If There is anything which can be said to trouble Americans sympathetic to Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, it is the problem of the Arab refugees. This problem, according to Mr. Laurence Michelmore, Commissioner-General for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has not grown “any less complex or less dangerous to the peace and stability of the region,” nor has the desire of the refugees to return to their homes grown any less intense. “From their standpoint,” Mr. Michelmore recently told the current session of the General Assembly, “a nation has been obliterated and a population arbitrarily deprived of its birthright. This injustice still festers in their minds.”
Though it is obvious that the Arab refugees are being used by the Arab states as pawns in a political game, such exploitation does not necessarily invalidate claims put forward on their behalf. The Arabs continue to call for “repatriation,” Israel continues to refuse, and people whose scruples can only be those of conscience and not of Realpolitik, continue to wonder how Jews, themselves such recent refugees, can bear to add to the sum of human suffering by declining to admit Arab refugees into Israel. Even committed Zionists are disturbed by this question. Exile and longing for Return—key words in Jewish national experience—carry powerful echoes. Am I as a Zionist insensitive to these echoes? Do I ignore them, hoping solely for the success of Israeli arms? Despite the hazard of self-righteous protestations by a partisan, let me address myself here to the ethical issue.
I write, of course, on the premise that the establishment of Israel was an act of historic justice and that its continued existence is to be desired. On the Arab postulate that Israel must be obliterated and its inhabitants driven into the sea, there is no room for discussion. On the assumption, however, of Israel’s right to survival, is the Jewish state facing in the Arab refugees a reverse Zionism whose impulse it should be the first to meet with sympathy? The comparison, superficially intriguing, is essentially false. Jews were driven to the “national home” granted by the Balfour Declaration by homelessness, necessity, a centuries-old historic attachment, and a search for national identity. They purchased and reclaimed its deserts and swamps, acre by acre, and finally defended a shrunken area of it against the attack of the combined Arab armies. None of these elements, physical or emotional, lies behind the Arab will to return.
The very origin of the Arab refugee problem indicates the difference. The tragedy of the Jewish refugee lay in his absence of choice. He was driven out by force or by decree and he fled from a real, not a mythical, terror. His only refuge was the remote “homeland” which the Arab refugee left of his own will; the Arab was free to remain. There is a crucial distinction between fleeing to a land because of desperate need, and fleeing from the same land without need. But perhaps the simple historical record makes the point best.
I arrived in Palestine in June 1948, when the Arab exodus was in full swing. One of my tasks was to draw up a report on the subject for the newly formed Israeli Bureau of Information. There were no documents and no studies. All that was available in those days were the fresh reactions of Jews and Arabs—as yet undoctored by policy. From my interviews with Arabs in villages which had accepted the authority of the state of Israel instead of fleeing to the enemy, and from my discussions with clergy of various denominations who had helplessly watched the departure of their flocks, the chief impression I got was one of astonished dismay on all sides. The Arabs agreed that the villagers who had fled could have stayed as they themselves had stayed, but the refugees had “listened to the Mufti”; and the Christian clergy described scenes of ungovernable fear which no reassurance had been able to stem. One sturdy Mother Superior told me, “I said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid; I’ll protect you,’ but they ran.” The Jews to whom I spoke were still bewildered by the spectacle of tens of thousands of Arabs leaving their homes and possessions and rushing in wild panic toward the sea or the mountains. The deserted Arab villages, the abandoned Arab quarters of Jaffa and Haifa, presented the same baffling picture. I heard many conflicting explanations: the Arab leaders had ordered the exodus; the British had instigated it; the Mufti’s “atrocity-propaganda” had backfired, the Irgun massacre at Deir Yassin had terrified the Arabs.
