Prof. Irwin Cotler
Prof. Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler: ‘There is no moral or legal basis for the demand that Palestinian refugees be allow to return to the state of Israel’.

‘Arab League’s decision to reject Partition Plan of 1947 and declare war on the nascent Jewish state was responsible for both Jewish and Palestinian refugees’.



Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP and former justice minister in Canada, has said there is no legal or moral basis for the Palestinian demand that the Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel. In an interview with IsraCast, Prof. Cotler contended that the Arab League rejection of the 1947 Partition Plan and its war against the new born state of Israel was responsible not only for the estimated 550,000 Palestinian refugees, but also for the some one-million Jewish refugees who were driven out of Arab countries after their property and assets were sequestered.

Some one-million Jewish refugees were forced to flee Arab counties, compared with an estimated 555,000 Palestinian refugees.

After participating in an inquiry of the Palestinian and Jewish refugee issue in the Middle East, Cotler, a McGill University law professor, contends that it is the Arab League bears responsibility not only for the estimated 550,000 Palestinian refugees, but also for the estimated one-million Jewish refugees who were forced to flee the Arab countries when, rather than accepting what was actually the first two-state solution, the Arab countries declared war on the Jewish state. It was this Arab aggression that created two sets of refugees – the Palestinian refugees, and the Jewish refugees who were uprooted in the Arab countries and forced to flee.

Between 1949-1950 the entire community of Yemenite Jews (about 49,000) immigrated to Israel in 'Operation Magic Carpet'
Between 1949-1950 the entire community of Yemenite Jews (about 49,000) immigrated to Israel in ‘Operation Magic Carpet’

Cotler said the inquiry uncovered an official Arab League document instructing its member states to impose Nuremberg-type laws against their Jewish citizens. This deliberate campaign caused the forced expulsion of considerably more Jewish refugees than Palestinians who fled Israel when the Arab armies attacked the Jewish state. Therefore, there was no moral or legal basis to the claim for the Palestinian right of return to the very state that the Arab side tried to destroy. However, Cotler adds that the plight and suffering of the Palestinian refugees should be addressed from a humanitarian point of view, and this also applied to the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries.

The McGill law professor also took issue with the total exclusion of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries during all discussion at the United Nations for the past 60 years. Cotler notes that the U.N. General Assembly has passed over 130 resolutions on Palestinian refugees without once referring to the Jewish refugees who were forced to flee the Arab states. Nor was there any basis for the contention that Jews lived lives of equality in the Arab countries. On the contrary, on the basis of Islam, Jews were tolerated as second-class citizens.


Transcript of interview with Irwin Cotler

Part one – The facts of Palestinian & Jewish refugee issues

David Essing: Law professor Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP and a former Justice minister in Canada, has participated in a documented study of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries.

Irwin Cotler: Well, the numbers, with respect to Jewish refugees from Arab countries, have been identified country by country, and the total number is some 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Some put the figure even somewhat higher – up to one-million Jewish refugees from Arab countries. With respect to Palestinian refugees the numbers vary depending on the different sources, but my own best appreciation would be somewhere around 550,000 Palestinian refugees in that regard. So that number, from the point of view of comparison, there are considerably more Jewish refugees from Arab countries than there were Palestinian refugees.

David Essing: Yet, incredibly, over the past 60 years, there has been no mention of the Jewish refugees in any of the numerous U.N. resolutions that deal with the refugee issue.

Irwin Cotler: The United Nations General Assembly, for example, has adopted some 130 resolutions with regard to the refugee issue. All 130 resolutions address the question of Palestinian refugees, which I am saying is fair to do, but not one resolution – I repeat – not one resolution ever refers to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In effect, what we’ve seen is that for the last 60 years the whole issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries has been eclipsed and expunged from the Middle East peace and justice narrative.

David Essing: And in this context, the partition plan of 1947, actually the first ever two-state solution to the Arab Israeli conflict.

