The Palestinian refugees and the ‘monologue of the century’

Or why the analogy between Palestinian displacement and the Jewish ‘exodus’ from Arab countries is misleading.

Palestinian refugees
Palestinian refugees stream from Palestine on the road to Lebanon on November 4, 1948 [AP Photo/Jim Pringle]

In 1948, about 450 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground by Israeli forces and about 770,000 people – including about 20,000 Jews expelled by Arab militias from Hebron, Jerusalem, Jenin, and Gaza – were evicted in a matter of few days and then forcibly denied the return. Some of them fled out of fear, often after witnessing the tragic fate of their relatives and friends.

A case in point is the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the towns of Lydda and Ramle in July 1948, which accounted for one-tenth of the overall Arab-Palestinian exodus. Most among the 50,000-70,000 Palestinians that were expelled from the two cities did so following an official expulsion order signed by the then commander of the Harel Brigade, Yitzhak Rabin: “The inhabitants of Lydda”, Rabin clarified, “must be expelled quickly without attention to age”. Several hundreds of them died during the exodus from exhaustion and dehydration.

Over 70 years later, it is becoming increasingly common to come across analogies between Palestinian refugees such as the ones from Lydda and Ramle, and the “simultaneous uprooting” of Jews living in Arab countries. Israel’s Deputy Minister of Finance Yitzhak Cohen, for example, has said that: “The uprooted Jews’ problem is equal to, if not greater than, the Palestinian refugees’ problem.”

The analogy, which aims primarily to remove the issue of the Palestinian refugees from any future peace negotiations, is usually presented in the following terms: Due to “the Arab rejection” of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, a conflict erupted and 770,000 Palestinians “fled” what is today Israel”; at the same time some 800,000 Jews living in Arab countries faced “mass displacement”; hence, there was a “population exchangebetween “Arab and Jewish refugees”. Palestinians should then accept this “reciprocity” and renounce to their demands for return and/or compensation.

But this attempted moral equivalence is a misleading one. Palestinians and Jews fled their homes in different contexts and the former cannot be blamed for the fate of the latter. The complex history of the Palestinian refugees should not be reduced to a simple analogy with no evidentiary basis.

Jewish settlers
A ship carrying 374 Jewish immigrants arrives at Haifa on July 18, 1947 [AP]

Who rejected what?

A plethora of observers and scholars have linked the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem, and more generally the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict, to “the Arab rejection” of the 1947’s UN partition for Palestine. While on the surface this claim may appear to make sense, the reality of who rejected what in the 1940s is more complicated than that.

Indeed, as the late Israeli journalist and activist Uri Avnery has noted, if Palestinians “had been asked, they would probably have rejected partition, since – in their view – it gave a large part of their historical homeland to foreigners”. The more so, he noted, “since the Jews, who at the time constituted a third of the population, were allotted 55% of the territory – and even there the Arabs constituted 40% of the population”.

But from the perspective of the Arab Palestinians, who at the turn of the century constituted about 90 percent of the population, 1947-48 did not mark the beginning of the struggle, but coincided instead with the final chapter of a war which started with some Zionist leaders adopting policies and strategies of rejectionism in the early 20th century.

The beginning of the conflict can be traced back to 1907, when the Eighth Zionist Congress created a “Palestine Office” in Jaffa, under the direction of Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, whose main objective was – in his own words – “the creation of a Jewish milieu and of a closed Jewish economy, in which producers, consumers and middlemen shall all be Jewish”. Indeed, “rejectionism” featured very prominently in Ruppin’s mindset.

The goal of a “closed Jewish economy” was partially implemented from 1904 on by the leaders of the second and third aliyot (waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine) through policies like the kibbush ha’avoda (conquest of work) and the practice of avodah ivrit (Jewish work, or the idea that only Jewish workers must work Jewish lands).

While both were dictated by the need to offer greater job opportunities to the new immigrants, they resulted in the creation of a system of exclusion that blocked at its inception, primarily on an ideological level, any potential integration with the local Arab population.

Some researchers have emphasised that the Arab population likewise tended to avoid hiring Jewish settlers. This, however, takes no account of the fact that Arabs had only a marginal interest in employing a minority of new immigrants who had much more limited agricultural experience and did not speak the language used by the rest of the local inhabitants. Their avoidance of Jewish workers was not part of an organised political campaign.

