U.S. Senate Wades Into Thorny 'Refugee' Question

Only Palestinians Who Fled in 1948 Might Qualify

Generation After Generation: Palestinian children play in a West Bank camp. Some believe only those personally displaced in the 1948 war should be characterized as refugees, effectively excluding millions of descendents.
getty images
Generation After Generation: Palestinian children play in a West Bank camp. Some believe only those personally displaced in the 1948 war should be characterized as refugees, effectively excluding millions of descendents.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 12, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Palestinian refugees, longtime pawns in regional and international struggles, have recently become a factor in American politics, as well.

An attempt by the U.S. Senate to define who exactly can be counted as a Palestinian refugee has pitted congressional Republicans and some Israel advocates against the Obama administration. The measure, an amendment to the defense spending bill presented by Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk, would require the State Department to report how many of the Palestinians served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency were personally displaced in the 1948 war. Although the version that was finally [approved}(http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501707_162-57444219/defining-a-palestinian-refugee-a-us-complication/) was watered down significantly, both sides believe it could eventually force the United States to make a concrete determination on the number of Palestinian refugees, which now ranges from 30,000, according to the minimalist approach, to 5 million, as official U.N. numbers suggest.

Beneath the political posturing lies the core question of defining the status of Palestinian refugees. A unique set of circumstances has allowed Palestinians to pass on their refugee status generation to generation, making for a rare, albeit not unheard of, case of a refugee problem that is growing in numbers instead of shrinking.

“At the root of this story is a dividing line between European and non-European refugees,” said G. Daniel Cohen, a professor of history at Rice University who has written extensively on refugee issues. “The Palestinians,” he added, “were the first test case for this division after World War II.”

In the debate, which took center stage in May, each side clings to historical precedents supporting its claim.

For those who believe that refugee status should be given only to Palestinians who were personally displaced during the 1948 war, which led to the creation of the State of Israel, there are two key precedents: the plight of more than 12 million German refugees who were forced out of their countries of residence in postwar Europe, and the case of Indian and Pakistani refugees who were displaced following the partition of India in 1947. In both cases, refugees were resettled in their countries of residence without passing down the status to the next generations.

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,” Gil Troy [wrote in The Daily Beast.

“Look at American Jews,” added Asaf Romirowsky, a conservative researcher who has written extensively about the issue. “We’re all refugees.” Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum, two think tanks that actively advocate for limiting the definition of Palestinian refugee status.

But historic precedents work both ways. Supporters of a broader definition point to the Tibetan population in Nepal and to the scattered Kurdish population as communities that have maintained their refugee status beyond the first generation of being displaced or deprived of their own state. “Replace the word ‘Palestinian’ with ‘Tibetan’ and see what happens,” a senior U.N. diplomat suggested. “Talk to the Dalai Lama and tell him Tibetans aren’t refugees.”

The Palestinian refugee problem dates back to the 1948 war. The creation of the State of Israel came after nearly two years of fighting between the Jewish population and the Arabs of Palestine, supported by surrounding Arab nations. According to estimates, some 650,000 to 800,000 Palestinians either fled or were forced out of their homes, never to be allowed back. Experts believe that 30,000 of those originally displaced are still alive.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.