They even sound identical. UNRRA, UNRWA. Both are U.N. agencies created to help refugees. One did its job and folded its tent. The other transformed a temporary problem into a massive obstacle to peace.
In November 1943, at the height of the Second World War and the Nazi mass murder of Europe’s Jews, the United Nations established the Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to aid refugees fleeing the Axis aggression. After the end of World War II, UNRRA and its successor, the International Refugee Organization (IRO), helped an estimated 10 million refugees. In both cases, the United States was the largest donor to the unprecedented humanitarian challenge.
By 1947, some 250,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust — classified as “displaced persons” — lived in UNRRA-administered camps located in occupied post-war Germany. These were people whose families, friends, and communities had been wiped out. All communal structures were destroyed. In Poland, Jews who tried to start over were harassed; some were murdered in pogroms. Survivors were desperate, but never desperate enough to want to remain refugees for the rest of their lives. They dreamed of establishing a future for yet unborn children by rebuilding their lives in a Jewish state or finding safe haven in democracies like the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. Nobody expected that the UN would permanently take care of them, their children, and their children’s grandchildren.
The UN made clear to victims of the Holocaust and millions of other refugees that the help was temporary. Even post-war Germany’s reparation program existed exclusively for Holocaust survivors, who had to prove their claim. Victimhood was never meant to be transferable.
The Jewish world awakened to its responsibilities. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee fed and clothed refugees. ORT provided vocational training and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) offered additional help. There were central committees of refugees, in U.S. and British zones in Germany, who pressed for their rights to emigrate to the land of Israel, which won UN recognition as the Jewish state in 1947 — less than three years after Auschwitz's liberation. As Jewish survivors of history’s greatest crimes forged new lives and changed the world for the better, UNRRA and IRO quickly receded as footnotes in history.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) followed a profoundly different path. Instead of helping a half a million Palestinian refugees restart their lives, UNRWA has managed to institutionalize victimhood. UNRWA traces its birth to two U.N. resolutions. U.N. General Assembly 194 resolved, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so.” This led to Resolution 302, in 1950, which formally established UNRWA. Ever since, UNRWA has perpetuated the Palestinians’ problems — not solved them. It bestowed “refugee” status from generation to generation. 68 years later it services 5.3 million Palestinians.
With a mandate to alleviate the plight of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA instead boasts a record of promoting incitement against Israelis, emphasizing the non-existent “right of return” for millions to Israel proper (this would destroy the Jewish state), and using a curriculum that won’t even show the State of Israel on a map. Its textbooks teach that the holiest Jewish sites, from the Western Wall to Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, are exclusively Muslim sites that Jews are trying to steal.
UNRWA facilitates terrorism in Gaza. During the 2014 conflict, terror tunnels, weapons caches, and rocket launchings were linked to UNRWA schools, where Hamas members sit on the faculties and control the teachers union. UNRWA schools suddenly closed on May 14 and 15, 2018, to encourage youngsters to participate in riots at the Israel border, which Hamas planned as the bloodiest confrontation. (Indeed, Hamas admitted that 53 of the 62 deaths from these riots coinciding with the opening of the new U.S Embassy in Jerusalem, were terrorists).
Of the 1.8 million Gazans, 1.4 million are registered with UNRWA as refugees, despite the fact the overwhelming majority of them, their parents, and grandparents were born there. Forty percent of these “refugees” are citizens of Jordan, with full access to rights and services.
Just do the math: Eighty percent of these people are not refugees. By every current definition of "refugee," the U.S. concluded that there are probably no more than 20,000 Palestinians who fit the bill.
Finally, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which cares for over 60 million refugees in 128 countries, has a staff under 7,000. UNRWA employs 30,000!
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s recent announcement that the U.S. was halting further contributions to UNRWA outraged the usual suspects and led Germany, Japan, U.K., and the European Union to rush to the rescue, filling the financial gap. “We’ve thrown $10 billion at Palestinians; peace is not a millimeter closer,” Friedman lamented.
The core of President Trump’s frustrations in advancing peace lies with UNRWA. Jared Kushner, the President’s key advisor, provided this blunt but accurate assessment: UNRWA “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient, and doesn’t help peace,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. is right about UNRWA. There are many other ways to help the Palestinians. Perhaps the latter-day refugees can learn from the grit of Holocaust survivors, who with the help of their Jewish brothers and sisters and U.N. agencies, shed the garments of victimhood in record time and built a real future out of the ashes of the past.
Isn’t it time for the Arab world and the Palestinians themselves to shed the welfare racket and built a future affirming life, not glorifying death?
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean, Director Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization. Abraham Cooper has been a longtime activist for Jewish and human rights causes. His extensive involvement in Soviet Jewry included visiting refuseniks, helping to open Moscow’s first Jewish Cultural Center, and lecturing at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Sakharov Foundation. In 1977, he came to L.A. to help Rabbi Marvin Hier found the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and for three decades Rabbi Cooper has overseen the Wiesenthal Center’s international social action agenda including worldwide antisemitism and extremist groups, Nazi crimes, Interfaith Relations, the struggle to thwart the anti-Israel Divestment campaign, and worldwide promotion of tolerance education. Widely recognized as an international authority on issues related to digital hate and the Internet, Rabbi Cooper was listed in 2017 by Newsweek among the top most influential Rabbis in the United States. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
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