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My family hails from a small Greek village in Anatolia, in modern day Turkey. I have unfortunately never been to my ancestral homeland because I was born a “refugee” in the city of Montreal. Living in the “liberated zone” of Chomedey, one of the biggest Greek communities in Canada, is the closest I’ve ever felt to my beloved Anatolia.


The Republic of Turkey does not have a legal right to exist. It is an illegitimate and temporary colonial project built by and for Turkish settlers from Central Asia. My ancestors resided on the Aegean coast of Anatolia for thousands of years before the first Turks arrived on horseback from the barren plains of Mongolia. I will never relinquish the right to return to my ancestral homeland.


If you think these assertions are ridiculous, it’s because they are. Yet I copied them from the shallow, even childish, anti-Israel discourse prevalent on campuses in the U.S. and Canada, including at the University of Ottawa where I studied and now teach. I am a proud Canadian citizen, with no legal or personal connection to Anatolia. I have no intention, or right, to return to my so-called ancestral homeland. Except, perhaps, for a much-needed vacation. Even then, my stay would be limited to the extent permitted by Turkish law.


The Second Greco-Turkish War concluded with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Among other things, this agreement finalized the forced displacement of nearly 1 million Ottoman Greeks to the Kingdom of Greece, and roughly half a million Greek Muslims to the newly formed Republic of Turkey. Thus ended the 3000-plus year-long Greek presence in Anatolia. The first population transfer of the 20th century would serve as a model for the partition of British India, which saw the emergence of a Hindu majority state (India) and a Muslim majority state (Pakistan), some two decades later.


With their keys and property deeds in hand, my paternal grandmother’s family fled to the Greek island of Samos, on the opposite side of the Mycale Strait at a nearly swimmable distance from the Turkish coast. While they practiced the Greek Orthodox religion and spoke a dialect of the Greek language, they were strangers in a foreign land with no legal or personal connection to the Kingdom of Greece. Forget obtaining compensation for their losses or requesting the right to return to the Republic of Turkey, they were both lucky and grateful to have escaped Turkish persecution with their lives. Even if they were forced to restart from scratch while being discriminated against as foreigners in Greece.


This story is not unique to my paternal grandmother’s family who survived what Benny Morris and Droor Ze’evi call the Thirty Year Genocide. Millions of Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish, Ukrainian, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani, Korean, Bengali, Vietnamese, Cypriot, Lebanese, Azerbaijani, Somali, Rwandan, Bosniak, Congolese, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese families were either raised on similar stories of war or survived forced displacement, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and even state-sanctioned population transfers themselves. Recourse to justice and compensation has always been the exception, not the rule.


Which brings us to the Israelis and Palestinians. In 1947, the United Nations agreed to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish-majority state (Israel) and an Arab-majority state (Palestine). The State of Israel declared its independence pursuant to UNGA 181 the following year. It was then invaded by its Arab neighbors. After winning the war, the Arabs who remained in areas controlled by Israel became Israeli citizens. They make up 20 percent of the Jewish State’s population today. Meanwhile, those who fled abroad or remained in areas controlled by Egypt (Gaza) and Jordan (the West Bank) are now known as the Palestinians.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Arab refugees who fled in 1948, and their descendants, do not have an inherent right to return to the Jewish State. Nor does Jerusalem have an obligation to welcome them back to the country either. In fact, the only way that Palestinians could acquire a right to return to the State of Israel is if the Israeli government gives it to them. Security concerns aside, that is unlikely given the demographic challenge that absorbing millions of Palestinians would pose to the country’s Jewish character. Hence the inevitability of a two-state solution somewhere down the road.


Palestinians are not only at the mercy of Israeli law, however, but also the laws of neighboring Arab states. Lebanon, for instance, hosts hundreds of thousands of stateless Palestinians in 12 refugee camps. Besides being segregated from the rest of Lebanese society, they have few opportunities in the labor market and limited access to public services such as education and health care. Even worse, generations of Palestinians who were born, raised and lived their entire lives in Lebanon still don’t have the right to obtain Lebanese citizenship.


While unjust, this policy is consistent with Lebanon’s refusal to recognize the State of Israel. In the inverted reality prevalent in the Middle East (and on university campuses here at home), the “usurping Zionist regime” and the Jewish “settlers” from Europe and America “occupy” Palestine. One day, this thinking goes, the heroic “resistance” (Iran-backed terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah) will nonetheless prevail against the colonizers. This will enable the refugees from 1948, and their descendants, to finally return to Palestine. Eight decades later, the stateless Palestinians are still waiting for this great victory against the State of Israel.


If the Ottoman Greeks had engaged in this type of denial and “resistance” after Ataturk’s army ended Greece’s irredentist ambitions in 1923, the Hellenic Republic might not have emerged nor survived as a state until the present day. If Greece had treated Greek refugees from Anatolia in the cruel manner that host nations like Lebanon and Syria have treated the Arab refugees from Palestine since 1948, my paternal grandmother’s family would’ve never obtained Greek citizenship let alone made it to Canada.


The brighter path of peace and progress is only possible with introspection. Without it, expect more war, poverty, and suffering. Especially for the stateless Palestinians.

Originally published by National Post on May 7, 2024.

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