Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not a "Right of Return" Question, or, Josh Rogin Needs To Read Better

Foreign Policy Magazine blogger Josh Rogin has a piece up announcing "White House: Jewish 'refugees' right of return should be 'on the table'".

I read that, and I was rather shocked. "Right of return" for Jewish refugees? That would be rather bizarre. While there were a little less than a million Jewish refugees forced to flee from their homes in Arab countries during the time surrounding the War of Independence, they've never asked for or desired a "right of return". Rather, there demand has always been for monetary compensation for the property they lost (or that was expropriated from them). This, of course, parallels the generally proposed restitution for Palestinian refugees (that it should come via monetary compensation, not a "right of return" to Israel proper). As JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) puts it, the Jewish refugees and their descendants don't want to return back to Libya or Yemen or Iraq. "They want the international community to recognize their plight and integrate full compensation of their lost property as part of a final Middle East peace agreement."

So again, it would be very strange and very interesting for someone to ask about a Jewish "right of return", and it would be stranger still for an Obama administration official to say it is "on the table".

Alas, as it turns out, the simplest explanation appears to be the right one here--Rogin just made the entire "right of return" thing up. Here's the "full exchange", as relayed by Mr. Rogin:
"While Palestinian refugees have concerns that are understandable and need to be dealt with in the peace process, there was no reference in the president's speech to the approximately one million Jewish refugees that emerged from the same Middle East conflict. I'm talking about Jews from Arab and Muslim countries who were forced out of their homelands where they had lived for centuries," said B'nai B'rith International Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield.

"The international community has never acknowledged their rights and their grievances," Fusfield continued, "[C]an the U.S., as the peace process move forward, play a role in advancing the rights and concerns of these Jewish refugee groups and help ensure that as refugee issues are dealt with... that the focus will not just be on one refugee group but on all refugee groups emerging from the same conflict?"

[Obama administration official Ben] Rhodes responded: "Certainly the U.S., in our role, is attuned to all the concerns on both sides to include interests among Israel and others in Jewish refugees, so it is something that would come up in the context of negotiations. And certainly, we believe that ultimately the parties themselves should negotiate this. We can introduce ideas, we can introduce parameters for potential negotiation."

What's missing in that passage? Any mention of a "right of return". It's just not there, Rogin made it up out of whole cloth. I'm not sure why; possibly because he didn't realize there are other ways of "advancing the rights and concerns of these Jewish refugee groups" other than via a "right of return"? That would be weird -- it's not like monetary compensation for historical wrongs is some sort of novel and outlandish proposition. It's frankly baffling how this error was made -- and again, this wasn't a single slip -- he put it in the item title. But whatever -- however it is Rogin went astray, the point is, his post is flatly and flagrantly inaccurate, and needs to be corrected.

I emailed Mr. Rogin informing him of his error earlier today, but I haven't heard back (and he hasn't issued a correction). And in the meantime, since folks on the internet are already making hay over how this is an embarrassment for the Obama administration, it's important to push back against this egregious journalistic error now. Let's be clear -- if an Obama administration official had said this, it would be a grievous mistake. But he didn't say that. This was a case of a journalist completely blowing it, and other folks running with it.

And, as someone who has written before about the history of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and their (typically ignored) claims for restitution, I think it's a terrible thing that -- when a Jewish official (here, from B'nai Brith) finally got that question on the table, and an administration official responded positively to it -- the issue immediately got misrepresented and contorted in a way that only makes it less likely that these people will ever see a dime. Folks like Noah Pollak, who were smugly talking about how there "are no Jewish refugees today", effectively dismiss these people's claims for historical compensation, and betray ignorance of Israel's internal political dynamics, where such restitution is a must-have for certain political parties (notably, Shas) to sign onto any peace deal.

UPDATE: Here was my stab at delineating a just solution for all refugees, a couple years back.

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