The Wars Will End When Palestinians Can Return

I’m sorry that this newsletter is late. I’ve spent the last few days frantically working—with the help of my extraordinary Jewish Currents colleagues—on an essay I began nine months ago entitled “Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return.” (If 6,000 words on the Nakba is too depressing for you, the New York Times published a shorter version on Wednesday).

By the time I finished the essay, Israelis and Palestinians were at war. I pray that everyone reading this—whether you’re in Gaza, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Lod/Lydda or anywhere else—is safe.

Let me start with the war and then circle back to the essay because they’re connected. There are lots of people one can blame for this terrifying spasm of violence: Settler groups, which have been working to expel Palestinians from East Jerusalem neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah; the Israeli police, for brutally repressing Palestinian protests, including at Al Aksa mosque; Mahmoud Abbas, for cancelling elections that might have offered Palestinians some other outlet for political action; Hamas, which by launching rockets from Gaza has distracted from a popular, largely nonviolent uprising, and made it easier for Israel to justify using brutal force. 

But let’s focus on the Biden administration. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, the Biden administration came into office with one overriding goal: Avoid Israel-Palestine. It wanted to focus on Asia. It knew it would have enough trouble with the Israeli government over Iran. The contrast with the Obama administration couldn’t have been starker. Obama launched his presidency by appointing a high-profile special envoy, George Mitchell, to jumpstart the peace process. Biden has given the Israeli-Palestinian file to a deputy assistant secretary of state.

The problem is that what the Biden administration means by “avoid Israel-Palestine” isn’t actually “avoid Israel-Palestine.” Biden is still giving Israel $3 billion in military aid per year; he’s still ensuring that Israel enjoys impunity in international institutions like the UN and the International Criminal Court. What he wants to avoid, above all, is a fight with Israel that could prove politically costly at home. Biden is avoiding the issue of Israel-Palestine in roughly the same way Donald Trump avoided the issue of climate change. He’s ignoring the problem and fueling it at the same time.

In so doing, Biden helped create the current violence. His administration could have pressured Israel to stop evictions in East Jerusalem. It could have pressured Israel to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote, which would have made it harder for Abbas to cancel Palestinian elections. It could have let Israeli voters know there would be a price to pay for continuing to elect governments that entrench Israeli control over millions of Palestinians who lack basic rights. It did none of this. Instead, the Biden administration spent its first few months pumping the political equivalent of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere with its unconditional support for Israel while hoping those gasses wouldn’t create a disaster. Now they have.

What set off the disaster was the effort by Jewish settlers and Israeli officials to expel Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which constitutes part of a larger effort to Judaize Jerusalem. And the reason that expulsion cuts so deep for Palestinians is that Israel was founded on an act of mass expulsion, the Nakba.

That’s what I’ve been writing about for nine months. I had the idea late last summer, during Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. I was listening to medieval Kinnot, or dirges, which speak about those destructions in the first person and present tense and it suddenly struck me that there’s something absurd about the Jewish effort to convince Palestinians to forget about the Nakba and give up on returning to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948. How can Jews, who did not give up on returning to our homeland for two thousand years, tell Palestinians to do so after 75? Do we think we’re the only ones who know how not to forget?

What I hoped to do in my essay was puncture, if only a little, the taboo that still exists, even among many liberal Jews, about the Nakba and Palestinian refugee return. I tried to do that by answering the arguments Jewish leaders often use to rationalize what Israel did in 1948 and by answering the arguments Jewish leaders use to deny that Palestinian refugees have a historical, legal, or moral right to return. I also tried to explain how refugee return might work, and why it need not lead to Jews being forced from their homes.

Above all, I wanted to show that Jews can support the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland without denying that Israel-Palestine is our homeland too. To the contrary, we can use our own devotion as a means of understanding, and honoring, the devotion that Palestinians feel. I think sometimes Jews feel that if they embrace the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice, they are giving up on our struggle, our story. In writing this essay, I tried to argue that embracing the Palestinian struggle for return might just be the most Jewish thing we can do.

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Other stuff:

There won’t be a newsletter next Monday on account of the Jewish holiday.

If you’ve read the refugee return essay, you’ll see that it ends with a story about Professor George Bisharat, and his interaction with a former Israeli soldier who lived in his grandfather’s home. I’m deeply grateful that George has agreed to join me on Friday for our Zoom call, for paid subscribers, at Noon ET. We’ll talk about the Nakba, refugee return, justice and reconciliation, and the violence that’s engulfing the place we both love. I’ll send out the Zoom link (same link as usual) later this afternoon.

In writing the essay, I became fascinated by intersections between Jewish and Palestinian identity. Here are a few of the most interesting things I found:

This remarkable interview with the famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who at one point tells his Israeli interlocutor: “Let Arafat besiege Tel Aviv, and I would turn out to demonstrate against him. Do you know what a pleasure it is to be both victorious and humane? To be in solidarity with the defeated?” As a progressive Jew, that kept me up at night.

This fascinating article, entitled “Palestinian Zionism,” by the Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm, who writes about the similarities between the way Jews and Palestinians behave in exile. He writes, “the Palestinian diaspora did produce a significant number of social phenomena traditionally associated with the life of the Jewish communities in their respective host societies.”

This essay, entitled, “The PLO’s Defense of the Talmud,” by Jonathan Gribetz, about how the PLO, while in exile in Lebanon, tasked a researcher with studying the Talmud in order to better understand the relationship between Judaism and Zionism.

(If you have trouble accessing any of these, email me and I’ll send you pdfs)

Finally, a chapter by Alon Confino in Amos Goldberg and Bashir Bashir’s book, The Holocaust and the Nakba, about Genya and Henryk Kowalski, Polish Holocaust survivors who were offered a Palestinian house upon arriving in Haifa in 1949—and turned it down. Asked decades later by an interviewer to explain why, this is how they replied:

Genya: “We opened the gate, opened the door and went in and we couldn’t believe our eyes…We were in shock. The house was beautiful but we didn’t even enter the house because in the yard there was a round table set with plates, and as soon as we saw this…we were frightened. And besides the fear, we could not look. It hurt us, how could people, it reminded us how we had to leave the house and everything behind when the Germans arrived and threw us into the ghetto. And here it was just the same situation and it was not in us to stay. I did not want to do the same thing that the Germans did.”

Henryk: “The Germans kicked us into the ghetto and [now] they wanted to give us a house of Arabs who left, food on the table. They did to us the same thing.”

Genya: “It was something instinctive. I don’t want to live [in a house] of people who were thrown out. For me a human being is a human being.”

Words for to remember in these frightening times.

See you Friday,

Peter