Pro-Israel activists in Norway, where anti-Israel sentiment is rampant, assuredly don’t have it easy. So it was fascinating to read David Weinberg’s account of the issue they’ve found most successful in making Israel’s case–which, surprisingly, is one American activists generally ignore: the story of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Norwegian activist Odd Myrland terms this tale, which most Norwegians have never heard, a “knockout punch” that “evens out the playing field, and forces people to think about justice for Israel.” As Weinberg explained, it reframes the conversation: Instead of being about Palestinian rights versus Israeli security–a nonstarter with many Westerners, for whom rights easily trump security–it “becomes a debate about a balance of rights: about Israeli/Jewish rights and Palestinian/Arab rights.”
At first glance, this seems bizarre. After all, what does Israel’s absorption of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands have to do with the issues anti-Israel activists usually target: “the occupation” and the settlements? But a clue emerges from an unrelated interview with Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a British-born Muslim who practices extensively in Arab lands.
Ahmed, who made her first visit to Israel last month, noted that throughout the Muslim world, she hears nonstop that “because of Israel, the Palestinians were dispossessed from their property and land.” That, of course, is also what many Westerners hear.
But Ahmed, whose parents became refugees when the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan sent 10 to 12 million people fleeing in both directions (the Ahmeds fled to Pakistan), isn’t quite so sympathetic. Though she understands how wrenching refugeehood can be, she’s seen her own parents create new lives–and “I also see how people came to Israel, some of them barely surviving the Holocaust, to a land where they were not used to the climate and where they had no family, and yet somehow managed to build this extraordinary, complicated nation.”
While she never says it explicitly, the implication is clear: The Palestinians’ current plight is due less to Israel’s creation than to their own insistence on living in the past, and Arab countries’ insistence on keeping them there. Instead of building new lives for themselves as other refugees have done, they clung to the dream of eradicating Israel and “returning” to its territory–a dream that has precluded peace for 65 years now, and shows no sign of dying. In 2011, for instance, the PLO’s ambassador to Lebanon asserted that a Palestinian state would still deny citizenship to all Palestinian refugees, even those already living there, in order to preserve the demand for their “return” to Israel.
Moreover, as Weinberg noted, this issue shows Israel to be “a just and moral actor,” in sharp contrast to Arab states: While it absorbed the Jewish refugees and allowed them to build new lives, Arab states refused to absorb Palestinians: They denied them citizenship and kept them in squalid camps to preserve them as a weapon against Israel.
Finally, it sheds new light even on “the occupation.” Ahmed, for instance, considers it unjustified, but admitted there’s no obvious alternative: “How do you relinquish control when there’s a virulent Jihadist ideology and many Muslin leaders outside the region who say that not only shouldn’t Israel be recognized, but it shouldn’t be there at all?” That’s a problem too few Westerners are willing to acknowledge. Yet the refugee issue highlights this ongoing desire to eradicate Israel.
Disgracefully, Israel seems to have abandoned this issue: Nobody in the current government is continuing the work of former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who labored to bring it to global attention via everything from conferences to YouTube campaigns.
But American and European Jewish groups could step into the breach. Congress has already introduced bipartisan legislation to include the issue of the Jewish refugees in any Mideast peace effort, but most of the world remains ignorant of their existence. And as the Norway experience shows, that ignorance urgently needs to be rectified.