the holy land

Marina Gusmão, Jaguar, Digital painting.


A case for the return of Palestinian refugees.

May 15 is called “Nakba Day”, which remembers the 700 Palestinians who were expelled by Israel, or who fled out of fear during the founding of the country in 1948. The remembrance had a special impact that year, given that the expulsion by Israel of six Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem triggered the violent conflict that currently engulfs Israel-Palestine. For many Palestinians, this imminent expulsion is proof that the Nakba has not yet reached its end.

Every year, remembering the Nakba represents a kind of mental struggle to evoke the past and maintain hope that it can be overcome – ensuring that Palestinian refugees and their descendants can return home. In my own community, by contrast, Jewish leaders in Israel and the diaspora want Palestinians to forget the past and look forward. In 2011, Israel's parliament enacted a law denying government funding to any institution reminiscent of the Nakba. Israeli teachers who mentioned her in their classes were criticized by Israel's Minister of Education. Last year, two Israeli writers, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, published an influential book, The Return War, in which they criticized the Palestinian desire for the return of refugees as emblematic of a “retrograde spirit” and an “inability to reconcile with the past”.

I happen to read The Return War in the last year just before Tisha B'Av, the day Jews mourn the destruction of Jerusalem's temples and the exiles that followed. That day, I heard the kinnot medieval, or dirge, which describes these events – which occurred, respectively, 2000 and 2500 years ago – in first person and in the present tense.

In Jewish discourse, this refusal to forget the past – or accept its verdict – provokes deep pride. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin once boasted that Jews "have longer memories" than other peoples. At the end of the 150th century, Zionists took advantage of this long collective memory to create a movement to return to a territory that most Jews had never seen. For two thousand years, Jews have prayed for a return to the land of Israel. Over the past XNUMX years, Jews have turned this ancient yearning into reality. “After being forced into exile from their land, the people retained faith in it during their dispersion,” so proclaims Israel's Declaration of Independence. The State of Israel constitutes “the realization” of this “ancient dream”.

Why would dreaming of return be laudable for Jews but pathological for Palestinians? Asking this question does not imply that the two dreams are symmetrical. Palestinian families who mourn cities like Jaffa or Safed have lived there recently and remember intimate details of their lost homes. They had the experience of Israel-Palestine dispossession. The Jews who, for centuries, mourned the day of Tisha B'Av – and those who created the Zionist movement in the late XNUMXth century in response to rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in Europe – could only imagine this experience.

“You never stopped dreaming” – Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said to an Israeli interviewer. “But his dream was far away, in time and space… I have been exiled for only 50 years. My dream is vivid, fresh”. Darwish noted another crucial difference between the Jewish and Palestinian dispersals. “You created our exile, we did not create yours”.

Yet despite these differences, many prominent Palestinians — from Darwish to the late literary critic Edward Said to law professor George Bisharat and Talb al-Sana, Israel's longest-serving Arab member of parliament — have alluded to the bitter irony of Jews. telling another people to give up their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. We of all peoples should understand how outrageous this request is. Jewish leaders continue to insist that, in order to make peace, Palestinians must forget about the Nakba. But it is more accurate to say that peace will come when the Jews remember. The more we remember why the Palestinians left, the more we understand why they deserve the chance to come back.

Even for many Jews who passionately oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, defending the right of return for Palestinian refugees remains taboo. But if it is wrong to keep Palestinians as non-citizens under military law in the West Bank, and if it is wrong to impose a blockade on Gaza denying them the necessities of life, it is surely also wrong to expel them and forbid them to return home. . For decades, liberal Jews have deflected this argument by resorting to a more pragmatic one: Palestinian refugees should return only to the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of where they came from, as part of a two-state solution that gives both Palestinians and Jews, a country of their own.

