By Irwin Cotler
The State of Palestine could have been 65 years old today if the UN partition plan of 1947 had been accepted by the Arab world. A just and lasting peace between two sovereign states is still prejudiced by the false narrative that Palestinians were the only refugees created in 1947.
Today, the Palestinian Authority is seeking Observer Status at the UN General Assembly with a view to securing a UN General Assembly vote later in the day. The November 29 is no random date – it marks the 65th anniversary of the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. It is sometimes forgotten – and often not even known – that this was the first-ever blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian “two states for two peoples” solution. Regrettably, while Jewish leaders accepted the resolution, Arab and Palestinian leaders did not – which they had a right to do if they felt it did not comport with their objectives or interests.
However, what they did not have a right to do was to launch a war of aggression against the nascent Jewish state, which they spoke of as a “war of extermination”. Nor did they have a right to launch a war against their own Jewish nationals – a documented pattern of state-sanctioned repression and persecution – disenfranchising them, dispossessing them of their – detaining, murdering and expelling them. This double aggression resulted in two sets of refugees: Palestinian refugees resulting from the Arab war against the Jewish State, and Jewish refugees resulting from the Arab war against their own Jewish nationals.
Yet the false Middle East narrative – prejudicial to authentic reconciliation and peace between peoples as well as between states – continues to hold that there was only one victim population, Palestinian refugees; that Israel was responsible for the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe) of 1947-8; and that, as Prof. Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut recently wrote – during the Israel-Hamas hostilities – “As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-48 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters”. In his words, “Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact”.
But his revisionist view of history ignores the fundamental fact that had the UN Partition Resolution been accepted, there would have been no 1948 Arab- Israeli war, no refugees, and none of the pain and suffering of these past 65 years. Indeed, this week’s annual November 29 UN-organized International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People might well have been a day commemorating the 65th anniversary of the establishment of both the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.
But, as a result of this false narrative, the pain and plight of 850,000 Jews uprooted and displaced from Arab countries – the forgotten exodus – has been both expunged and eclipsed from both the Middle East peace and justice agenda for more than half a century. Yet, it is a truth that must now be affirmed, acknowledged, and acted upon in the interests of justice and history.
Regrettably, the United Nations also bears express and continuing responsibility for this distorted Middle East and peace narrative. In a word, since 1948, there have been more than 170 UN General Assembly resolutions that have specifically dealt with the Palestinian refugee plight. Yet, not one of these resolutions makes any reference to the plight of Jewish refugees.
While 10 major UN agencies expending billions of dollars have been established on behalf of Palestinian refugees, there is no UN agency – or any money expended – on behalf of Jewish refugees. So much for equal justice.
Thus the question: How do we rectify this historical – and ongoing – injustice?
First, it must be appreciated that while justice has long been delayed, it must no longer be denied. The time has come – indeed it has long past – to restore the plight and truth of this forgotten – and forced – exodus of Jewish refugees to the Middle East peace and justice narrative. Indeed, the UN should take the lead in establishing a center of documentation and research to tell the 850,000 untold stories of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Second, remedies for victim refugee groups – including rights of remembrance, truth, justice and redress, as mandated under human rights and humanitarian law – must now be invoked for Jews displaced from Arab countries.
Third, in the manner of duties and responsibilities, each of the Arab countries – and the League of Arab States – must acknowledge their role and responsibility in their double aggression of launching a war against Israel and their human rights violations against their respective Jewish nationals. The culture of impunity must end.
Fourth, on the international level, the UN General Assembly – in the interests of justice and equality before the law – should include reference to Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in its annual resolutions; the UN Human Rights Council should address, as it has yet to do, the issue of Jewish as well as Palestinian refugees; UN agencies should also address compensatory efforts for Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Fifth, jurisdiction over Palestinian refugees should be transferred from UNRWA to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There was no justification then – and still less today – for the establishment of a separate body to deal only with Palestinian refugees, particularly when that body has been itself compromised by its revisionist teaching of the Middle East peace and justice narrative.
Sixth, any bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – and any and all discussions on the Middle East by the Quartet or others – which one hopes will presage a just and lasting peace – must include Jewish refugees as well as Palestinian refugees in an inclusive joinder of discussion.
Significantly, some Governments have made welcome progress on this question, such as the U.S. Congress in recently adopting legislation recognizing the plight of Jewish refugees and requiring that the issue be raised in any and all talks on Middle East peace. Democratic legislatures around the world should hold hearings on the issue to ensure public awareness and action, to allow for victims’ testimony, and to right the historical record – an effort with which I am engaged in the Canadian Parliament.
The exclusion and denial of rights and redress to Jewish refugees from Arab countries continues to prejudice authentic negotiations between the parties and a just and lasting peace between them. Let there be no mistake about it: Where there is no remembrance, there is no truth; where there is no truth, there will be no justice; where there is no justice, there will be no reconciliation; and where there is no reconciliation, there will be no peace – which we all seek.
Irwin Cotler is the former Minister of Justice and Attorney of Canada. He is a Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University and co-author of Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands: The Case for Rights and Redress.