The two schools of thought—that the exodus was a deliberate part of Arab military strategy, or that it was an uncontrollable stampede which the Arab leadership strove unsuccessfully to check—were not contradictory. Apparently, what began as a calculated move degenerated into irrational frenzy. The development of the exodus as well as Arab statements indicate that the flight was at first stimulated by the Arab leadership to inflame the populace (since the Palestinian Arabs had shown little stomach for battle), to create an artificial Arab “refugee” problem which would elicit world sympathy to counterbalance the claims of Jewish refugees, and to prepare the ground for invasion by the Arab states who could then appear as the saviors of their brethren. An additional reason was no doubt the desire to evacuate Arab civilians from territory which the Arab states expected to bomb. But the smooth functioning of this scheme was impaired by the very completeness of its success. A considered evacuation turned into a hysterical stampede.
Wealthy Arabs began to leave Palestine shortly after the passage of the UN Partition Resolution and the outbreak of disturbances in December 1947, planning to return after the Jews had been liquidated by the Arab states. As early as January 30, 1948, a Palestinian Arab newspaper (As Shaab) took occasion to chastise the first wave of refugees:
The first group of our fifth column consists of those who abandon their houses and business premises to go to live elsewhere. Many of these lived in great comfort and luxury. At the first sign of trouble they took to their heels in order to escape sharing the burden of the struggle, whether directly or indirectly.
The departure of individual wealthy Arabs could, however, hardly be described as flight. The condition in which these Arabs left their homes, without bothering to remove even readily transportable valuables, indicated that they had complete confidence in the rapid success of the Arab invasion and were merely absenting themselves temporarily. They left neither in haste nor in fear; they merely locked the front-door, and drove off for what was to be a vacation at some distance from the local unpleasantness. And their departure was observed with understandable alarm by less moneyed Arabs unable to make similar traveling arrangements.
The first signs of a large-scale exodus were noted in March 1948 (though several hundred Arab children had been evacuated previously from Haifa to Syria as a routine safety measure). In the last week of March and the first week of April, thousands of Arabs started to trek from the Sharon coastal plain to the Arab-controlled hill regions. Many sold their poultry and flocks to Jewish friends before leaving.
This first wave of departure was viewed with a mixture of fear and regret by their Jewish neighbors, who wondered uneasily what evil it might signify. The obvious explanation seemed to be the imminence of a full-scale Arab attack with heavy aerial bombardment. In those instances where Arab and Jewish farmers had been on friendly terms, there was a genuine desire to maintain relationships which boded well for the future. But the Arabs would not stay. Later it was learned that the Arab Higher Committee had ordered the evacuation of the coastal plain after the picking of the citrus crop. So calm and well-organized was this phase of the exodus that the cooperation of Jewish settlement guards was enlisted to provide transportation for women, children, and the aged through Jewish areas. The evacuation of the Sharon is notable because it disposes of the Arab charge that the flight started as a result of the massacre at Deir Yassin by Jewish terrorists. The massacre (April 9) took place after the evacuation of the Sharon.
Another example of evacuation by Arab command was provided by Tiberias. Since March, there had been sporadic clashes in this sleepy, idyllic little town on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. After Arab gangs infiltrated the Arab quarter and transformed it into a base against the Jewish residents, serious fighting broke out. On April 18, when the battle turned in favor of the small Jewish community of 2,000 souls, the 6,000 Arabs, obviously in obedience to a directive, suddently began leaving in long convoys. The British, instead of aiding in the pacification of the town, provided transport.
The Jews of Tiberias were so startled by the unexpected departure of the Arabs that the Jewish Community Council of Tiberias issued a statement declaring: “We did not dispossess them; they themselves chose this course. But the day will come when the Arabs will return to their homes and property in this town. In the meantime, let no citizen touch their property.” The months of savage warfare ahead were to change these kindly sentiments, but they are important historically as evidence of the original Jewish reaction to the Arab exodus.
Perhaps the clearest indication of why the Arabs fled is afforded by the events in Haifa. On April 22, after the breakdown of Arab resistance in Haifa, truce terms were offered by the Haganah which specifically guaranteed the right of Arabs to continue living in Haifa as equal citizens under the then-existing bi-national municipal council. The British let it be known that they considered the terms “reasonable.” The Arabs at first agreed, but changed their minds later in the day, explaining that they could not accept the terms for reasons beyond their control. The “reasons” were not far to seek. The Arab radio was broadcasting directives from the Arab Higher Executive ordering all Arabs to leave Haifa.
