The Case for Palestinian Return
The film, Dr. Strangelove bears the subtitle, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. An alternate, somewhat subversive title for this post might be: “How Israelis Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Right of Return.”
972 Magazine published a post by Tom Pessah which advocated for full recognition of Palestinian Right of Return (ROR). Though I generally haven’t made this subject a major focus here, I have embraced a similar position myself.
Because of the near universal rejection of ROR by Israelis and pro-Israel advocates throughout the world, the concept is widely feared, misunderstood and wrongly vilified. It’s worth addressing these issues in order to set the record straight and push back against the fear-mongering.
While there are numerous reasons Israeli Jews oppose ROR, the primary one involves the supposed “death” of the Jewish state. It was a founding principle of Labor Zionism, inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, that Israel was both a Jewish and democratic state. The two principles were not (at least in theory), as they are today, at war with each other. Rather, they were meant to complement each other. One of the main principles of this form of Zionism was that the Jewish nature of Israel and its democratic nature could co-exist.
That may’ve been somewhat more possible in an earlier era when Israeli Jews were largely secular and secularism was a dominant part of social discourse. But it is no longer possible, as a revanchist form of militant Judaism (I’d prefer calling it settlerism or Judeanism, as I reject it as a normative form of Judaism) has triumphed inside Israel. The State and its political leaders have embraced a form of political Judaism that is much closer to theocracy than to democracy.
Political Islam=Political Judaism
It’s worth noting in a small digression that just as leading Islamophobic theorists decry “political Islam” and deny that Islam is a religion in the western sense, one could make the same argument about Judaism as practiced in Israel today. This religious form, as embraced by settlers and their supporters throughout Israeli society is a militant, ultra-nationalistic, and violent cult; whereas the Judaism practiced in the Diaspora (aside from Orthodox Jews) offers far more emphasis on universalism, prophetic ethics, and social justice. I have often argued here that the former version is far more akin to the very cults which Biblical Israelite prophets inveighed against; except that instead of cults of Baal and pagan temples with cult prostitutes, the Judean cult features the worship of idols like the Kotel and a concocted nationalist myth that God offered a divine property deed to the Jewish people 2,000 years ago.
Returning to our subject, as Israel far more resembles a theocracy or ethnocracy than a democracy, it must become clear that this early conception of a Jewish and democratic state is bankrupt. Liberal Zionists, who harbor vain nostalgic illusions on this matter do not only themselves, but the future of Israel a great disservice by refusing to see the current reality for what it is.
So once we accept that democracy, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists (except in a bowdlerized form for Jews) and that the Jewish identity of the State is also poisoned, what sort of Jewish state are we protecting when we reject ROR? Is the concept of Israel as a Jewish state so sacred that we refuse to see the sort of Jewish state it has become and turn away from this version?
If ROR does come to pass, I am not arguing that religion will not be a significant force in the Israeli society that results. Both Israeli Jews, and Palestinian Christians and Muslims practice their respective religions with great devotion. No society can ignore this. Nor can any society suppress such religiosity. All religions in this future society must be respected. Though no religion should invade the sphere of politics or governance.
This means that Israel would, if ROR happens and Israel embraces full equality for all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity, eventually lose a Jewish majority. But the resulting state would not lose or reject the religious identity of its Jewish citizens. Instead, it would add the religious identity of its Palestinian members into the mix. This would be an enriched, more diverse state, rather than a segregated one.
Fear of Return is an Issue of Power, Not Religion
What Israeli Jews really oppose is their expected loss of political power; their loss of rights and privileges largely denied to the current non-Jewish minority. Just as southern whites adamantly rejected civil rights for their Black minority because it meant giving up cherished power and traditions, Israeli Jews fear the same phenomenon. But just as the transformation of southern society in the 1950s and 60s did not destroy South, but rather enriched it, so too would the full embrace of ROR and equality transform Israel into a different, better, richer and more diverse society.