Irwin Cotler: It spoke then specifically of a Jewish state some 28 times in the partition resolution. As we know, the Jewish leadership at the time accepted it, the Arab leadership did not, and by its own acknowledgement then made war on the nascent Jewish state. The result was two groups of refugees: Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees, resulting from this Arab aggression. In effect, therefore, the Arab countries bear responsibility for not only what is a forgotten exodus of some 850,000 refugees, but a forced exodus, because not only did they make war on the nascent Jewish state, which produced the two groups of refugees, but they in fact, effectively, denationalized their own Jewish nationals, sequestrated their property, ceased their assets, and the like and were responsible for the uprooting and displacement of the Jewish refugees.

David Essing: Irwin Cotler also says that an inquiry into the Jewish refugee issue has uncovered an official Arab League document that instructed the Arab states to adopt Nazi-type Nuremberg laws against their Jewish residents.

Irwin Cotler: There are two things about it that we know and can be documented: the first is that the expulsion in the Arab countries, from which they occurred, did not occur by accident. It was a result of state sanctioned repression, in these countries, which included, again, rather unknown Nuremberg type laws, which were involved in, as I said, the denationalizing of their Jewish nationals, declaring them as being enemies of the state and alike.

And in addition to that, we found a document from the Arab League at the time that called on its member states to do exactly that, which in fact ended up being done. So, in the report that we produced last November, on justice for Jews from Arab countries, rights and redress, we put side by side the Arab League document calling for the actual actions, that are then shown to have been undertaken by the member states of the Arab League at the time.

Part two – Irwin Cotler’s assessment

David Essing: Has the enormity of the holocaust of the European Jews in effect eclipsed the suffering of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, who have been excluded from the Middle East narrative?

Irwin Cotler: There are things in Jewish history which are too terrible to be believed, but they are not too terrible to have happened, and the holocaust in that sense is unique in the enormity of its tragedy, and therefore I make no comparisons at all, ever, with it. At the same time, having said that, while it may have, because of the historical tragedy, overtaken the tragedy of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, that is in part because we have focused on the accountability of the perpetrators of the holocaust, as well as the victims, whom we have brought to justice; whereas, in this instance the perpetrators of the uprooting and displacement of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries have never had to be brought to account. In fact, having the Arab League and the individual Arab countries acknowledge their role and responsibility in the displacement of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and bear, under international law, the duty of redress for those that they have uprooted and displaced.

David Essing: You have said, Sir, that the recent Annapolis Conference on final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the U.S., that could have been a commemoration of the two-state solution from the partition plan of 1947. But what specifically do you think needs to be done now? What should Israel be considering at this point?

Irwin Cotler: Well, I think that we should, as a matter of policy, the international community and Israel as a direct participant in the Annapolis peace negotiations, should ensure that the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is included in the final status core issues. If you look at the narrative, it has Palestinian refugees, Palestinian state, settlements and the division of Jerusalem. That is fine for the narrative of the Palestinians to put forward. But I think there needs to be a parallel representation of issues. We need to discuss Jewish refugees from Arab countries along with Palestinian refugees. The legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East along with an independent Palestinian state. Questions of incitement and terror along with the question of settlements. And the narrative of Jerusalem as it comes from the Israeli side along with that from the Palestinian. What we need is a joiner of issues here, because without that we are, in effect, mis-characterizing the narrative of the Middle East as a whole.

David Essing: When it comes to these issues, there is the very sensitive Palestinian claim of ‘right of return’, and I would like to ask you now, as a professor of law from McGill university, what international law says about such a claim?

Irwin Cotler: With regard to the right of return, there is an international law saying, which says: “ex iniuria non oritur ius,” which means that no one can profit from the commission of an illegal act. You can’t have a situation where the Arab countries and the Arab League as their sponsor are on the one hand themselves responsible for the forced displacement of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, indeed for the two sets of refugees – Arab and Jewish, and then come forward as a claimant for the right of return in a situation where they brought about the expulsion of both sets of refugees to begin with. So I would say, both, as a matter of fact and as a matter of law, that right of return does not in fact exist for the Palestinian refugees, though a right of appreciation of their suffering from the humanitarian dimension must be there, and a resolution of their situation needs to be addressed.

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