The reports of the Haifa British Chief of Police, A. J. Bridmead, suggest how earnestly the Jews tried to persuade the Arabs to stay. On April 26, Bridmead wrote: “The situation in Haifa remains unchanged. Every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” In a supplementary report issued the same day, Bridmead repeated: “An appeal has been made to the Arabs by the Jews to reopen their shops and businesses in order to relieve the difficulties of feeding the Arab population. Evacuation was still going on yesterday and several trips were made by Z craft to Acre. Roads, too, were crowded. Arab leaders reiterated their determination to evacuate the entire Arab population, and they have been given the loan of 10 three-ton military trucks as from this morning to assist the evacuation.” And on April 28, Superintendent Bridmead was still writing: “The Jews are still making every effort to persuade the Arab population to remain and settle back into their normal lives in the town.”
However, no assurances could stop the flight. Very quickly, the proposed strategic evacuation turned into a panic, as the 70,000 Haifa Arabs began to flock wildly toward the port, seeking to “escape” by any craft available. Families crouched for days on the docks, refusing to move until some vessel took them to Acre. Unlike the quiet departure of the Arab gentry months earlier, this was a headlong stampede in which people seem to have jumped suddenly from a dinner table, from bed, or from their work, driven by an impulse to flee. Neighbor followed blindly after neighbor until the port was filled with terrified, squatting figures and every road was clogged.
An article in the London Economist (October 2, 1948) quoted a British eyewitness account:
During the subsequent days the Israeli authorities who were now in complete control of Haifa . . . urged all Arabs to remain in Haifa, and guaranteed them protection and security. So far as I know, most of the British civilian residents whose advice was asked by Arab friends told the latter that they would be wise to stay. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that far the most potent of these factors was the announcements made over the air by the Arab Higher Executive urging all Arabs in Haifa to quit. The reason given was that upon the final withdrawal of the British the combined armies of the Arab States would invade Palestine and drive the Jews into the sea, and it was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Israeli protection would be regarded as renegades. At that time the Palestinian Arabs still had some confidence in the ability of the Arab League to implement the promises of its spokesmen.
The startling example of Haifa was bound to have a profoundly disquieting effect on the whole Arab population of Palestine. The subsequent flight from Jaffa can be viewed as a natural corollary of the exodus organized by the Arab leadership in Haifa. The mass hysteria which developed resulted in the abandonment of many Arab villages even before these were threatened by the progress of the war. After May 15, the process was accelerated. The extraordinary resistance displayed by Israel to the invasion of the Arab states added fuel to the “terror” propaganda of the Arab League. There are repeated instances of thousands of Arabs fleeing before a handful of Jewish troops.
In Safed, for instance, some 14,000 Arabs picked themselves up one night and fled from the 1,500 Orthodox Jews who lived in the winding, cobbled streets of the ancient town. One must see Safed to appreciate what this means, for the Arabs not only outnumbered the Jews but had every strategic advantage. They occupied all the strongholds of the town, as well as dominant positions on the surrounding hills. The Jews were caught in a kind of narrow trough.
I came to Safed on a late Friday afternoon. Amid the debris of recent battle, the Jews of the town were dressing up for the Sabbath. In the twilight, walking along the streets, one could already hear the chanting of prayers. Old men in round, furred hats and long cloaks were going to the synagogue. Women with lace shawls over their sheitels (wigs) sat in the doorways of their shelled homes. Up above, in the main streets, soldiers were strolling along with their girls; Jewish refugees, just a week from the British detention camp of Cyprus, were seeking lodging in the abandoned houses; but below in the old Jewish quarter, nothing had changed. “It is all in God’s hands,” the Orthodox Jews of Safed had declared in refusing to evacuate the town despite the urging of the British.
The Hotel Merkazit, where I stayed during my visit, had been completely riddled with bullets. Most of the windows were broken and many of the walls had been damaged. The place had obviously received a thorough shelling. But the ageing, bearded inn-keeper and his wife had stayed, despite their apparently hopeless position, exposed to the heavy fire of Arab citadels on three sides.
