From an Era of Refugee Millions, Only Palestinians Remain


Nov. 21, 2014 6:49 p.m. ET

The 1940s and ’50s saw huge forced moves of population groups—people who put down roots and started over.

On Tuesday, as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza celebrated the murder in a Jerusalem synagogue of five Israelis, the Spanish Parliament happened to be passing a nonbinding motion urging its government to “encourage the recognition of Palestine as a state.” Last month, Sweden became the first European Union member to officially recognize Palestine as a state, and parliamentarians in England and France have similar legislation in the works.

As anti-Israel sentiment grows in Europe—and in the U.S., where the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement has taken hold on many college campuses—calls for an immediate resolution to the Palestinian “refugee” problem abound. To hear some in the anti-Israel movement today, one might imagine that the Palestinian exodus was a unique occurrence in modern history, that no other people have ever been moved off what they considered to be their ancestral lands.

The truth is that such movements—including that of the Palestinians—happened so often in the mid-1940s to early 1950s that it is surprising that the plural of the word exodus—exodi?—is not used in reference to this period.

For all sorts of reasons, ethnic groups were either forcibly or voluntarily moved during that troubled period, and usually in far worse circumstances and for far longer distances than the Palestinians. There were no fewer than 20 different groups—including the Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus of the Punjab, the Crimean Tatars, the Japanese and Korean Kuril and Sakhalin Islanders, the Soviet Chechens, Ingush and Balkars—many in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who were displaced and taken to different regions.

Yet all of these refugee groups, except one, chose to try to make the best of their new environments. Most have succeeded, and some, such as the refugees who reached America in that decade, have done so triumphantly. The sole exception has been the Palestinians, who made the choice to embrace fanatical irredentism and launch two intifadas—and perhaps now a third—resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis.

After Germany lost World War II in 1945, more than three million of its people were forced to leave their homes in the Sudetenland, Silesia and regions east of the Oder and Neisse rivers—lands that their forefathers had tilled for centuries. These refugees embarked on a 300-mile journey westward under conditions of extreme deprivation and danger with only what they could carry in suitcases.

One can’t be expected to sympathize too much with people who had enthusiastically supported Adolf Hitler, but among them were children who were not responsible for the sins of their fathers. Having reached the new borders of East and West Germany, as delineated by the victorious Allies, they settled and made no irredentist claims to Poland and Czechoslovakia, the countries they had left. Today those once penniless refugee children include some of the most successful people in Germany, a country they helped make a prosperous, model democracy.

Across the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, the paranoiac evil of Joseph Stalin ensured that entire peoples, sometimes numbering in the millions, were moved from one side of Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. to the other. Some, like the Cossacks who had fought for Hitler, were massacred wholesale when they fell into the hands of Stalin or his satellite henchmen, such as Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Tito.

Millions of other people, as part of Communist schemes unrelated to the war, were “relocated” to Siberia, the Crimea or Central Asia, often many hundreds of miles from their ancestral lands and under the harshest conditions short of genocide. In all, forced internal migrations of the Tatars, Volga Germans, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskheta Turks and other ethnic groupings numbering some six million led to the deaths, according to the Soviets’ own figures, of up to 1.5 million, including 46% of the Crimean Tatars. Yet there are no appreciable irredentist movements among these former Soviet citizens today. They made the best of a new reality rather than carrying on a decades-long and ultimately hopeless struggle to return.

Similarly, the late 1940s saw massive population transfers in the Punjab and Northwest Frontier territories of India when the British brought their empire there to a close in 1947. Some 16 million people crossed between the new states of Pakistan and India, leading to the deaths of between one-half and three-quarters of a million people in the communal massacres that ensued.

Yet while there are severe border disputes still between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, practically no one from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities is today agitating for restitution of the lands their forefathers farmed or owned in Punjab, the Northwest Frontier or elsewhere. There is distrust, but modern Indians and Pakistanis have moved on. The same is true of other parts of the world, such as Burma and South Africa, which also saw ethnic upheaval in the late-1940s.

Sadly, it has been the Arab states’ cynical and self-interested policy for nearly seven decades to keep the Palestinians boiling with indignation. No one can doubt that for those who have continued to live in camps intended for long-ago refugees, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, when thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled, was indeed a catastrophe. But many other peoples have learned to deal with equal or worse by moving onward and upward; calling them refugees several generations after their forebears’ upheaval would be unthinkable. The lessons of history are rarely enunciated more clearly.

Mr. Roberts is the author, most recently, of “Napoleon: A Life,” just out from Penguin.