Jan 27 2010
We learned this week that Canada is the first Western nation to pull the plug on UNRWA, the United Nations-run relief operation for Palestinian refugees of the West Bank and Gaza. The government has been quick to clarify that relief is still on the way. It will now be dedicated to specific projects like food aid; hopefully with enough oversight to prevent mismanagement and inadvertent support to a terrorist organization.
The government’s move is also a not-so-subtle indictment of a broken refugee support program that has arguably only perpetuated Palestinian misery and held up the Middle East peace process. As we look forward, the international community might take a lesson from the other side of the border from the UNRWA camps to Israel, which may fairly take the title of most successful refugee camp in modern history.
The Forgotten Refugees
When someone uses the phrase, “refugees” in the context of the Middle East, we typically think of the Palestinian refugees who lost their homes during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. The common narrative also holds that when we talk of Jewish refugees, we’re talking about white, European Jews who escaped the Holocaust to seek some measure of safety not only in the Holy Land, but also in the USA, Canada and elsewhere. But these narratives overlook a movement of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab countries during those same years, roughly equivalent in number to the original Palestinian refugees. They were largely persecuted, second-class citizens set upon by their neighbors and governments.
“We call these people the forgotten refugees,” says Regina Waldman, founder of JIMENA, an organization seeking recognition for these people in the context of an overall settlement in the Middle East. Waldman was herself a refugee from Libya in 1967, surviving anti-Jewish riots and other violence that claimed the lives of her friends and neighbors before escaping the country. Waldman wants to see a regional peace deal that puts Palestinians’ claims “on an equal footing with the Middle Eastern and North African Jews”.
“When the Six-Day-War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, I was 19 year old,” Waldman remembers. “My mother called me at work to tell me that thousands of people had taken to the streets rioting and burning Jewish properties… Killing people, rampaging and burning Jewish properties went on for days. I lived in hiding for a month before returning home.”
A Jewish community that had lived in that country for over 2,000 years, albeit under second-class Dhimmi status, was wiped out as Jews fled lynchings, mob violence and torture and imprisonment by the government. This process was repeated across the region in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.
One Group Finds Haven, Another is Rejected
Most of the refugees were resettled in Israel. For many, their first stop looked much like refugee camps elsewhere: a sprawling tent city in the middle of a wasteland. But these traumatized survivors would have a vastly different outcome than their counterparts elsewhere, particularly the Palestinians. The refugee tent cities were way-stations, not permanent residences. “All of these people were absorbed into Israel and became part of the society, and without even taking a nickel from the United Nations,” Waldman noted. Israelis ignored the obvious difficulties for a tiny relatively poor state to take in so many refugees at once, understanding that the priority was to give people with a common heritage a home and a chance for better life.
In contrast, where Palestinians attempted to find homes among their Arab neighbors, they were nearly always turned back, despite the ancient links of culture, ethnicity, religion, trade and even close family ties that formerly bound them to other countries in the region. Notably, many Palestinian refugees have migrated quite successfully to countries well outside the Arab world such as Canada. But for the Palestinians who remain in the camps, they have inherited a United Nations welfare state. They’ve received billions of dollars since 1948. Meanwhile, conditions in the Palestinian territories remain atrocious.
Canada’s decision on changing its funding vehicle for Palestinians works as a wake-up call to the international community that we don’t want to keep reinforcing failure. We want to see better outcomes. Hopefully, when a solution does come, it will recognize the claims of all the refugees, including the forgotten ones.
NEW MEDIA EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are a Jewish refugee from the Arab world, the people at JIMENA would be grateful if you would share your personal story with them. They have a growing collection of personal stories of the refugees who immigrated to Israel and other countries. You can contact them here.
A Record of the Forgotten Refugees