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.