On Thursday, President Obama delivered an important speech on the Middle East, in which he asked the majority of Israelis and Palestinians to “look to the future rather than be trapped in the past.” If we focus on the past, we will be chained in “shackles,” Obama declared.

At the same time, however, Obama explained that, to resolve the conflict, there is a “wrenching and emotional issue” that requires attention: “the fate of Palestinian refugees.” This issue, along with territory and security, Obama declared, must be resolved “in a way that is just and fair.”

However, I believe that in the very way that our president tells the Israeli and Palestinian story, he himself has been unfair. It’s a radical idea to fix current events by ignoring history.

Obama has ignored a critical story of the past, that of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, in his most recent speech about Israel.

A full knowledge of history should change our understanding of what is actually “fair” for the present.

The Palestinian refugee story has received much attention, but the parallel story of loss and exile endured by many Israeli refugees, despite its significance, has not received attention.

For example, last Monday The New York Times printed a commentary by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Sixty-three years ago, Abbas writes, he was “forced to leave his home” in the city of the Safed and “flee with his family to Syria.”

Abbas explained that on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations declared its approval of the partition of Palestine. The U.N. resolution called for the territory of Palestine to be divided between Israelis and Palestinians.

After that resolution, Abbas writes, “Zionist forces,” in his words, “expelled” the Palestinians from their territory.

Abbas grew up in a refugee tent camp in Syria, exiled from his birthplace. This is the Palestinian story. They want sympathy for remaining in refugee camps, and they blame Israel and the Jews for their hardships, and for the current refugee problem.

The story that Israelis know as true is much different. The Jews were expelled from their homes in Arab lands in the same way that Mahmoud Abbas claims he was expelled from his home in Israel.

Before the 1947 U.N. resolution, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab lands. Following the 1947 declaration, which advocated two states, one for Israel’s Jews and one for Arab Palestinians, the Jews reacted with gratitude and happiness. The resolution did not meet all the Jewish needs, but there was willingness to compromise.

In contrast, the Palestinians and Arab states reacted with violence to the resolution. This would be a telling moment for the future. As many see it, with every Jewish compromise for peace, Arab violence is sure to follow.

On Nov. 30, 1947, The New York Times reported: “There was an open thread of warning running through all the Arab delegates’ comments on the Assembly’s action. They spoke of bloodshed to come.”

On Dec. 1, the Times reported that in Damascus, “crowds converged on the American and French legations, stoning both buildings and hauling down the flag flying in front of the United States building.”

Syrian President Shukri Bey al-Kuwatli assured the mob: “Partition will not be accepted and will not be enforced before the last Arab is annihilated.”

He declared: “Partition threatens not only Syrian independence but the very being of all Arab nations.”

That same day, the headline announced: “Palestine’s Arabs Kill Seven Jews, Call 3-Day Strike.” The chair of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee declared “a crusade against the Jews.” The Arabs, he said, “would fight for every inch.”

On the same day, rioters in Aleppo, Syria, set fire to one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in the world. As they burned down the holy synagogue, the Arab mob chanted: “Falastin Baladna al Yahud kalabna” — “Palestine is ours, and the Jews are our dogs.”

There are no Jews left in Syria. The Jewish Syrians fled their birthplace. Behind them, they left personal property and emotional memories. This is just one Jewish community in just one Arab town.

Similar stories took place for the Jewish people in other Arab lands. As the children of Jewish refugees went to work building in Israel, the Arab countries to which Palestinians turned have made those Palestinians sit and wait.

The story of the past should be heard, but unfortunately, too often, only one story, the Palestinian story, is told. If Obama truly seeks a “just and fair” resolution, he must seek to understand the histories of both sides.

Similar to the Palestinian refugees, the Jewish people of Arab lands were expelled to Israel.

Their history was difficult, but they focused on the future, ready for a secure peace with one hand, building homes with the other. The Palestinian refugees have been unable to move on and focus on the future in a similar manner.

A full understanding of history frees us to understand this.


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