a majority of Arabs cling to the comforting delusion that Israel
might somehow be destroyed through force of arms, terrorism or demographic
pressures — and that history can be set “right,” with Muslims on top, Jews on
This is one of the reasons Arab society is so pathological: Nowhere else
in the world will you find an entire civilization living in collective denial.
For ordinary Palestinians, this mindset has produced disaster.
Throughout history, refugees have been settled by their allies and kinfolk in
neighbouring lands. This was true for the Germans who fled what was then
Czechoslovakia, the Hindus who fled to India and the Muslims who fled to
Pakistan. Others driven from their places of birth during the 20th century — the
Vietnamese boat people, the Russian czarists, the Armenians — relocated to
strange lands that encouraged them to build new lives and assimilate.
But for Arab leaders to allow Palestinians to settle in neighbouring countries
would be to admit that the wars of 1948 and 1967 really ended as they did.
Thus, Arab leaders pushed Palestinians into squalid, “temporary” camps. Their
goal was not to protect fellow Muslims but to provide the world with a pathetic,
swarming testament to — as they see it — the barbarity of “the Zionist entity.”
Meanwhile, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned to 3.5-million.
Allowing this many Palestinians into Israel would destroy the state’s Jewish
character and invite civil war. And yet Arab ideologues continue to nourish
Palestinian refugees’ pathetic delusion that they will one day all return to the
hamlets their great-grandparents abandoned 55 years ago.
To this day, Palestinian refugee camps are organized according to the
occupants’ ancestral villages — villages they have never seen and never will see.
The West, through the United Nations, has helped fuel this fantasy. The
1951-1967 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as
a person forced to flee due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” on the
basis of some characteristic — race, nationality, religion, caste membership, etc.
That definition applies to the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948: Many were
chased out by Jewish violence and threats.
But it does not apply to the later descendants of these refugees. Nothing
in this document implies that refugee status can be transferred to one’s children.
Yet, under Arab pressure, the UN carved out a special exception for
Palestinians that includes descendants.
The perpetual refugee status gives Arab countries an excuse to treat
Palestinians like serfs. Though they endlessly profess their undying solidarity
with the Palestinian cause, every neighbouring Arab state (with the exception
of Jordan) bars the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living within their
borders from citizenship — even if they were born in those countries. In many
cases, Palestinians are barred from jobs and other basic rights.
The conceit is that the Palestinians will be returning to their ancestral
homes soon — so it would be a Zionist sell-out to assimilate them in other nations.
At this point, it is worth talking about another refugee population that emerged
around the same time as the Palestinians: the Jews who were forced out of
Arab nations around the time of Israel’s birth.
In 1948, the year Israel declared its independence, about 900,000 of
these Mizrahim lived throughout the Arab world. Today, fewer than 20,000
remain. Of those who left, two-thirds made their way to Israel, the rest to North
Pro-Arab academics typically cast this population shift as purely
voluntary. But such an interpretation is just as faulty as that of the militant
Zionist historians who pretend that Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians in 1948.
In fact, as Zionist activists moved closer to their dream of a Jewish state during
the 1940s, the Arab world began expelling the Mizrahim and looting their
property. Some states, such as Syria and Libya, did not wait for Israel’s
founding, and made themselves Judenrein in the mid 1940s. Others — Yemen,
Egypt and Iraq, notably — threw out their Mizrahim populations after 1948.
The details varied greatly from country to country. But the general pattern was
one of state-fomented violence followed by Mizrahim flight or expulsion. As a
group, these people were refugees no less than their Palestinian counterparts.
Everyone knows about the plight of the Palestinians. Yet few know about the
There’s a simple reason for that: Unlike Arab states, Israel did not dump
its displaced co-religionists into wretched tent cities for 50 years so it could
exhibit them to the rest of the world as a sympathy prop. Rather, Israel did
what any enlightened society would do: It worked to integrate these people, at
tremendous expense and with varying degrees of success, into its society.
Many Mizrahim Jews still bemoan the land and riches that were stolen from
them three generations ago. But it is not an obsession that precludes them from
building new lives, as is the Palestinian dispossession of 1948 and 1967. It is
part of history, they realize, and history cannot be turned back.
If only the Arabs understood that simple truth, millions of Palestinians
might lead vastly better lives.