It should also be noted that the “system of exclusion” and the two parallel social and economic structures that it triggered affected other crucial issues such as those of the land and its resources. For instance, the Jewish National Fund (KKL) was established with the task of buying land in Palestine (it succeeded in buying 9/10 of the land bought in Palestine by Zionist buyers) while banning the alienation of this newly acquired area to non-Jews.

KKL’s areas were managed in a discriminatory way in relation to the Arab population. KKL farmers who were found employing non-Jewish workers were subject to fines and/or expulsions. Such policies were indeed alarming, especially considering their intended purpose, which the future first President of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, outlined in a letter sent to his wife in 1907:

“If our Jewish capitalists, say even only the Zionist capitalists, were to invest their capital in Palestine, if only in part, there is no doubt that the lifeline of Palestine – all the coastal strip – would be in Jewish hands within twenty-five years […] The Arab retains his primitive attachment to the land, the soil-instinct is strong in him, and by being continuously employed on it there is a danger that he might feel himself indispensable to it, with a moral right to it.”

All this further confirms that the tendency to link “Arab rejectionism” to the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem ignores too much history and cannot but foster a limited understanding of a far more complex issue.

Chaim Weizmann
Dr Chaim Weizmann, presiding over the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva [AP]

Arab-Jewish relations

Rejectionist policies had an immensely disruptive effect on intercommunal relations in Palestine. A plethora of primary sources produced by local actors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries confirm that before the implementation of these policies relations between different communities were much less confrontational than has been claimed recently.

An unsigned editorial published on the daily Arab-Palestinian journal Filastin on 29 April 1914 contended, for instance, “Until ten years ago the Jews constituted a native fraternal Ottoman element. They lived and mixed freely in harmony with other elements and entered into working relationships, lived in the same neighbourhoods and sent their children to the same schools.”

These words, despite their apologetic tones, were not far from the truth. The attitudes shown by several prominent figures and religious groups in the region, and the pressure exerted by the Porte so that local Jews could become full Ottoman citizens, give credit – at least as a general tendency – to such a consideration.

Speaking at a public square in Beirut in the spring of 1909, Jewish lawyer Shlomo Yellin stated that “it is not lawful to divide according to race; the Turkish, Arab, Armenian, and Jewish elements have mixed one with other, and all of them are connected together”.

Scholar and author Yaacov Yehoshua wrote in his memoir, Yaldut be-Yerushalayim ha-yashena (Childhood in Old Jerusalem) published in 1965, that in Jerusalem “there were joint compounds of Jews and Muslims. We were like one family […] Our children played with their [Muslim] children in the yard, and if children from the neighborhood hurt us the Muslim children who lived in our compound protected us. They were our allies.”

In the same period, in a religious city par excellence such as Jerusalem, almost 80 percent of the inhabitants lived in mixed neighbourhoods and quarters.

All this should not suggest that interreligious and/or confessional conflicts were unknown. Cleavages and clashes of this type can be documented as early as the Middle Ages. Yet, their nature and scope are hardly comparable to those of more recent times. More importantly, they do not reflect the actual history of most of the region’s past.

Palestinians and the expulsion of Jews

If the Palestinian refugees’ question has little to do with “Arab rejectionism”, the same can be said regarding the attempt to link Palestinian refugees to the victimisation and expulsion of Jewish communities.

Indeed, thousands of Jews in Arab countries suffered discrimination, oppression, threats and various forms of violence. The most well-known example is the Farhud – a 1941 pogrom against Jews in which over 180 Jews were brutally killed in Baghdad. According to Hayyim J Cohen, it “was the only [such event] known to the Jews of Iraq, at least during their last hundred years of life there”.

Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with Cohen’s words, it is still undeniable that Palestinians were not responsible for what happened in Baghdad or elsewhere in the Middle East. They may be Arab, but they were and are not the same people as Iraqis.

Jews who suffered discrimination and brutality in certain Arab countries have legitimate claims; all forms of violence are equally unacceptable and must be acknowledged and condemned. At the same time, it must be noted that, contrary to Palestinian refugees, many of whom were expelled or fled in fear, a large percentage of Jews left out of a desire to join their “Eretz Yisrael” (Land of Israel).

One figure that is often used to justify the alleged moral responsibility of Palestinians for the conditions of Jews in Arab countries is Hajj Amin al-usayni, the “Grand Mufti of Jerusalem”. 

