11/09/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Justice for Refugees

From James Dorsey's post on The Huffington Post ("The Issue of Arab Jews: Manipulating a Justified Cause"), you would infer that the 50 percent of Israel's Jews who descend from refugees from Arab and Muslim lands have no right to public recognition. As far as Mr. Dorsey is concerned, their issue represents political machinations by the Israeli government to undermine Palestinian rights.

He questions the Israeli government's right to speak up for the majority of Jewish refugees from Arab lands -- the 650,000 who resettled in Israel. These are not "Arab Jews": In most cases, their ancient communities dated back well before the Arab-Muslim conquest. If Mr. Dorsey wants to speak of the "original owners" of the land, native Jews have a better claim than Arabs.

The Israeli government has not just woken up to the existence of Jewish refugees. UN SC Resolution 242 of 1967 was deliberately worded to refer to "refugees," not just Arab refugees. In 2010, the Israel Knesset passed a law demanding that Jewish refugees be included on the peace agenda. If the Israeli government is not the legitimate representative for these Jews, who is?

Jews in Arab countries hundreds of miles away from the battlefield were scapegoated for persecution and mass ethnic cleansing, a process that began even before the establishment of Israel. Only 4,000 Jews remain in the Arab world out of a million. Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, were caught up in a local war launched by their own leadership. Yet a million Arabs are today citizens of Israel.

Jewish refugees were successfully resettled in Israel and the West. The Palestinian refugee problem, perpetuated by UNWRA, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, could be resolved at a stroke if the Jewish model of resettlement were followed and Palestinian refugees absorbed in Arab host countries. The plight of the Arab refugees languishing in camps and deprived of civil rights is not only counter-intuitive, it is an abuse of their human rights.

What is disturbing, however, is that a senior Palestinian official has said that Palestinian refugees will not be permitted to become citizens of a Palestinian state. In other words, the creation of a Palestinian state will not end the conflict with Israel.

Contrary to what Mr. Dorsey claims, the Palestinians are more wedded than ever to their "right of return" to Israel. Last week, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas tried to renounce his personal "right of return," but was forced by public outcry to backtrack. Indeed, 89.5 percent of Palestinians approve a "right of return" for the Arab refugees of 1948. Their numbers have ballooned to more than 4 million because they are the only refugees in the world permitted to pass on their status to their descendants.

The Palestinian demand for a "right of return" amounts to the destruction of Israel by demographic means and the "de facto" creation of two Palestinian states, one in the West Bank, and one in place of Israel. (That is why Israel is insisting on Arab recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state.")

On the other hand, no Jew seeks a "right of return" to Arab states. Apart from the upheaval generated by a further mass migration, a Jewish "right of return" to Arab countries poisoned by anti-Jewish hatred is unthinkable. Wild horses would not drag three generations of Jews, permanently integrated in Israel and the West, back to lands that are neither hospitable nor safe.

And if one set of refugees can't return, neither should the other.

What the two groups of refugees have in common is that roughly equivalent numbers exchanged places in the Middle East. This irreversible exchange, a not-unusual feature of 20th century conflicts, opens a political window of opportunity for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute.

This does not mean that refugees on either side should be denied compensation. The Israeli government has endorsed the idea of an international fund, as proposed by President Clinton at Camp David in 2000.

Even if material claims are settled, nothing can heal the mental scars of humiliation and dispossession, or replace loved ones abducted or murdered in Arab lands, or those who did not survive for long the trauma of their uprooting. But justice for refugees would certainly help build a peace founded on truth.