I asked the inn-keeper why the Arabs had suddenly decamped. His explanation, which I heard repeated by others, was that it had rained unseasonably on May 9. Because of this, the Arabs decided that the Jews had dropped an atomic bomb—they had heard of heavy rains in Hiroshima. The son of the inn-keeper, a member of the small Haganah force which had come to Safed, pooh-poohed the atomic bomb theory. His explanation was simple: “We were few, but our aim was good. Our King Davids [mortars] hit the right spots.”
Whatever the reason, the Arabs fled from Safed, as they had from Haifa, in the wake of their leaders.
It should be added that while it was not Haganah policy to encourage the exodus, some hostile villages threatening the road to Jerusalem were evacuated by individual Haganah commanders. The relief of Jerusalem, besieged by the Arab Legion (which had cut off the city’s water supply), constituted one of the major struggles of the war. Consequently, a number of villages which served as bases for the enemy camped in the surrounding hills were forcibly cleared, and their inhabitants joined the exodus. But these were isolated instances, occurring late in the fighting, and involving numbers too small to affect the scope of the mass flight or to explain it.
To compound the confusion surrounding the flights from different towns and villages, the various Arab factions were not agreed as to the tactics pursued by the Arab Higher Committee, the tool of the Mufti. In Baghdad, on July 25, 1948, a radio commentator criticized refugees who complained of the treatment they were receiving in the Arab states and who wished they had stayed in Palestine with the Jews. Such people should be shot as spies, he said, and he added: “The Jews will make you their slaves if you return to them; they will feed you only on bread and water; they will force you to sleep in the open, five on one blanket; they will take your wives and daughters from you. Prefer death to the Jews.”
But dissident voices could also be heard from the outset; and as the strategy turned to a calamitous defeat and the manufactured refugee problem became a genuine one, the chorus of dissatisfaction grew progressively louder. As early as March 30, 1948, a Palestinian Arab paper (As Sarih) wrote:
The inhabitants of the large village of Sheikh Munis and of several other Arab villages in the neighborhood of Tel Aviv have brought a terrible disgrace on us all by quitting their villages bag and baggage. We cannot help comparing this disgraceful exodus with the firm stand of the Haganah in all localities situated in Arab territory or bordering on it. But what is the use of making comparisons; everyone knows that the Haganah gladly enters the battle while we always flee from it.
King Farouk of Egypt, in a broadcast to the Arab world on July 9, 1948, also expressed his dissatisfaction with “the Palestinian Arabs who ran away leaving their houses and lands behind, giving a chance for a large Jewish immigration and putting Palestine in danger of a Jewish majority.”
In Damascus, too, the Arabic radio (August 3, 1948) had occasion to find fault with the refugees: “The Arabs of Palestine are responsible for the heavy losses of the armies in Palestine and the present unfavorable situation. They ran away in the face of a threat by a small minority and spent more time talking over their own affairs than fighting for their country.”
But perhaps the most telling comment was made by the Near East Arabic radio broadcast on May 15, 1949, a year after the establishment of the Jewish state:
If the Arab leaders had not spread the most horrible and frightening stories of Deir Yassin, the inhabitants of the Arab areas of Palestine would never have fled their homes and would not today be living in misery. The Arab leaders and the Arab press and radio announced on May 15 that the Jews were scared to death and would soon be thrown into the sea by the advancing Arab armies; but it wasn’t long before opinions had to be changed as the Jews scored nothing but victories and the Arabs suffered nothing but defeats.
A curter summation was offered five years later by the Jordan daily, Al-Difaá: “The Arab governments told us, Get out so that we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in” (September 6, 1954).
This is neither ancient nor irrelevant history. That the Arab refugee chose to cast his lot with the Arab invaders of Israel is a matter of record. The aggression in which he joined in defiance of the Partition Resolution of the United Nations created new circumstances, and by no rational, legal, or moral standard could the fledgling state, unexpectedly victorious, be asked to welcome its enemies.
