Recent Israeli efforts to counter the widespread ignorance about the plight of the Jewish refugees who were forced to abandon their ancient communities all over the Middle East since the late 1940s have been widely denounced in the Arab media.
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, veteran Palestinian spokeswoman and high-ranking PLO member Hanan Ashrawi added her voice to the chorus of disapproval when she penned an article arguing that there was no such thing as Jewish refugees from Arab countries. A few days later, she propagated her views on this matter also in an English-language article published in the Huffington Post under the title “Israel’s Cynical Definition of ‘Refugee.’”
But if anyone is proposing cynical definitions, it is Ashrawi.
As David Harris rightly emphasized in a devastating response to Ashrawi’s article, the views she expresses are part of longstanding Arab and Palestinian efforts to rewrite and deny Jewish history, and ultimately, these efforts are a deplorable reflection of the unwillingness to accept Israel’s right to exist.
But it’s actually not just about Israel. One of the reactions to Ashrawi’s article is entitled “Hanan Ashrawi’s war on history,” and the author Daniel Mandel rightly notes that, according to Ashrawi’s “logic”, “the millions of Muslims who fled India and the millions of Hindus who fled Pakistan around the same time [i.e. in the late 1940s] were not refugees either, since each ended up in their respective nation states.”
Indeed, in the late 1940s, when some 800 000 Arabs fled the fighting initiated in their name to prevent or undo the establishment of Israel, there were many millions of refugees all over the world, particularly in Europe and in South Asia, where the partition of India created at least an estimated 12 million refugees.
From all these many millions of refugees, only the Arabs from Palestine became eternal refugees who, up to this day, insist on a hereditary refugee status that has swelled the ranks of the original 800 000 to about 5 million, who are served by UNRWA, the UN agency created exclusively for Palestinian refugees.
While UNRWA officials and supporters are apparently happy to endorse the preposterous Arab notion of “positive discrimination” – a convenient euphemism for the cynical denial of basic rights to Palestinian refugees in Arab countries – the political motivation for this very real policy of apartheid is clear: while official Palestinian documents describe the Palestinian people as “part of the Arab Nation,” the refugees were not integrated into their Arab host countries in order to keep their demand for an imaginary “right of return” to Israel alive; and whenever this “part of the Arab Nation” was offered the opportunity to establish for itself yet another Arab Muslim state, the price of peaceful co-existence with Israel was apparently too high.
The sophistry of all the arguments that are used to justify continued Palestinian rejectionism and the cynical claim that Palestinian refugees must be considered a very special case with special rights is once again illustrated by Hanan Ashrawi’s current efforts to deny that the roughly 800 000 Jews who fled Arab and Muslim countries were refugees.
A great visual illustration of Ashrawi’s dishonesty is at the blog It’s Complicated, where you can find a set of eight photos of Jewish and Arab refugees with the challenge:
“See if you can tell the Arab refugees from the Jews. Both sets lived in very similar conditions upon losing their homes. Life was hell for both. One of these groups has been exploited mercilessly and most of its members are still mired in misery, but do not belittle the suffering of the other group whose story now is very different.”
But it’s also worthwhile to consider just how preposterous Ashrawi’s main “argument” is. According to her, the “claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees’ who were uprooted from their homelands… is a form of deception and delusion.”
What then about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who never even left the areas they considered as their homeland and just moved a few miles to Gaza, the West Bank or Jordan?
If Ashrawi wants to argue that people who left their original homes for whatever reason and ended up living in their historic homeland cannot be considered refugees, then surely the Palestinian Arabs who moved just a short distance and remained within the boundaries of what was historically regarded as Palestine never qualified as refugees. So according to Hanan Ashrawi’s criteria, we have to conclude that there is no such thing as Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.
Of course, the Palestinian Arabs who remained in the area of historic Palestine would indeed normally be regarded as internally displaced persons, and not as refugees.
Needless to say, nothing could be further from Ashrawi’s intentions than to have Palestinian refugees defined and treated just like any other refugees.
Indeed, she couldn’t care less about other refugees, as is amply illustrated by the fact that when her ridiculous criteria for Jewish refugee-status are applied to other refugees, most of the refugees from the late 1940s magically disappear. You see, the some 12 million German refugees after World War II and the probably even greater number of refugees created by the partition of India weren’t really refugees: after all, Ashrawi tells us that the reasons why these people left their homes aren’t that important, what is important is that the Germans who were expelled from formerly German areas or from long-established communities in other European countries mostly ended up living in their homeland; the same applies to the Muslims and Hindus who moved between India and the newly created Pakistan.
According to Hanan Ashrawi, all these people just went home, and their plight paled in comparison to the Palestinians, who must be considered desperate refugees even when they remained within the boundaries of historic Palestine, and even when they live under Palestinian rule in Gaza and the West Bank.
And while Ashrawi is busy trying to convince the world that these Palestinians and their descendants deserve unquestioning support and empathy as refugees, her definition of refugees of course also denies that the Jews who fled Nazi persecution and those who survived the Holocaust were refugees: as far as Hanan Ashrawi is concerned, at least those Jews who came to Israel were never refugees, they just went home…
Truly: Palestinian propaganda at its best – or rather, at its cynical worst.
Finally, a personal note. When I read Hanan Ahrawi’s recent output, I couldn’t help remembering the times when I and many of my friends used to nod along with whatever she said. That was of course back in the hopeful Peace Now 1990s, when many Israelis believed that Hanan Ashrawi represented the Palestinians who were just like us, and wanted nothing more than peaceful coexistence.
For me personally, the rude awakening came in October 2000 when Ashrawi defended the gruesome lynching and mutilation of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, where Ashrawi lived. Her neighbors behaved like animals, but the internationally admired Palestinian spokeswoman couldn’t bring herself to condemn the barbarity and preferred instead to invent some sort of justification. That was the moment when I realized who Hanan Ashrawi was, and what she stood for.