A new bill in the House of Representatives seeks to link resolution of the Palestinian refugee situation with the plight of Jews (and Christians) expelled from Arab lands. Both Palestinians and Jews suffered as a result of expulsions from their home countries during and after the creation of the State of Israel. Palestinians left and were forced to leave Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza). And most Jews living in Muslim countries left or were forced to leave their homes as well. The bill is designed to ensure that these Jews are not forgotten by linking resolution of their issues with resolution of the on-going Palestinian refugee crisis. The bill’s supporters state:
Any comprehensive Middle East peace agreement can only be credible and enduring if it resolves all issues related to the rights of all refugees in the Arab world and Iran, including Jews, Christians and others.
The legislation has bipartisan support in the House and calls on the Obama administration to pair any reference to Palestinian refugees with a similar reference to Jewish and other refugees.
While I agree that it is important to remember and address the grievances of Jews and others expelled from Arab lands (I recently wrote about this issue), linking the resolution of that problem with the issue of Palestinian refugees sets a dangerous precedent and undermines international law related to the protection of refugees.
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) defines a refugee as:
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
The majority of Palestinians who fled Israel and now live in various Arab countries are “refugees” according to this definition. They do “not [have] a nationality and [are] outside the country of [their] former habitual residence as a result of such events.” Of course one reason they remain refugees is because the different Arab governments have refused to grant them citizenship. The other reason is that Israel does not permit them to return home.
As opposed to the Palestinians, the large majority of Jews who fled Arab countries are not “refugees” as that term is defined in international law. Most (if not all) such Jews have been granted citizenship in their new country of residence (be it Israel, the U.S., France or some other country). Also, for the most part, Jews expelled from Arab lands do not wish to return to their home countries. This does not mean that these Jews do not have legitimate claims for compensation for lost land, property, and the lives of loved ones. They most certainly do. But this is not the same as being a refugee. Thus, the new bill is factually incorrect when it refers to such Jews as refugees.
Far worse than the semantics of “who is a refugee” is the problem of politicizing a humanitarian benefit. Anyone who meets the definition of “refugee” is a refugee. Period. Such people are entitled to protection in the host country because they are refugees. There are no other requirements (though obviously there are exceptions for persecutors, criminals, and terrorists).
By linking the fate of one refugee population to another, the bill adds an external contingency to international refugee law. We no longer protect refugees because they are refugees. Now, we only protect them if some other conditions are met. Does this mean that we should deport legitimate asylum seekers from Mexico until Mexico compensates us for Pancho Villa’s 1916 invasion? Can Great Britain deny asylum to all Egyptians unless Egypt returns the Suez Canal? Is Japan permitted to reject all Chinese asylum seekers until China returns “Manchukuo?”
This is not how international refugee law works. We do not blame the victims and hold them hostage until some outside contingency–in this case a contingency not of their own making–is satisfied. In other words, it is not the fault of Palestinian refugees that Jews were expelled from Arab lands. So why should the Palestinians’ fate be tied to compensation for the Jewish “refugees” (something over which they have no control)?
I think the real motivation for this bill is not to help Jews from Arab lands. Rather, it is to justify Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians to return to their homeland by demonstrating that there was suffering and loss “on both sides.” This seems to me a cynical and sinister use of international refugee law. I hope the bill will be soundly rejected.