Exaggerating the Refugee Problem: Response to Lara Friedman’s Open Zion Post “Legislating the Refugee Problem”

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-29-12

The situation in the Middle East is complicated enough without inflammatory oversimplifications. Lara Friedman’s post “Legislating the Refugee Problem,” should be called “Exaggerating the Refugee Problem.” Unfortunately, supposedly pro-Palestinian discourse is rife with such destructive distortions, which undermine the push for a two-state solution.

Friedman charges  that “Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), a Tea Party member… introduced legislation supporting Israeli annexation ‘of Judea and Samaria’—aka, the West Bank.” Following the link she provides, H.RES.394 is called “Supporting Israel’s right to annex Judea and Samaria in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to press for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.” One can still oppose the law, but understanding it as potential Congressional pushback to counter a unilateral declaration by Palestinians fills out the narrative.

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Colombian supporters of Israel demonstrate to back Colombia’s position of not to vote the recognition of a Palestine statehood by the UN, at Bolivar Square in Bogota in October 2011. (Felipe Caicedo / AFP / Getty Images)

Beyond telling half the story, Friedman loves appearing horrified by the mundane. She is outraged that, when serving in the House, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, “made going after UNRWA—the UN agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees—a pet project.” What did this evil man do? She reports: “His efforts have focused on demanding audits and imposing ever-increasing demands for UNRWA accountability as a condition for U.S. funding.” Demanding audits? Seeking accountability? It is indeed shocking when modern legislators stop posturing and start doing their jobs by providing Congressional oversight. But those efforts should be applauded, not condemned.

In fairness, Senator Kirk expanded his mission. He is challenging the accepted UNWRA definition of Palestinian refugees while questioning UNWRA’s overall bias against Israel—although again, Friedman’s links show that Kirk is not proposing an aid cutoff for impoverished Palestinians, which, if mentioned would have made him sound much less Scrooge-like.

Senator Kirk has a point. The Palestinians have long enjoyed extra protection and indulgence from the UN, and especially the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNWRA, first established in 1949. In those days, the world was awash in refugees. There were as many as 40 million European refugees after World War II, and another 14.5 million after the Indo-Pakistan partition plan. Over the next decade, 850,000 Jews from Arab lands would also become refugees, driven out by anti-Semitic fury following Israel’s creation.

UNWRA defines a Palestine refugee as “any person whose ‘normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.’” That makes sense. Whatever caused the displacement—and the historiographical battle rages as to how many fled voluntarily and how many were driven out involuntarily—six hundred to seven hundred thousand Palestinians ended up homeless after the 1948 war. They deserved international assistance. But UNWRA then adds a twist: “Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition” [italics added]. Now, we need George Orwell.

Pop Quiz: What do you call “descendants” of European refugees, Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees, or Jewish refugees from the post-1945 or post-1948 turmoil? Answer: Citizens of their respective lands. The classification “refugee” is a transitory one not an enduring identity willed from one generation to the next—except when we come to the question of Palestine and we see the world’s investment in perpetuating the problem.

This perma-Palestinian-refugee status prolongs the Middle East conflict. I respect Palestinian national identity and endorse a two-state solution. Moreover, I endorse a right of return for the original Palestinian refugees. This incendiary issue could be defused if UNWRA kept to the historic definition and treated Palestinians like all others. Palestinians could become citizens of their new state, once created. The remaining 30,000 or so original Palestinians displaced 64 years ago, could be welcomed back in Israel or compensated. Palestinians could get a symbolic victory of great import to them without threatening Israel or trying to undo six and a half decades of history.

UNWRA’s categorizing inflation reflects its systematic anti-Israel bias. Over the years, UNWRA schools have preached anti-Israel hatred, UNWRA’s director has demagogically attacked the Jewish state, and UNWRA has been part of a network of UN institutions that prolong the conflict by encouraging Palestinian extremism and maximalist demands.

The Zen notion that less is more also applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Less encouragement of Palestinian radicalism would facilitate more progress toward a two-state solution. If the Palestinian goal is creating a Palestinian state and not destroying the Jewish one, being pro-Palestinian must undergo a redefinition which focuses on advancing that goal rather than feeding destructive, maximalist fantasies.  Friedman, UNWRA and so many other undiscriminating cheerleaders are playing the role of enablers, perpetuating Mideast dysfunction rather than providing the perspective and tough love good friends sometimes need.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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