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Remembering the Forgotten Exodus

Testimony of Dr. Avi Beker, Secretary General, World Jewish Congress
Before the International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.
June 3, 2003

Thank you Madam Chair, Members of the Subcommittee, for giving me the opportunity to address this very critical and often overlooked aspect of the Middle East conflict.

Today, we are not simply discussing a forgotten chapter of history. The Jewish exodus from Arab lands touches on the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It highlights the responsibility of the Arab countries in pursuing anti-Semitic policies before the establishment of the State of Israel.

It shows their refusal to accept the existence of Israel -- a Jewish State in the Middle East -- and it demonstrates how the Palestinian refugee issue has been cynically exploited to advance this strategy. These policies and practices which date back more than half a century continue unabated even to this day.

Today, as President Bush is in the Middle East actively working to rekindle hopes for progress in the peace process in the post-Saddam Middle East, we must pay more attention to this issue of overdue justice. It is not just a matter of setting the historic record straight, but rather it provides the most moral and balanced approach to deal with the explosive issue of the "right of return" of the Palestinian Arabs to Israel, an issue that blocked previous negotiations between the parties.

The basic flaw with previous peace efforts lies in the continuing, decades-old policy of deliberately neglecting the refugee issue and deferring its resolution until some future distant date. Any comprehensive peace plan dealing with Israeli withdrawal into new borders must include a thorough account of the two populations of refugees: Jews and Arabs, with a political and humanitarian solution for the Palestinian refugees as major component.

The Camp David talks of July 2000 provide an important lesson. It was only at a late stage of President Clinton's efforts to bring together Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman Yasser Arafat that the Palestinians surprised everybody with non-negotiable demands for a full "right of return" to pre-1967 Israel for more than four millions refugees.

The Israelis were shocked and unprepared, and immediately brought in from Israel experts on the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who presented the case to President Clinton. He was very much impressed with the information they and his own advisors provided him and made an historic statement recognizing that the refugee problem in the Middle East has two sides,one Arab and one Jewish. This was the first time that an American president made such a reference and commitment to this issue. The President spoke about compensating the Jews who were expelled from Arab lands:

"...[the fund should] compensate the Israelis who were made refugees by the war, which occurred after the birth of the State of Israel. Israel is full of people, Jewish people, who lived in predominately Arab countries who came to Israel because they were made refugees in their own land."

For several years, the World Jewish Congress has been focusing on what we call the "Forgotten Exodus": the plight of the Jews from Arab countries. In the last decade we have raised the issue in our executive meetings and we have published several studies on the subject.

In the last two years we held several conferences on the "Forgotten Exodus" in Paris, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles and here in Washington, D.C. At the Washington symposium, you, Madam Chair, sent a message of support, and your colleague, Rep. Frank Pallone, spoke enthusiastically about the matter.

Similar symposiums are planned for London, Chicago and New York. The most moving aspect of these conferences was the testimonies by Jews who left these countries. We in the WJC have been working with Holocaust survivors for many years, and there is no comparison between the horrors.

However, there is a similar syndrome of "belated remembering." People who lost status and economic means and suffered a great deal of persecution, humiliation and betrayal tend to suppress their stories and lock it inside them and don't even share it with their family. Today, at a later stage in their lives, these forgotten refugees often feel a personal responsibility to tell their story and to transmit it to the next generation.

There are four basic differences between the Jewish refugees and the Arab refugees in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

1. The number of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries exceeds the number of the Palestinian refugees. There were about 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands, versus 500,000 to 600,000 Palestinian Arab refugees.

2. The Jews were expelled systematically, under an official regime policy which included anti-Jewish decrees, pogroms, murders and hangings, anti-Semitic incitement and actual ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians, on the other hand, left the area in the course of an 18-month war when several Arab armies opposing the UN partition resolution invaded Israel. Arab leaders called on the Palestinians to leave. For instance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said pledged:

"We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down."

The hundreds of thousands of Arabs who did not heed Nuri Said and other Arab leaders stayed in Israel, a decision most have not regretted.

3. Unlike the Palestinians, the Jewish refugees were absorbed into their host countries, mostly by Israel. About 600,000 stayed in Israel and the remaining 300,000 fled to other countries, such as France, Canada, Italy and the United States. In Israel today, the Jews from Arab countries and their children comprise the majority of the Jewish population.

4.  All Arabs who stayed in Israel enjoy full citizenship; the few Jews who remained in Arab lands continue to experience persecution, attacks, jail and other violations of human rights.

What did the Arabs and the Palestinians do with their own refugees? After rejecting the UN resolution which called for a Jewish state, and after their defeat in the battlefield, when they failed to drive the Jews into the sea, the Arab countries developed a brilliant scheme.

With the help of the United Nations, they created an unprecedented machinery to keep the refugees in camps without any hope for rehabilitation. UNWRA, the UN body formed for this purpose, should be regarded as one of the most cynical and inhumane creations in the field of humanitarian assistance. Attempts by UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to develop, in 1959, a comprehensive refugee resettlement scheme encountered fierce Arab opposition and were immediately abandoned.

UNWRA, according to its own mission statement, does not aim to solve the refugee problem. This is in sharp contrast to all UN programs for the other tens of millions of refugees dealt with through the UN High Commissioner of Refugees.

In contrast to resolutions of the UN Security Council which reaffirmed in 1998 "the unacceptability of using refugee camps to achieve military purposes," UNWRA camps have become -- in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank -- military bases of terrorist groups, including military training, bomb making, indoctrination, recruiting and dispatching of suicide bombers and an education system which preaches hatred and Jihad.

The parties in the Middle East are currently discussing a new framework for peace called: "A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."

The parties accepted this Roadmap, and the Israeli government voted to approve the establishment of a Palestinian State. The Roadmap only tangentially addresses the refugee problem, and postpones it to the last stage in order to achieve "an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue."

This ambiguity is not necessarily constructive. What is "fair, just and realistic"? Who are the refugees? Should we again leave the explosive issue of the "right of return" in limbo, looming over every stage in the peace process? Isn't this "right of return" simply a formula to replace the State of Israel, which in essence rejects a two-state solution?

A fair, just and realistic solution to the refugee problem must start with the recognition that there are two refugee problems in the Middle East and both should be compensated. A fair and just solution must start with the premise that there was an exchange of populations in the Middle East and there is no way to turn back the historical clock.

A realistic solution must recognize that along with Israeli commitments to withdrawal, there must be a change in priorities, promoting a concrete program to rehabilitate and resettle the refugees -- as a prerequisite, rather than as an afterthought -- to the peace process.

We all want Israelis and Palestinians to finally be able to live in peace. But as long as the refugee issue in the Middle East is defined by myth, and the historical record distorted, peace will be beyond reach.

Acknowledging the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, and understanding the hidden agenda behind a Palestinian "right of return" as well as the obstructive role played by both the Arab states and UNRWA in the refugee issue, are the first steps to restoring a sense of justice to the Middle East narrative. The Palestinian Arabs' commitment to peace will be proven in large part through their handling of the refugee issue.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you.