Such champions of the Arabs as Soviet Russia and Communist China have been somewhat less than cordial to those of their citizens who sided with opponents, and the emigrés from those countries are somewhat less than eager to return, knowing the reception that would await them. It is even more instructive to recall the attitude of the American revolutionaries toward the Tories who fled the Thirteen Colonies and made cause with the British. The Founding Fathers, notably Benjamin Franklin, objected not only to their return but to the granting of compensation for their confiscated estates. So long as the young republic was in danger, Franklin, who conducted negotiations with the British in regard to the Tory refugees, refused to countenance their return. In 1789, he wrote of a group of Loyalists who had settled in what was then British territory: “They have left us to live under the government of their king in England and Nova Scotia. We do not miss them nor wish their return.” Though the Loyalists were of the same stock as the revolutionists and there was no scarcity of land for them to return to, the Americans were not disposed to trust their good faith: “I believe the opposition given by many to their reestablishing among us is owing to a firm persuasion that there could be no reliance on their oaths” (Benjamin Franklin, in a letter dated June 26, 1785).
I will Not deny that after the war was over I heard few expressions of regret from Israelis for the departed Arabs. The months of bitter fighting in which 600,000 Jews repelled the onslaught of five Arab states had changed original attitudes. Now the flight of the Arabs was viewed by many Israelis as another in the series of “miracles” which had made possible the emergence of Israel, for the tiny state had been obliged to offer refuge not only to the survivors of Hitler’s death camps but to Oriental Jews fleeing from persecution in Moslem lands. An unofficial population transfer took place. Somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 Palestinian Arabs left; approximately the same number of destitute Oriental Jews came in from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The exact number of bona fide refugees has become a matter of contention, with the numbers varying according to who is doing the counting. In answer to the present Arab claim of over a million refugees, Israel cites the figures supplied in December 1946 by the Government of Palestine (the British) to UNSCOP. According to these figures, the total number of Arabs in unpartitioned Palestine was 1,288,000; of these 500,000 resided in mandated territory later annexed by Jordan; 100,000 lived in the Gaza Strip, later annexed by Egypt; and 140,000 Arabs remained in what became Israel. The total number of Arab refugees, then, could not have exceeded 550,000. That there are today more than a million on UNRWA’s relief rolls can be explained by a combination of factors: a high birth rate; a low death rate (achieved by good sanitary conditions, along with the failure to report deaths so as not to lose ration cards); the padding of relief rolls; and the registration of local Arabs eager to enjoy free lodging and better diet than are available to the indigent in the Middle East.
An even more striking conclusion emerges from the figures supplied in 1946 by the Government of Palestine. Most of the refugees now reside in Jordan and Gaza in territory which was formerly Palestine. Thus it is clear that the majority has merely moved from one area of what was mandatory Palestine to another. They left their native villages, not their native land. This, too, must be borne in mind when an attempt is made to picture the Arab refugee as dwelling in an alien galut and passionately fixed upon his Palestine Zion.
In 1946 I visited DP camps in the American Zone of Germany. There I saw Jewish children poring over home-made maps of Palestine labelled simply, Artzenu (Our Land), pretty much as I am told Arab children study the geography of a country they have never seen. But with this difference: in Jordan the Arab children are in an Arab land among brothers who are concerned for their destiny (even if this concern is subordinated to political considerations). In no fundamental sense are they homeless. They are not the few accidental survivors of a terror which pursued them wherever they sought to escape. If they continue to live in UNRWA camps, it is not because of necessity but because they are being held hostage by Arab belligerence which refuses to permit their absorption in Arab host countries.
Were it possible for one wild moment to imagine that the Jewish children I saw in 1946 had not been on German soil but in a Jewish land surrounded by large, independent Jewish states, every significant element in the comparison would crumble. Let me continue the fantasy: suppose the talk I heard in the bleak barracks had been not of quotas barring survivors from every country except the one remote, besieged “homeland”; suppose, instead, the survivors had been informed that huge international funds were available for their immediate resettlement, without perilous journeys, in their familiar environment, Hebrew in speech, Jewish in tradition and religion, and governed by Jews. So nonsensical a speculation points up the hollowness of attempted parallels between the status of the Jewish survivors of the war and that of the Palestinian refugees. Every detail of the fable, consisting as it does of impossibles which do violence to the whole course of Jewish history, highlights the difference between the Arab and Jewish plight. What the Jew would have hailed as Utopia, the Arab can afford to reject as injustice.
