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Victimhood as Foreign Policy

By pushing the issue of Jewish “refugees” from Arab lands to the top of the U.N.'s agenda, Israelis abdicating the moral high ground in favor of sinking into a battle of victimhood narratives with the Palestinians.
Jewish immigrant children from Arab countries at the Talpiot transit camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem, 1954.

Jewish immigrant children from Arab countries at the Talpiot transit camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem, 1954.
Photo Credit: David Rubinger / The Digital Journalist

Would Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. have called on the world body “to tell the 850,000 untold stories of Jewish refugees from Arab countries…” had the Palestinians not made the return of their “refugees” to Israel a foundational point for the securing of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Jewish state?

“We are 64 years late, but we are not too late,” said Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon last Friday.

So why now?

Sadly, it appears that the Israeli foreign policy establishment has given up on convincing the international community as to the essential rightness of the Zionist enterprise. Rather, by attempting to push the issue of Jewish “refugees” from Arab lands to the top of the U.N.’s agenda, Israelis abdicating the moral high ground in favor of sinking into a battle of victimhood narratives with the Palestinians.

Such a lack of conviction bespeaks a general sense of malaise emanating from Jerusalem, where Israel’s leaders have evidently thrown up their hands and embraced the belief that the best defense against anti-Israel bias is a compelling story of mass expulsion.

Now, Minister Ayalon is absolutely correct in asserting that “this issue was never emphasized enough…We have decided to bring it up, to flush out the truth.” It’s a crying shame, not to mention a blight on the records of successive Israeli administrations, that the greatest single demographic upheaval in the modern history of the Middle East was a story largely left untold inside of Israel.

As such, it is altogether appropriate that the Israeli national zeitgeist make room for the largely-forgotten history of Jewish refugees who were summarily expelled from Arab lands.

For while much thought, research, ink and media coverage has been dedicated in recent years to the European Holocaust, the wave of anti-Semitism and violence that swept Arab states in the wake of Israel’s establishment has long been given short shrift.

However, the politicizing of this dark chapter in Jewish history is but a rather lame attempt to stem the growing tide of pro-Palestinian sentiment that has seemingly swept across our world.

For Israel to make any kind of headway by way of ‘hasbara’ (public relations efforts for Israel) it need only remember and repeat these immutable facts regarding the genesis of the Palestinian “refugee” issue:

Settling for approximately one-quarter of the land mass that had been promised by the original partition plan, Jewish leaders made strenuous efforts to encourage their Arab neighbors to stay on and help build up the new state of Israel.

A large majority of local Arabs responded to the call for coexistence by violently rejecting it.  Egged on by a bellicose leadership that darkly warned that its bullets wouldn’t distinguish between Arabs and Jews, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs summarily packed up and took off, having been reassured that they would be able to return once the foreign Zionist entity had been snuffed out.

What followed was an invasion by seven Arab countries. Had the Arabs accepted the two-state solution, as formulated by the UN in 1947, it is quite likely that war would have been avoided and a separate Palestinian country would have come into existence.

That a refugee problem arose as a result of the invasion is an irrefutable fact. Yet, the births of many sovereign nation have resulted in mass displacement and other social upheavals. Unique to the saga of the Palestinian refugee, however, is the phenomenon of the magically multiplying refugees. From close to 750,000 in 1948, today Palestinian refugees number over 5 million.  Is there any other displaced group on earth that passes their refugee status on genetically?

And while Palestinians around the Middle East have subsequently been used as pawns in a decades-long attempt to destabilize and delegitimize the sovereign state of Israel, Jewish immigrants – that’s right, “immigrants” – from Arab lands were absorbed into Israeli society, where many of their progeny would go on to assume prominent roles within Israeli society.

By referring to Jewish immigrants from Arab lands as refugees, Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is inadvertently providing fodder for extremists across the Arab world who argue that all Jewish immigrants should return to their “home” countries since Israel is neither their country nor their ancestral homeland.

About the Author: Gidon Ben-Zvi is an accomplished writer who left behind Hollywood starlight for Jerusalem stone. He maintains a blog, Jerusalem State of Mind. As a ‘returning resident’ to Israel, Gidon has vivid memories of playing hooky from Rene Cassin High School while strolling through Ammunition Hill. After serving in an IDF infantry unit for two-and-a-half years, Gidon returned to the United States, where he embarked on a twelve-year run of half-baked careers and wholly misguided educational pursuits.


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7 Responses to “Victimhood as Foreign Policy”

  1. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Immigrants get to sell their properties and take their possessions. They get to choose to leave their homes. Refugees don't. My in-laws lost all their property when they "immigrated" as the author calls it. Maybe the author needs to meet a few Sephardi families who lost everything, before he so glibly disposes of their claims and rights, simply because Israel was able to do right by them and they were able to move on with their lives.

    And since it was the Arab countries that caused and created both refugee problems (even if Israel solved her own), then yes, Danny Ayalon has the right idea to wave it back at them as a weapon against those very same Arab countires who are attacking us in the UN with the problems they not only caused, but the problem they continue to maintain.

