Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Right of Return, Inc.

In Claude Lanzmann's extraordinary film, Shoah, there are several episodes where Lanzmann and his translator visit Polish towns that once were homes to large numbers of Jews. Sometimes their local guides evince a certain discomfort when pointing out that this house was 'Jewish', or that store was 'Jewish', or that street was 'Jewish'. Of course, all these establishments are now occupied by Poles. Of course, there were never any suggestions that those Jews would one day return to reclaim their house/shop/street. Of course, the vast majority of those Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and the very few who did return (or survived) would have been subjected to pogroms like the one that occurred in Kielce in 1946. Of course, idiots like Helen Thomas, don't care to know about such things.

In the Middle East, there are houses and shops and towns that were once populated by Jews. They cannot return to reclaim their confiscated property. About 600,000 of the 800,000 of those Arab Jews who fled -- ethnically cleansed -- were taken in by Israel where they were helped to settle, and ultimately, after unquestionable difficulties, made decent lives for themselves.

For the majority of the 4 to 5 million Palestinians who descend from the original (high estimate) 800,000 who fled/expelled, the dream that they will return to their house/shop/village is very much alive -- a teenager born in Lebanon will tell you that he wants to return to his family's home in Jaffa -- despite the fact that this will never happen. As Khaled Abu Toameh says, "No Arab or Palestinian leader has ever dared to confront the refugees with the truth, namely that they are not going to move into Israel. On the contrary, Palestinian and Arab leaders continue to tell these people that they will go back to their former villages and towns.

Arab and Palestinian governments are lying to the refugees because they want to avoid any responsibility toward their plight. The Arab governments hosting the refugees have done almost nothing to improve the living conditions of the refugees.

On the contrary, Palestinian refugees living in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have long been subjected the victims of racism and other repressive and unjust measures and laws that deprive them even of basic rights. Governments such as Jordan receive a payment for each refugee, turning the refugees into nothing more than property, like stocks on Wall Street."

Worse, organizations of the international Palestinian solidarity movement are helping to keep those useless dreams alive by maintaining the Right of Return as a first principle of their 'struggle for peace and justice'. 

They irresponsibly fetishize and aggrandize dreams of home to the exclusion of fighting for a better life in the here and now. If you squint, it could almost look like religious devotion, a kind of mirroring of Judaism's 3,000 year longing for the return to Israel. I am not talking here about historical memory as a right of any people, I am talking about the charlatan exploitation of memory for deliberate political ends. It should not have to be said that insistence on a return is antithetical to a two state solution and would destroy Israel as a home for the Jewish people. These organizations know this, promote this, yet seem to find an audience that is only asking for peace.

Holding the keys to the house from which he fled, this
Palestinian is the 'mascot' of
One such organization, Zochrot, is Israel based with a leadership of Jewish activist-academics. They participated in the 2008 Right of Return conference in Haifa along with such legendary Jewish anti-Zionists as Ilan Pappe and Uri Davis. Zochrot -- feminine for memory -- presented a paper, "Thinking Practically about the Return of the Palestinian Refugees," which gives detailed specifications for how the return should proceed and is worth reading if only for the parallel-universe-preposterousness of it. Here is how they introduce the paper:

"Every person who was expelled in 1948, and their descendants, has a right to return; it’s a right that is personal as well as collective.  This means that each refugee and his or her descendants have a right to choose among alternatives: returning to their former home (or nearby, if it no longer exists), receiving compensation, or resettlement in the original locality or elsewhere.  Implementation of the right of return does not necessarily mean, as people mistakenly suppose, that the refugees will actually come back.  Very often people ask, How long will the descendants of Palestinian refugees be themselves considered refugees?  How many more generations of refugees will be born?  We believe that the answer is – until the refugees and their descendants are given the opportunity to choose whether to return; in other words, until their right of return is implemented.  Their freedom to choose where, and with whom, to live – and to gain the full rights of citizenship – is their road to liberation from the difficult condition of being a “refugee.”"

Nice. If only all the world's refugees had such a gold-standard resettlement plan. If only such consideration were given to the Palestinian refugees in the actual countries where they were settled, to have lived in dignity for the past 63 years, and to live in dignity the rest of their lives.


  1. Many of the original Palestinian refugees did not own the homes they were living in.


  2. If they were allowed the right claimed, which they are not, I wonder how many would choose to re-settle in their state of habitual residence or nationality and opt for compensation?


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