The world is becoming more global by the day. Businesses and trade flock to countries which are stable, diverse and open to the outside world. Countries which close themselves off from the outside, which suppress their own citizens and declare themselves homogeneous, are moving in the wrong direction from the rest of the world. Though Israel may not yet feel such effects, they are on the wrong side of history and international economic trends.
Opponents of ROR also argue that the ensuing flood of refugees would destroy the Jewish character of Israel. They talk about millions of Palestinian refugees returning and swamping the current inhabitants. This claim too is greatly overblown. Demographers working on alternative plans for the Israeli future believe there are approximately 6-7-million Palestinians who are Nakba refugees or their direct descendants. The number of how many would choose to return physically to Israel would depend on the reparation-compensation package offered by Israel and western sources. Some experts estimate that 400-600,000 would return, while the rest would accept a financial package in exchange for exercising their right of return. That constitutes less than 10% of those who would be eligible to do so. Considering the generosity of the financial package offered to returnees who choose not to exercise their right of return to Israel, and the fact that a significant portion of these refugees have successfully resettled in third countries over the ensuing 70 years, that figure seems reasonable.
400-600,000 is approximately 5% of Israel’s current population. In the 1980s and 90s, Israel absorbed 1-million Jewish immigrants fleeing the former Soviet Union. At that time, it was more than 15% of the population. Though it’s true that the Soviet Jews had a major difference with Palestinian returnees in that they were Jewish, there were other huge social gaps between the Russian immigrants and Israel’s population. The Soviet Union was a socialist, authoritarian society quite alien from Israel’s western-oriented democratic orientation.
The Palestinian returnees would hail from scores of countries. Many would come from refugee camps to which they were driven by Israeli expulsion. But hundreds of thousands would likely come from western countries in which they have found second homes after they were driven from Israel. The adjustment these individuals would have to make to living in Israeli society would be smaller than what any Soviet immigrant ever experienced.
Israelis harbor a fear that the returnees would seek to eliminate them or severely discriminate against them. Ironically, they fear precisely the treatment they are currently meting out to Israeli Palestinians. But the truth is that Israeli Palestinians do not harbor the same sort of violent hostility towards Israeli Jews as the latter feel toward their fellow Palestinian citizens. On the contrary, they are loyal members of society. They identify as Israelis (though there is hardly any real Israeli national identity separate from religion). Were they to be fully embraced in a society according them equal rights, they certainly would serve in the military, as they largely refuse to do now (the State largely prefers it that way) due to their second-class status. Military service is currently an important measure of social assimilation and it would be important for Palestinians citizens to enjoy these benefits as well.
Curiously, when touting the Israeli Miracle, pro-Israel advocates note that Israel is an economic engine. They call it the Start-Up Nation. They boast about the wealth being generated by Israel’s major export industries (while ignoring the wide disparity of wealth between the rich and poor sectors of society).
Yet these same Israel boosters ignore the economic boom that would accompany the resettlement of a half-million new immigrants. Billions in international aid from Arab and western states would flood the country in response to a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These funds would be invested in building new communities for the returnees and building housing for them within existing communities. New roads, hospitals, schools and commercial businesses would be created. In addition, the tens of thousands of business-people, professionals and entrepreneurs among them would bring their own wealth to invest in new enterprises. All this economic activity would fuel tremendous growth which would, in turn benefit all Israelis, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Nakba, the expulsion of nearly 1-million Palestinian residents of Israel (or 80% of their population in 1948) was Israel’s Original Sin. It is a fundamental moral blemish on the State. It must be rectified before the State can be normalized and fully accepted on the world stage. Implementation of the Right of Return is the only way to do it.
Instead of fear, Israelis should consider an entirely different, more optimistic narrative as a possibility for the future. They may not know this now, but I fear it is the only viable path for Israel’s long-term survival. Its current path is leading to a dead-end.
The Arc of Justice and History
The history of this region (and the Jewish people) isn’t measured in years, decades or even centuries. The ancient Israelites existed in this region for millennia. Whether they will continue to exist is an open question. Remember the Jebusites, Amakekites, Moabites? Gone, exterminated by the Children of Israel in their conquest of the Land of Israel.