  2. Stephen Leavitt says:

    I would add that the author also ignores two important issues that Ayalon has raised (among others).

    The first point is that a population transfer has occurred and while Israel has absorbed her immigrants, the Arab countries refuse to do so. It's not a one sided issue as the Arabs always try to make it out to be – and that diffuses (and defuses) their argument.

    The second, is that the Jews in the Arab countries owned significantly far more land and property and had more wealth that the Arabs in the Land of Israel ever did, so telling the Jews to "return to their home countries" isn't just a plane ticket. It would involve a significant distribution of land, money and property to reimburse those Jewish refugees, to return to them what is theirs.

  3. Ltc Howard says:

    Gidon Ben-Zvi. the author reminds me of the tombstone in the cemetery which says: “I had the right-of-way.”.

    Currently, Israel is losing the battle for world opinion. Facts do not matter, feelings do.

    Those who talk about maintaining the moral high ground have a death wish.

    It's all about survival and winning. Not making sure that some individuals feel superior. There is no such thing as a good loser, just a dead loser.

    Then, history is written by the winners and if Israel loses Israel will just be another failed, extinct civilization to be studied.

    Gidon Ben-Zvi and all of Israel has a choice: win or lose? Live or die?

  4. Ariel Reinheimer says:

    This is a line of argument I had not heard before, and it is compelling. I think Ben-Zvi is pretty much on target.

    While it is true, that the Jewish Refugee issue from the Arab controlled lands of the Middle East is a major story that has not received sufficient attention in the past and is an issue which should be emphasized on its own right, it SHOULD NOT be a response to the pal narrative of refugees. Simply, there is no comparison and no relevance.

    The Israeli response to the pal narrative should be simple and straightforward: The Arabs started the war, they lost, and even if Israel was responsible for the exodus (and overwhelmingly, it was not), it is their fault not ours.

    The Arabs have been taught a terrible lesson– that you can start wars, then cry about the consequences. This lesson is both wrong and pathetic. Indeed, this is true with regard to any of the various wars of annihilation that they have launched against the Jewish State.

    It should go without saying that the Arabs had already lost all legitimacy long before the outbreak of the 1948 War for Independence. During the Second World War it was extreme Arab pressure that persuaded the Brits to overwhelmingly close off the Palestine Mandate to Jewish Immigration. Indeed, it can safely be said that the Arabs are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe who were prevented from returning to their homeland. All Arab legitimacy, if there was any to begin with (and there is not much), was lost at that point. Everything that happened thereafter was of their own making.

    But, the Arabs can't even get that far– for they were never the legitimate heirs of the land. One small exception is the Christians among them, who had largely forfeited their rights by joining forces with the Muslims to annihilate the Jews, who have always had the primary rights to the land.

  5. Hi Stephen. Perhaps I didn't communicate the thrust of my argument clearly enough. In now way am I denying or downplaying the events leading up to over 600,000 Sephardi Jews being expelled from Arab lands. In fact, as I mention in the piece, this is a slice of modern Israeli/Jewish history that has been woefully underreresented in Israeli schools and in Israeli society in general. Thankfully, this miscarriage of the historical record is beginning to be corrected. However, to use the plight of hundreds of thousands of expelled Jews to score political points vis-a-vis the U.N. is a cynical exploitation of the suffering experienced in an attempt to somehow counter the pervading the anti-Israel bias the prevails in many parts of the international community. Finally, the term "immigrant" merely means a "person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence." The circumstances that drove someone to immigrate, be it by choice or by necessity ("pushed out or pulled in"), don't change the fact that he/she immigrated. Many Jews fled Europe in the days leading up to World War II and immigrated to U.S. and other countries; the fact that they were forced out didn't negate their status as immigrants. I thank you for reading and responding to my piece.

  6. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Your talking about taking a "moral high ground" but what you basically saying is don't demand the same rights that others are demanding from you (or for themselves)

    Your argument is propagating the double-standard, but from the other side. We're better than them, so we shouldn't demand the same things from them that they're demanding from us.

    Liberman and Ayalon have introduced a some revolutionary ideas into the Israeli Foreign Ministry. One of those revolutionary concepts they've introduced is that Israel has and can demand the same basic rights that other countries demand from it.

    This is just one more implementation of that concept.

    They've also gone and built up long-ignored relationships with countries friendly with us. And as a result, both in the UN, and in the real world, those improved relationships have paid off.

    We don't have to lose in the UN all the time, and we don't have to rely on the US veto either.

  7. The issue of compensation is very important if ever a peaceful agreement is reached between Israel and it's enemies.

    It is also important to point out that their was a population exchange on both sides.

    If ever compensation should come to materialize, the Arab states that owe money to the Jews whose property was stolen, should figure into the account.

    In general, Jewish rights are completely denied by the other side. It is very important to insist that the facts of Jewish rights not be ignored.

    So when you are insisting on this issue, you are also insisting that Jews have rights.
    like the right to self-determination, the right to a Jewish state, and that remains the issue that prevents a peaceful agreement in the first place.

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