Israelis and Palestinians need a Nakba debate

Erstwhile negotiator and former Minister Yossi Beilin, in a New York Times op ed, has an idea for breaking the impasse on negotiations for a two-state solution. He suggests that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order to cement the consciousness of each side as the proper home for its people. Then Israel would undertake incentives for settlers to go back behind the Green Line, but those who stay in the West Bank would form the numerical basis for the number of Palestinian refugees who can return to Israel proper. Each side has incentive to keep the other low.

It’s refreshing to see original, outside-the-box thinking. The proposal is not just about policy, but it’s an ambitious attempt to address deep-seated symbolic elements that drive this conflict, by providing mutual affirmation of each side’s identity: Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians as historic inhabitants of modern-day Israel, before their exile. The plan could potentially diminish Israel’s defensiveness as the main party providing hard, empirical concessions (i.e., giving up things it currently has in its control), by proposing mutuality of symbolic concessions.

But the policy itself is problematic. Despite a neat logical structure and putative fairness, one problem that Beilin acknowledges breezily in passing could loom very large on the Palestinian side: Palestinians are autochthonous, their displacement was a historic injustice and return in their view corrects a historic wrong. They are sure to deeply resent or even reject being equated with settlers likely to remain: the core who colonize or steal their land in the present and thus perpetuate wrongs. The policy could put them in a Faustian bind: return to ancestral villages, and they collaborate in continued thievery of their brethren’s land today.

Read: ‘Thanks for doing Zionism’s filthy work’- A response to Ari Shavit

On the Israeli side, Beilin glosses over the wall of resistance his proposal is likely to meet from mainstream Israelis, not only from the right. Many on the center and center left have little love for the kind of settlers who would stay in the West Bank. For them, the livelihood of extremist, even fanatical, settlers hardly justifies accepting the principle of Palestinian return which in itself they experience as an existential threat.

That’s why the refugee issue is one of the most intractable problems for Israelis. I’ve conducted or read surveys testing compromises that involve the return of refugees in numbers akin to those that would presumably emerge from Beilin’s plan: tens of thousands, perhaps, over several years, and numerous other compensation or repatriation options. A majority of Israelis reject those too.

(The following graph was created by Professor Rex Brynan based on PSR/Truman Institute data)

Israelis and Palestinians need a Nakba debate

A more extreme approach to resolving the refugee issue is the article by  Ami Asher of Zochrot, published today here on +972 Magazine, a valuable counter-narrative to Ari Shavit’s recent controversial piece in the New Yorker. He says Shavit presents a partial picture about the expulsion of the Palestinians from Lydda/Lod in 1948. But Asher’s additional points don’t significantly change the facts of what happened, which he admits Shavit got mainly right.

The primary difference is Asher’s guilt and Shavit’s self-justification. Shavit concludes that Zionists must cry about the past but soldier on in the present, so to speak. Asher essentially says that to cleanse the “dirty work” of Zionism, Israel must implement full right of return.

But the tortured conscience of Jews is not a sufficient basis on which to determine Palestinian fate.

Asher’s article ends with his call for return, making no case for how this would benefit either side, beyond making (a few) Jews feel better. Will it make life easier for Israeli Jews and Palestinian/Arab citizens? Will it make life better for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza or the diaspora, to live in a society still struggling with racism, where Jewish-Arab relations are the deepest divide of all, in which Palestinians are second class citizens economically and sociologically, and in any case the vast majority of refugees will have no original home left to return to – in a country that will never provide an equal platform for their national identity?

Thinking anecdotally about my Palestinian friends and colleagues, I know of some who support sweeping return, some who would rather stay in their third countries, and some who would prefer to keep living among Palestinians in a Palestinian state, if such a thing could be viable. In other words, full right of return to Israel proper isn’t the answer for all Palestinians.

What they do agree on is that Israel must bear responsibility, and acknowledge both historical facts and the theoretical right.

These articles remind Jews (for they are by and primarily for Jews) that there is no easy resolution to the open wound of Palestinian refugee existence in reality and as a national symbol. The attempt to equate this with a Jewish Nakba – the post-1948 expulsion of Jews from Arab countries – is a cheap and fruitless distraction. Jews were expelled and their suffering must not be diminished. But on the level of national myth, they landed in a sovereign recognized state in a way that fulfilled the national destiny Jews had built for themselves. The post-statehood discrimination against Mizrahim fit very well into the narrative created by pre-statehood Ashkenazim. If Israel truly decides this is its top priority, it could demand monetary reparation for lost property. But on the collective symbolic level, persecution, survival and national fulfillment is not the same as three-generation exile and statelessness.

I believe we need two things: the conversation among Jews cannot remain insular. I am already weary anticipating the comments – “just another spoiled Jewish Israeli American talking on behalf of Palestinians.” Anyone is welcome to submit articles or respond, especially if you are one of the many Palestinian voices I (and hopefully other Jews and non-Jews alike) need to hear. And most importantly, there needs to be an open debate among Palestinians about what’s really best for them, as individuals, communities and as a nation, what’s desirable and what’s realistic. That’s something I’d like to hear. And fast – we need solutions as much as debates.

Read more:
For Palestinians, the Nakba is not history
Are Israelis starting to ‘get’ the Nakba?