Certainly it is true that the Palestinian Arabs left homes and villages dear to them, and no supporter of Jewish nationalism like myself has the right to minimize the intensity or equivalent dignity of Arab nationalism. What may legitimately be questioned, however, is the existence of a genuine Palestinian nationalism as distinguished from an attachment to the home town. While Palestine has for Jews been the two-thousand-year-old Zion of history and religious tradition, for Arabs it was a geographical locality, a small sector among huge Arab lands whose independent sovereignty was secured by the Allied powers after two world wars. The most extreme of the Arab spokesmen, Ahmed Shukairy, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, while developing his case for the UN Security Council (May 31, 1956), categorically stated: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria.” Historically, Shukairy is right, just as he was right when he recently included several prominent Jordanians in the executive of his organization on the theory that there was no difference between a Jordanian and a Palestinian and that both sides of the Jordan might just as well be called Palestine. More astute Arab propagandists, notably the editor of the Amman weekly, Amman al Masa, warned that this thesis was bound to make resettlement in the underpopulated Arab territories up to the border of Iraq more “respectable,” since the advocates of resettlement would be able to claim with justice that the Palestinian Arabs were merely being urged to move to another part of their country. On this point Zionists agree with Shukairy.
Insofar as the Arab refugee case rests on the satisfaction of a unique Palestinian nationalism which can be gratified only in the particular town or village that was abandoned in the exodus, it breaks down on the basis of what Shukairy admits is “common knowledge.” For the Arab, Palestine is a geographic fact, not a historic concept—and a very recently created geographic fact, at that. According to the 1922 census taken by the British Government, at the beginning of the British Mandate, only 186,000 Arabs lived in the area which is now Israel. The present state of Israel represents a second partition of the original area designated by the Balfour Declaration as the Jewish homeland. In 1922, the two-thirds of Palestine east of the Jordan was set up as the independent Arab state of Transjordan, and the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 further divided an already truncated country.
It is hard for Israelis to understand what violence is done to the national ego of the Palestinian Arab if he is resettled in Jordan (only forty years ago the major part of Palestine) or another underpopulated Arab land. The change from Louisiana to New York or from New York to Nebraska is more dramatic than a move across the borders of the neighboring Arab lands. The same landscape, the same climate, the same language, the same religion, the same ethnic community remain to the Palestinian refugee.
Does the loss of a particular village or courtyard constitute exile as the term is normally understood? In the course of the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, thousands of villagers were relocated by government decree. In preparation for filling the Bratsk reservoir in Siberia, more than a hundred villages and towns, including the 300-year old settlement of Bratsk, were moved to other sites. Nasser and the Soviet authorities acted in the name of progress, whatever the sentiments of the villagers. This is not a frivolous comparison written in disregard of the deep passions generated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, or of the suffering and dislocation that followed in its wake for both sides- in this connection the half-million Jewish refugees from Arab lands should not be forgotten. But most of the subsequent suffering of the Arab refugees has been deliberately provoked for reasons bearing little relation to the needs of the individuals involved.
No one in his right mind would expect Nasser to equate the viability of Israel and the answer it provides to unprecedented human suffering with progress or with any positive achievement. But is it far-fetched to suggest that if relocation may be accepted matter-of-factly for a dam or a reservoir, it can be countenanced where large historic issues are at stake? In the narrow confines of Israel, twice whittled down from the original boundaries of the Promised Land of the Balfour Declaration, there is no room for an uncontrolled Arab influx—not unless the objective of an independent Jewish state be abandoned after the brave resurgence of hardly two decades. Were Israel to be swamped by an Arab tide, its inhabitants lost in an Arab sea or, as is daily threatened, driven into the sea, would justice be served?