Al-Husayni was a supporter of Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani in Iraq who sought to establish stronger ties with Nazi Germany and Italy. It was in the aftermath of the collapse of al-Gaylani’s governments that the riots in Baghdad erupted which led to the Farhud.

In 1941, al-Husayni made his way first to Italy and then to Germany. Two years later, he participated in the formation of the Handschar, a Nazi division created in collaboration with SS commander Heinrich Himmler, which fought the communist partisans in Yugoslavia and committed various crimes against the local population, including many Jews. Given his alleged Islamic credentials, he was tasked with recruiting Bosnian and Serbian Muslims who, along with some Catholic Croatian volunteers, formed the core of the unit.

There were no Palestinians enlisted in the Handschar; by contrast, about 12,000 Arab Palestinians joined the British army to fight Axis powers in 1939.

Due to his collusion with the Nazi regime, al-usayni is often used as an example of why the Palestinian people were supposedly responsible for their own tragic destiny. Yet, as recent studies have shown, he was not a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as he was very much imposed on them by the British authorities.

Palestine Grand Mufti
Hajj Amin al-Ḥusayni was appointed Grand Mufti in 1921 [File: AP]

The issue of ‘absorption’

The analogy between Palestinian refugees and Jews from Arab countries is misplaced on a number of other grounds. One of the most obvious ones is the issue of how and why Palestinian refugees and Jews expelled or emigrating from Arab countries have (or have not) been “absorbed”.

During and after the 1948 war, many Palestinians were forced to flee to neighbouring Arab countries. Until the recent past, many of them were prohibited from getting citizenship and practising certain professions. The suffering of the Palestinian refugees has been – and in some cases still is – exploited by the leadership of those countries for political gain.

Yet, a comparison between Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon or Syria, and the ma’abarot, the immigrant absorption camps in Israel in the 1950s, would be misleading.

The reason why the last ma’abara was closed in 1963 partially has to do with the establishment of a number of development towns in Israel where displaced Jews were provided with homes. Many new immigrants had to go through a painful and violent process of being settled into emptied Palestinian houses.

Any person who has visited Ein Hod, Musrara, Qira and a few hundreds of other former Palestinian villages, quarters or cities, is familiar with the thousands of houses that are still perfectly intact. Most (if not all) of them are today inhabited by families of former immigrants.

It should, therefore, not be surprising that many Israeli officials have rejected the term “refugee”. As Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu noted in 1975, “We are not refugees. [Some of us] came to this country before the state was born. We had messianic aspirations.”

Former Knesset member Ran Cohen went a step further by saying: “I have this to say: I am not a refugee […] I came at the behest of Zionism, due to the pull that this land exerts, and due to the idea of redemption. Nobody is going to define me as a refugee.”

By contrast, a large part of the Palestinian population is now second, third or fourth-generation refugees still living in camps.

In fact, they are the only refugees who do not fall under the UNHCR and instead have their own agency (UNRWA). The reason for this is rooted in the full recognition of the heavy price paid by Palestinians for the decisions – fully legitimate in the eyes of some, completely or partially unlawful according to others – taken by the international community in the late 1940s.

In other words, 70 years ago, UNRWA was established by the UN General Assembly as a humanitarian agency to support those very same refugees that lost their homes in 1948, a few months after the UN partition plan of Palestine in November 1947. Still today, UNRWA mirrors the international community’s obligation to provide a just and durable solution for them.

Yemenite Jewish settlers
Yemeni Jewish settlers clear Palestinian land in preparation for a future farm on September 4, 1950 [AP]

The ‘monologue of the century’

“People [adapt] their memories to suit their sufferings,” wrote Athenian historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Today, this statement seems especially relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A certain degree of mutual acceptance of the other’s narratives and traumas, through reconciliation and empathy, is the key to any sustainable peace.

Yet, when visible and invisible scars are exploited for political or ideologically-driven purposes, they cannot but pave the way for what Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called “monologue disguised as dialogue”, i.e. the dialogue “in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources”.

The so-called “deal of the century”, the details of which are to be released during the Bahrain Economic Workshop on June 25, is yet another example of a long list of monologues disguised as dialogues.

All signs suggest that those behind the “deal” will try to remove the Palestinian refugee issue from any future peace negotiation. It is the past presented as the future. This is why it is doomed to fail.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.