Palestinian refugees are at the heart of the Western narrative for solving the Israeli-Arab conflict. The fate of Arab residents of what would become Israel and who fled as it was being established, either voluntarily or by coercion, as many of them claim, and the fate of their descendants is one of the main bones of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. The demand for the return of the refugees to their homes and land, as reflected in the phrase "the right of return" is a non-starter as far as Israel is concerned, but a historical necessity for the Palestinians and the Arabs. In the global dialogue on the issue, Israel has frequently been put on the defensive. For the Palestinians, the refugees' distress is a winning card in diplomatic struggles with Israel.
For a long time, Israel has been trying to change this equation. After all, there are also refugees on the Israeli side: hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Arab countries when Israel was established, and in many cases they were forced to leave all their possessions behind. This is a fact known to every Israeli. But can it be turned into a strategy that can be implemented in the struggle for global public opinion?
After many years of empty ideas and false starts, on Friday, Israel launched a venture which appears to be a winner: a new campaign under the unenthusiastic support of the UN, the heart of which is a simple demand - the time has come for justice for Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Justice must be done for refugees of both sides, or not at all.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Israel's Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor kicked off the campaign at the UN building in New York, despite the displeasure of Arab diplomats who opposed the campaign. Participants at the event included World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, and people who provided personal stories of their flight from Syria and Iraq, such as journalist Shalom Yerushalmi.
Ayalon said that the campaign would undoubtedly change the dynamics of potential talks between Israel and Palestinians. "We won't achieve peace without solving the problem of refugees, including Jewish refugees. Justice isn't a term for just one side. The same criteria must apply to both sides."
Prosor aims to turn the suffering of Jewish refugees from Arab countries into an integral part of the global discussion on refugees in the Middle East. He called on the UN to set up a documentation and research center on Jewish refugees, which although they were taken in by Israel, suffered a heavy price in lost property and mental anguish.
"I call on the UN to establish a center of documentation and research to tell the 850,000 untold stories of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. These refugees deserve the truth. They deserve recognition. They deserve justice" Prosor said.
Prosor said that Arab rulers waged wars of terror, incitement, and deportation to destroy the Jewish communities in their countries, and they confiscated Jewish property worth billions of dollars. "The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles. That is five times the size of Israel," he said.
Prosor told "Globes", "Today, we put an end to the international community's silence about Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The tragic story of 850,000 Jews from Arab countries, who were thrown out of their home and whose property was confiscated has never been told before on the stage of the UN." He added, "UN agencies have made more than 1,000 resolutions about the Middle East over the years. 172 of them were about the Palestinian refugees, but amazingly, there has never been even one resolution about Jewish refugees from Arab countries."
Ayalon called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to put the issue of Jewish refugees on the international community's agenda and to promise that a conference would be held every year on the subject at the UN. "Raising this issue is not an obstacle to peace," he said. "On the contrary, real peace is based on justice for all."
Lauder said that the losses suffered by the exiled Jews, in terms of property and personal suffering, exceeded the losses suffered by the Palestinian refugees. "The right of return is a matter for the history books," he said, "but there is the right of correction for recognition and compensation."
Dershowitz said, "The situation of Jews in Arab countries is far worse than the condition of Palestinians in Israel."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 23, 2012
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