Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Return Slip

One interesting, albeit rarely discussed, permutation in the Israel/Palestine debate is the question of Jewish refugees. The history of Jews from the Arab world, both generally and immediately proximate to the creation of Israel, is poorly understood among the people of the world, and generally their interests are shunted aside (if not forgotten entirely) in the conversation.

The bare bones version is quite simple: There were approximately 800,000 Jews residing in various Arab countries in 1948, a figure that has crashed to less than 7,000 today. The majority were forced out in the years following Israel's independence, as anti-Semitic pogroms wracked the region and Jews fled to Israel (and other countries) for their own safety. This population displacement parallels the Palestinian refugee problem, where Palestinian residents of what became Israel also were forced to flee in the face of violence and war.

Then we have the population of Jews who lived in parts of what is now the West Bank (e.g., Hebron). The story itself isn't much different (although most of Hebron's Jewish population fled in 1929 after a particularly violent pogrom), but the basics are the same -- Jewish residents who had resided on a given plot of land forced to abandon their property and flee elsewhere. The trick comes, of course, from the fact that much of this territory now is under Israeli jurisdiction. And so this raises the question of whether they should have a "right of return".

My stance has been "no", for the same reasons I oppose return-rights for the descendents of Palestinian refugees, to wit: "I care more about protecting Jewish and Palestinian national self-determination rights and democracy than I do about letting every person live on the precise acre they wish." Insofar as "right of return" conflicts with the projects of creating and maintaining independent Jewish and Palestinian states, it's not worth it. We can query the hypocrisy of "pro-Palestinian" activists who simultaneously call for a Palestinian right of return while protesting in front of Sheikh Jarrah, but the basic principle isn't complicated.

All this is by way of introduction to this letter from the descendent of a Jewish family expelled from Hebron (via). The author is writing to formally disavow any claims to her ancestral property. Noting that her position is in principle no different from Arab families which have deeds to property in Jerusalem or Haifa, she reminds us that it is far too late to turn the clock back to 1948. The project can't be that anymore. The modern project is reaching a territorial compromise so that both a Jewish and Palestinian state can be created and flourish, and that's not going to include letting every person live on the precise parcel of land they might like. It means some Jews' whose families lived in Hebron but were violently forced out won't get to return, and it means some Arabs whose families lived in Jaffa but were violently forced out won't get to return either. It may be tragic, but it is a necessary component of a just peace. Kudos to the writer for a stark demonstration that many people are willing to make that sacrifice.

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