And as for us we were, according to the biblical narrative, slaves in the land of Egypt for 400 years before our liberation. The vicissitudes of our existence after that were tumultuous as well. A temple destroyed. Our people driven into exile. As second temple destroyed and another 2,000 years before a new state was declared.
We have no guarantee of continuity. We could easily go the way of the scores of tribes before us lost to history. Whether we survive another millennia depends on how pragmatic and flexible we are as a people. The notion that we can impose ourselves by force of will or weapon on multitudes arrayed against us is foolhardy in the long run. It is better to get enough, rather than everything. Those who hold out for everything may end up with nothing.
15 thoughts on “The Case for Palestinian Return – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Correction on your final line, “its (not it’s current path is (not is leading) a dead-end“
Gazans, Lebanese and Syrian Palestinians would claim there right to return, en masse. So would any Palestinian living in any insecure country, hedge his bets and claim his right to return in order to have dual citizenship.
How about a Palestinian couple that opt to return to the New Palestine and get benefits and housing, while their kids ‘stay put’ in their host country and get compensation. Then, the kids and the grandchildren start drifting, illegally, into the new Palestine but flush with cash.
Oh, by the way. Israel will soon be one of the hottest and driest countries in the world due to global warming.
It will be quite a show when millions of new immigrants start competing with the natives for ever dwindling resources.
Tom Pessah? He’ll stay in Norway or Denmark, wherever he is now.
Ed, I had no idea you’d become a demographer. You here perfectly replicate the histrionics of the pro-Israel crowd. 7 million Palestinian refugees are all marching in lockstep toward the Israeli border, prepared to overrun it & turn Israel into Ain Hilweh or any of hundreds of other Palestinian refugee campus. Calm down, buddy. It’s not gonna happen.
You remind me of the guy at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 who stood up during the debate about any number of crucial issues defining the future of the nation, and asked: “What about jaywalking? How are we gonna deal with jaywalking?” My advice to you: worry about the big issues. The smaller issues will sort themselves out. You can come up with a thousand reasons not to do something. And none of them amount to a hill of beans. You’re just blowin’ smoke.
Overpopulated Gaza will be unliveable in a few years. Syria is a war zone. And Palestinians are relegated to living in refugee camps in Lebanon. Why wouldn’t the come and live in Israel?
And right. Tom’s plan, pulled out of a unicorn’s butt, isn’t going to happen.
If Israel was smart it would organize a massive reconstruction program in Syria, Lebanon & Gaza that funded housing & other improvements so that refugees would be willing to stay and not return. That will require massive outlays of capital.
BTW, Israel created the refugee crisis by expelling them. Israel is responsible for them all wherever they are now. If it doesn’t want them to return it should do all in its power to persuade them that they’re better off where they are. Persuasion by making their refugee homelands more hospitable and economically viable than they are now.
You’re done in this thread.
Richard, the possibility of mass movement of Palestinians to Israel is very possible and with the shekel being one of the strongest currencies in the world last year, there is no denying the Israeli economy is doing great.
Why would anyone stay in a refugee camp where he can move to such an economy.
Can you or anyone guarantee it won’t happen? Let me guess, NO!
And what you wrote later about Israel responsibility might be true but it has nothing to do with ‘the case’ you presented.
@ Ariel Koren: A few tips: first, read the comment rules; second, read the comment preceding yours and don’t repeat their arguments (as you’ve done here).
Of course there will be “mass movement” of Palestinians to Israel. 1-million were expelled. So a portion of these individuals and their direct descendants will return. The U.S. accepted a far greater proportion of immigrants of wildly divergent religions, nationalities, races and ethnicity between 1870-1924 and it made us the great nation we are. Accepting Palestinians will do something similar for Israel over the long run.
As for the Israeli economy, it’s doing great now. In the past, not so much. Things change.