Admittedly, the lot of the Arab refugee is miserable. Even though physical conditions in the camps maintained by UNRWA compare favorably with the standard of living of the local population, no one will pretend that camp existence is normal. However, the refusal of the Arab countries to permit the liquidation of the Arab refugee problem, their artificial maintenance of the refugees as a rallying-cry against Israel, is motivated by purely political considerations. Arabs make no secret of the fact that they view the refugees as “the corner-stone of the Arabs’ struggle against Israel. . . the refugees are the armament of the Arabs and Arab nationalism” (Egyptian Government Radio, Cairo, July 19, 1957).
From the point of view of Arab belligerence, this makes good sense; it keeps the pot boiling and prevents a peaceful accommodation to contemporary realities. Nasser put it succinctly when he told an interviewer in Zuercher Woche (September 1, 1961) that “If the Arabs return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist.” It is pointless to multiply quotations from Arab statesmen—Iraqi, Saudi Arabian, or Syrian—since none pretends to any other purpose. A resolution adopted at a Conference of Refugees in Syria in July 1957 makes Arab past and current policy crystal clear: “Any discussion aimed at a solution of the Palestine problem which will not be based on ensuring the refugees’ right to annihilate Israel will be regarded as a desecration of the Arab people and an act of treason.”
Those who share the Arab conviction that Israel should be destroyed have good reason to applaud such declarations. I find it hard, however, to understand those who on the one hand accept the existence of the Jewish state as a fact of contemporary history, and at the same time urge the “repatriation” of what has to all intents become an invading army. Israel, a country the size of New Jersey with a population of two-and-a-quarter million, already has an Arab minority of 286,000 (10 per cent) within its borders. The original group of Arabs who chose to remain in the Jewish state has doubled through natural increase and the return of members of families whose admission was permitted by the Israel government. An exercise in arithmetic readily indicates what would happen were a million hostile—or, for that matter, hypothetically friendly—Arabs to enter the country. Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state even if we assume that the threatened physical obliteration of its inhabitants would not take place. That Israel should decline to collaborate in its own destruction is at least as reasonable as the Arab zeal to destroy it.
Were the same criteria applied to the Palestinian Arabs as to other victims of postwar dislocation, resettlement would be viewed as a satisfactory solution. Vast exchanges of populations have taken place in the postwar world. As the result of territorial partitions, there has been an exchange of fifteen million refugees in India and Pakistan; 400,000 Karelians in Finland have been absorbed by the Finns without appeal to the outside world, and 350,000 Volksdeutsche by Austria; the West German Government has successfully integrated nearly nine million refugees from Eastern Germany; the UN Agency for Relief to Korean Refugees, established in 1951 on the pattern of UNRWA, was dissolved in 1956, by which time at least four million Korean refugees had been absorbed. Only the Arab refugees, constantly increasing in number, remain—as a monument to Arab intransigence.
Neutral students of the refugee problem have reached the same conclusion:
I hold the view that, political issues aside, the Arab refugee problem is by far the easiest postwar refugee problem to solve by integration. By faith, by language, by race and by social organization, they are indistinguishable from their fellows of their host countries. There is room for them, in Syria and Iraq. There is a developing demand for the kind of manpower they represent. More unusually still, there is the money to make this integration possible. The United Nations General Assembly, five years ago, voted a sum of 200 million dollars to provide, and here I quote the phrase, “homes and jobs” for the Arab refugees. That money remains unspent, not because these tragic people are strangers in a strange land, because they are not, not because there is no room for them to be established, because there is, but simply for political reasons which, I re-emphasize it is not my business to discuss. (From the report of Dr. Elfan Rees, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and World Council of Churches’ Adviser on Refugees, Geneva, 1957.)
In the years since Dr. Rees rendered his report, the Arabs have continued for “political reasons” to oppose the implementation of all constructive proposals for resettlement. Only on the assumption that Israel must be destroyed does the Arab tactic acquire cogency. Otherwise, the resettlement of Palestinian Arabs among their kith and kin with full international assistance and Israeli compensation for abandoned properties outrages neither the heart nor the imagination. Unless, of course, totally different standards of rectitude are applied to Arabs than obtain for any other group, particularly Jews.
