Ali Jarbawi, a former Palestinian Authority minister, regurgitated several standard Palestinian talking points in a New York Times op-ed yesterday. Jonathan Tobin has already ably dissected most of them, but I’d like to focus on one he didn’t address: Jarbawi’s claim that the “right of return” is “guaranteed to refugees by international law.” Unfortunately for Jarbawi, this is a bad time to try to make that particular claim, because two European Union members, Spain and Portugal, are currently decisively refuting it.
Both countries recently announced plans to offer citizenship to descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews they expelled 500 years ago. At first glance, this might seem as if they had recognized a “right of return” – were it not for the fact that they’ve simultaneously refused to offer citizenship to descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Muslims expelled at about the same time.
This has infuriated Muslim organizations, which are demanding equal treatment for their co-religionists. And if, as Palestinians claim, “return” were indeed a right guaranteed to all descendants of refugees in perpetuity, regardless of circumstances, these organizations would be justified. But in reality, it’s no such thing. And the arguments raised against it in Spain and Portugal apply to the Israeli-Palestinian case as well.
First, according to the legislator who drafted Portugal’s law of return, the circumstances of the Jewish and Muslim expulsions were completely different. “Persecution of Jews was just that, while what happened with the Arabs was part of a conflict,” Jose Ribeiro e Castro said. ”There’s no basis for comparison.”
That, of course, is equally true of Palestinian refugees: Far from being the victims of persecution, they fled and/or were expelled during a bloody conflict in which five Arab armies, aided by large contingents of local Palestinian irregulars, invaded the newborn state of Israel and tried to eradicate it. Thus Israel owes no moral debt to the refugees comparable to that of Spain and Portugal to their Jews.
Second, as noted by Egyptian-Belgian journalist Khaled Diab, there’s the demographic issue: While “only a few thousand” Jews are considered likely to apply for Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, “unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims” might be eligible. And that creates a real problem:
If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilizations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.
That, of course, is far more true of tiny Israel, with only 8 million people, compared to Spain’s 47 million. If you believe UNRWA’s figures, the original 700,000 Palestinian refugees now have 5 million descendants. If substantial numbers of them relocated to Israel – and given the choice, they probably would, since Israel offers a better economy and more civil rights than the Arab countries where most now live – that could convert Israel’s Jewish majority into an Arab one. In short, it wouldn’t just risk “civil strife”; it would completely eradicate the Jewish state.
To be clear, nobody thinks Spain and Portugal have a legal obligation to offer citizenship even to descendants of their Jewish refugees: There is no such obligation under international law. But to the extent that one might posit a moral obligation, the Spanish and Portuguese cases clearly show that this obligation applies only to victims of persecution, not to those of armed conflict – and only if the demographic consequences won’t endanger the recipient country.
So the next time you hear someone claim Palestinians have a “right of return,” just refer them to Spain and Portugal for a brief lesson in what that “right” really means: exactly nothing.