In March 1968, less than a year after the Six Day War, Rabbi Eugene Weiner addressed my senior high school class at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, Pa. about a moral implication of that war: Arab refugees from the 1948 war now live under Israeli control. Rabbi Weiner, who became a professor of sociology at Haifa University, shared his insight that “refugees from the 1948 war are now our responsibility” and implored Jews to take the initiative to move refugees out of “temporary” UN refugee camps into permanent humanitarian conditions, Israel we will never see peace in our time.
Rabbi Weiner who died in 2003, addressed a roadblock to Middle East peace: UNRWA, an agency created to promote the idea that Arab refugees must remain in:”temporary” facilities and while they wait for ”political solution” Five million Arab refugees and their descendents now endure the indignity of refugee conditions- instead of being encouraged to get on with their lives and not to dwell on the false hope of the “right of return” to villages that existed before 1948.
Instead, the current Palestinian Arab leadership observes the Nakba day n May 15 – the day that marks the Arab League’s failed invasion of the nascent state of Israel in 1948. – and the day that the Arab League relegated Arab refugees from that war to remain in UNRWA refugee camps for perpetuity, under the promise of return to Arab villages that existed before 1948 war.
Why is this Nakba different from previous Nakba observances?
Because this year, upwards 300,000 Palestinian Arab refugees have been forced out of UNRWA refugee camps in Syria, now engulfed in a bloody civil war, catapulted into even worse conditions in Jordan and Turkey. They know full well that they can never return to Syria, and they know that they cannot go back to villages from before 1948..
Most recently, our agency dispatched a reporter to visit a new Palestinian Arab refugee camp in Northern Jordan which is comprised of more than 140,000 refugees who have fled from UNRWA camps in Syria. Our journalist reported that the conditions were horrific. He was not allowed to film anything, however. Yet our reporter brought back the encouraging news is that the new Arab refugee camps in Jordan are by UNHCR- a UN which promotes resettlement of refugees, not the “right of return” to Palestine, and he witnessed the UNHCR staff working tirelessly to find places where these people can move to, so that they can begin a new life of dignity.
Western democracies, which fund 95% of the 1.2 billion dollar budget for UNRWA, can now redirect their energies to remove the blight of refugee camps, instead of supporting a policy that mandates the perpetuity of refugee squalor.
In the spirit of Rabbi Eugene Weiner’s message from 46 years ago, Israel must now lead the way to help Arab refugees forced out of Syria to seek a better life, in permanent humanitarian conditions.
David Bedein is the author of “ROADBLOCK TO PEACE- How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict: UNRWA policies reconsidered”, published on May 1, 2014, the day which marked 64 years since the creationf of UNRWA.