In this discrepancy lies the glaring injustice. Jews can live as an independent national entity only in the minuscule area of the state of Israel. If their longing for national independence is dismissed as a chauvinistic throwback, then the overnice regard for the full appetite of Arab nationalism, including the manufactured one of Palestinian Arab nationalism, is hard to justify on moral grounds. Nationalism cannot be revered in one and condemned in the other. To the primitive argument of ownership—this is ours and we want it back, and your need and our abundance have nothing to do with the case—one would have to counter with the history of Zionist colonization. Israel did not appear as a conquering invader. The state represents the culmination of decades of peaceful settlement sanctioned by international agreements, just as the sovereign Arab states liberated from the Turks are the result of such agreements. It would be pointless at this stage to rehearse such familiar events.
When Mrs. Golda Meir, Foreign Minister of Israel, was asked by a correspondent how the Arab refugee problem would be solved, she answered, “When the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” She might just as well have said grandchildren, for in this current General Assembly debate on the Arab refugee problem the question of UNRWA support for the grandchildren of refugees has arisen. For how many generations is a refugee a refugee? By now UNRWA has spent $450 million without being allowed by the Arab states to utilize these enormous funds to implement any of the constructive proposals for resettlement which have repeatedly been made. Another curiosity of the UN relief program is the maintenance on its rolls of members of the Ahmed Shukairy’s Palestine Liberation Organization, a frankly revanchist army sworn to the destruction of a member state of the United Nations, and held temporarily in check only by Nasser’s declared unreadiness for hostilities in Israel. The debate at the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly has been enlivened by the pressure of thirteen Arab states for the recognition of the Shukairy battalions; in the same breath they interpolate into these demands equally impassioned ones for “repatriation-basing themselves on Paragraph 11 of a UN resolution of 1948 which recommends that “refugees wishing to live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” (my emphasis).
None of this makes sense except from the point of view of Arab war aims. But I am concerned here not with the rationale of Arab hatred nor with the reasons governments of East and West may have for wooing oil-rich Arabs rather than a handful of Israelis. In each instance the motivations for belligerence or compromise are self-evident. But I do remain troubled by the moralists, Jewish and non-Jewish, who blandly, and I think sanctimoniously, fail to weigh the Arab and Israeli case in the same scale.
An old Druse sheikh whom I encountered in my tour of Arab villages in 1948 volunteered an explanation of the Arab defeat. He made his point through a tale of the dog and the deer, translated to me by an Israeli interpreter. The dog’s master had bidden him to catch the deer but the deer always outran the dog. Finally the dog asked the deer, “I am stronger than you; why do you always win?” The deer answered, “I can run better than you because you run at your master’s bidding only to do me hurt, whereas I run for my life.” Some will no doubt assume the Sheikh was brainwashed by the Israeli victors; I prefer to believe that he was exceptionally perceptive. He understood the nature of necessity and how it differed for Arab and Jew.
The difference remains. While no people has known such extremity as the Jews, of no people is so much demanded. No other people is high-mindedly adjured to collaborate in its own effacement (repatriation); no other people is expected routinely to perform the David-Goliath act (little Israel can take care of itself, whatever the disparity in arms and numbers); no other people is accused of national greed for treasuring a crumb from the banquet where others feast; and no other people castigates itself with such perverse enthusiasm.
Finally, no other people has witnessed such a travesty of its bitterest agony. The dread terms of recent Jewish experience—camp, homelessness, refugee—are used to describe a situation so fundamentally different that the adoption of this nomenclature becomes a mockery. Repatriation is another term too lightly used. Those who for humanitarian rather than political reasons support repatriation for the Arab refugees fail to distinguish nostalgia for a home town—no doubt intense originally and now inflamed by two generations of enforced abnormal living—from the actuality of exile. This uncritical and perhaps unwitting readiness to sacrifice Israel in the name of justice shows again by what dissimilar yardsticks the respective situations of Arab and Jew are measured.