But with each passing year, with Israel increasingly consolidating its control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, this supposedly realistic alternative becomes further from reality. There will be no sovereign Palestinian state that refugees can go to. What remains of the cause against the return of Palestinian refugees is a series of historical and legal arguments propagated by Israeli and American Jewish leaders about why Palestinians deserved to be expelled and are no longer entitled to a solution. These arguments are not only unconvincing, but deeply ironic, as they ask Palestinians to repudiate the very principles of intergenerational memory and historical restitution that Jews hold sacred. If Palestinians don't have a right to their homeland, neither do we.

The consequences of these efforts to rationalize and bury the Nakba are not purely theoretical. They are present in the streets of Sheikh Jarrah. Israel's leaders who justify expelling Palestinians today in order to make Jerusalem a Jewish city are simply paraphrasing Jewish organizations who spent several decades justifying the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 in order to create a Jewish state. What the black American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed about the United States and what the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu observed about South Africa – that historical crimes, when left unaddressed, often reappear in a different guise – this it is equally true for Israel-Palestine.

The right of return therefore constitutes more than a simple regret for the past. It is a prerequisite for building a future in which Jews and Palestinians enjoy security and freedom in the land each people calls home.

The argument against the right of return begins with a series of myths about what happened in 1948, the year the British relinquished their control of Mandatory Palestine, Israel was created and the Nakba took place. These myths allow Israelis and Jewish diaspora leaders to claim that, in fact, the Palestinians drove themselves out. […]

The scale of land theft was staggering. When the United Nations approved the division plan in November 1947, Jews owned approximately 7 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. In the early 95s, nearly XNUMX percent of the land of Israel was owned by the Hebrew state […]. As I argued earlier, Jews could not only survive but thrive in a country that replaces Jewish privilege with equality under the law. A rich array of comparative data suggests that political systems that give everyone a voice in government prove, in general, to be more stable and more peaceful for all.

“We are what we remember,” wrote the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. "As with an individual suffering from dementia, so with a culture as a whole: memory loss is felt as a loss of identity." For a people without a state, collective memory is the key to national survival. This is why for centuries Jews in the diaspora have asked to be buried in dirt from Israel. And it is for this reason that Palestinians take land from villages from which their parents or grandparents were expelled. It is grotesque for Jews to tell Palestinians that peace requires them to forget about the Nakba. In our skin, we Jews know that when you tell a people to forget their past you are not proposing peace. You are proposing extinction.

On the contrary, honestly facing the past provides the basis for genuine reconciliation. In 1977, a Palestinian American university student, George Bisharat, traveled to a neighborhood in West Jerusalem and knocked on the door of the house his grandfather had built and which had been stolen from him. The elderly lady who answered the door told him that her family had never lived there. “The humiliation of having to ask to enter my family's home… it hurt inside of me,” Bisharat later wrote. In 2000, having now become a law professor, he returned there with his family. When his wife and children knocked, a man originally from New York answered the door and told him the same thing: it wasn't his family home.

But after Bisharat recounted his experiences, he received an invitation from a former soldier who briefly lived in the house after Israeli forces took it over in 1948. When they met, the man said, “I'm sorry, I was blind. What I did was wrong," and then added, "I owe your family three months' rent." In that moment, Bisharat says, he experienced "an untapped reservoir of Palestinian magnanimity and goodwill that could transform relations between the two peoples and make possible things that are not possible today."

There is a Hebrew word for this former soldier's behavior: teshuvah, which is usually translated "repent." With a certain irony, its literal definition is “return”. In Jewish tradition, the return should not be physical; it can also be ethical and spiritual. Which means that the return of Palestinian refugees – far from requiring Jewish exile – could be a kind of return for us as well, a return to traditions of memory and justice that the Nakba evicted from organized Jewish life. “The occupier and myself – we both suffer from exile.” Mahmoud Darwish once stated. “He is an exile in me and I am the victim of his exile”. The longer the Nakba lasts, the deeper this Jewish moral exile becomes. By facing it squarely and starting a process of reparation, Jews and Palestinians, in different ways, can once again begin to return home.

*Peter Beinart is editor of Jewish Currents. He is Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Translation: Paulo Butti from Lima.

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.


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