As for why they might refuse to return: make them an offer that is so generous they won’t want to. That’s your problem buddy, not mine.
But at this point your case isn’t “you’ll be fine, there is nothing to worry about” but rather “just pay your way out of it”.
@Ariel Koren: it’s not my job to get Israel out of the bind it got itself into. And Yes, if you expelled 1 million Israeli Palestinians in1948 then it’s your job to undo the damage, or find someone else who will help you.
‘Israeli Palestinians‘ – wow, that’s a new one.
70 years ago the world had about 20 million refugees. 19 million were settled in their new countries and 1 million became somehow 5. Is it a coincidence? Was it planned? How come Palestinians are the only refugees with tailor made agency which instead of rehabilitating them, preserve their misery.
@Ariel Koren: No. It’s actually not new. To you, the Palestinophobe it is new. To Israeli Palestinians It’s not. And actually polls show that Israeli Palestinians want to called this, and not your racist, condescending “Arab.”
Comment rules demand coments not contain racism. You are racist and violate the comment rules.
There were literally scores, if not hundreds of agencies serving WWII refugees, including Jews. You are a historical ignoramus.
There is another possibility, which, while it would hardly constitute justice, might go some way to healing the wounds and permitting peace. This assumes, of course, that Israel actually wants peace — something I genuinely doubt.
What if Israel merely permitted all those literally born in Palestine to return? At this point, that population could hardly consist of more than a few hundred thousand — only a fraction of whom would be physically able to take advantage of the offer?
It would be materially almost meaningless — but it would at least acknowledge that the Palestinians were human beings, with rights ‘n stuff. As I say, assuming Israel actually wants peace, this could be a gesture leading to it.
What Israel wants of course — indeed, needs — is continuing conflict. Only an enemy at the gates gives her the glue necessary for national identity. She merely needs to pretend to want peace. However, in a hypothetical universe where she actually wanted peace, the above gesture could help bring it about.
I think my previous post suffers by attempting to discuss two ideas at once. Let me focus on one of them here: the notion that Israel should want peace.
You assume that she does; that if only she could reconcile the Palestinians, she would. The various Jews inhabiting Israel really share remarkably little. They won’t even attend the same schools. Do secular Russian Jewish emigrants really share much at all with Yemeni Jews, etc?
Isn’t the only thing binding them into a nation the living threat of the ‘other,’ and absent that other, wouldn’t Israel promptly collapse?
In defense of this idea, I’ll point out the sequel to the economic protests that racked Israel a decade or so back. Jews were marching in the streets — and then there was a rather suspicious ‘terrorist attack’ across the Sinai border. I don’t think Israel manufactured the attack, but I am suspicious of how far the raiders got.
In any case, it was all blamed on Hamas, the trumpet was sounded to man the ramparts, Gaza was duly shelled and bombarded until a hundred-plus Gentiles had been killed, and by the time the dust settled, the protests were a thing of the past.
It all rather clearly illustrated the role of the enemy in preserving Israel’s national solidarity. You assume Israel would want to make peace. CAN Israel make peace? Is whatever common identity Jews from Iran, Germany, Morocco, etc share really enough to make a nation? After all, Filipinos, Peruvians, and Swedes all come from predominantly Christian cultures. It doesn’t follow that therefore they could be wielded into one people. Is there any reason to assume that absent a living and present enemy Israel could endure?
Israel may need her Palestinians right where they are; as an infuriated but impotent enemy. Can she afford to allow that status to change?
When you oversimplify reality, it is easy to be optimistic.
In that future country of yours, how, for example, will LGBTQ treated. Like pinkwashing Israel or extra tolerating Palestinians?
@ Calabasa: If Israel treated its Palestinian citizens as fully equal and offered them the same opportunities as Israeli Jews then the former would have come to terms with issues like gay rights. But through Israeli apartheid, its Palestinian population has had less contact with such issues. In a truly equal state, Palestinians will be forced to address & come to terms with gay rights.