Know Your History: Eleanor Roosevelt on Solving the Palestinian Arab Refugee Issue

series where I bring to you news from the archives and historical documents to debunk common misconceptions about the Middle East conflict.


FDR Presidential Library & Museum, CC BY 2.0

Six days a week, from 1935 to 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote “My Day” a syndicated daily newspaper column that reached millions of Americans. She wrote about many things and evaded many others.

As I posted in part 1, she wrote about the establishment of the state of Israel in a 1956 column, and the Arab’s culpability for the ensuing refugee problem.

In another column in 1962, she dealt more with this refugee problem, and how to potentially solve it. She did not believe it was practical or fair to require Israel to allow them all to return.

My Day


HYDE PARK, N.Y—The plight of the Arab refugees who left Israel as a result of the 1948 war in Palestine continues to be a troublesome problem in the Near East after years of fruitless attempts to solve it.

To understand the nature of the problem, one must go back to that unhappy period in 1948, after the U.N. had drawn the boundaries for the new state of Israel. For many years previously, land had been bought by individuals and organizations for the refugees from countries where the Jews were being oppressed. These refugees settled in rural areas, and both Great Britain and the United States had agreed that their settlements in Palestine should be the nucleus of a future homeland for the Jews.

But the Arab states would have none of this. Their attitude was that Israel had no right to exist and hence no right to set up a government. They refused to accept the boundaries drawn by the U.N. and announced that they would drive these few people who called themselves Israelis into the sea.

In the war that followed, as in all wars, there were cruelties and atrocities, and each side felt that the opposing side was the one really to blame. The Arabs in Israel became fearful of the treatment they might receive during the hostilities, whereupon the Mufti in Jerusalem, as the representative of the Arabs, called on them to leave Palestine temporarily until the Arab army had driven the Israelis into the sea. He advised them to leave their possessions behind, and they were taken in British lorries to the nearby Arab countries for temporary refuge.

The Israelis, of course, won the war. Those Arabs who had possessed the courage to stay where they were are still there, in possession of their homes and belongings. But those who heeded the Mufti’s call and fled the land were naturally unable to return. Thus the governments of the Arab states had to set them up in camps and take on the problem of their economic support. This was soon transferred to the refugee agency which has cared for them ever since.

But great difficulties arose in this respect. The economies of these countries were often at such a low ebb that they could not afford to let these refugees work to improve their condition. This has meant a loss of skills for the older people and no chance for the younger people to learn any skills. When I visited them, I felt these were some of the most unhappy and miserable camps I had ever seen.

Fourteen years later, the Arab states still refuse to recognize that Israel exists. They still insist that under a U.N. resolution, these refugees have a right to return and take their old property.

Looked at objectively, I think one must conclude that this is not a straight refugee problem. The situation is the result of a war in which the Israelis were victorious. They cannot displace the refugees who have poured into their country and now occupy the homes which perhaps once belonged to the Arabs, and allow this influx of Arab enemies to come and endanger their safety. Besides, the Arabs who are in Arab countries can easily be given citizenship. In any case, many of them are today old people who cannot earn a living anywhere.

Perhaps the only solution is to give as much education and training as possible to the younger generation, through scholarship supplied by refugee organizations. The Arab governments should be helped to develop such things as irrigation so that they can settle these people on the land. Further help in this settlement could be supplied by technical assistance and the allocation of money for machinery and planting material. To continue keeping these people waiting in the hope of a return to a land where they cannot be accepted is a cruel and shortsighted policy. It seems to me that a real effort should be made to solve this particular refugee problem. It is costing the U.N. and the U.S. considerable sums of money without in any way reaching a happy conclusion.


Patti Munter is the Co-Founder of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Rochester for Israel. Before that, she worked at Rolling Stone Magazine.


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