“How could I feel free and safe if the Palestinian refugees returned to Israel?” Jasmine posed this question in response to an article I wrote for Hagada Hasmalit in Hebrew. She also asked how I envisaged the continuation of Israel as an independent Jewish State after the implementation of the right of return. And she wanted an answer straight to the point. Here it is.
We cannot turn our backs on our history. In the war in 1948 we expelled two-thirds of the local Arab population, somewhere between 700,000-800,000 people. These figures (as all other figures presented here) are estimates from a variety of sources. Their numbers and those of their descendents have been increasing and have reached about four million or more. The United Nations, it will be remembered, recognized their right to return or to receive compensation (UN Resolution 194). The right of return of people uprooted (expelled) from their lands is both anchored in international law and consistent with the principles of universal ethics. The Palestinian themselves never agreed to concede their right of return and we Israelis have simply ignored the refugees and their demands. In the euphoria following the war and the establishment of the state, it was the general feeling that “what’s done is done” and that’s the end of it. The evacuation of the Arab population from the cities of Jaffa, Haifa, Zafed, Lud and Ramle was greeted with a sigh of relief by the Jewish Yishuv. Only later did it become clear that things were not as simple as they seemed and we had not “finished with the business.” We even suggested – in the face of heavy international pressure – to permit the return of 100,000 refugees (proposed by the then minister of foreign affairs Moshe Sharett in 1949). One should remember that that number was suggested when the entire Yishuv numbered less than a million Jews. If we translate that into today’s reality, it would be like suggesting the return of 600,000-700,000 Palestinian refugees. In 1949 there were yet 160,000 Arabs who had survived the Nakba and remained in Israel. In other words, had the 100,000 refugees been allowed to return then, the Palestinian Arabs in Israel would have constituted one-third of the population.
One should also keep in mind that in the historical 1947 UN Resolution calling for the creation of a Jewish State – or, to be more precise, the partition of the country into two states – a resolution which was enthusiastically received by the Yishuv, the Arabs would have comprised 40% of the Jewish State!
Today I believe we should recognize the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and agree to the return (within the terms of a comprehensive peace agreement) of between 50,000 to 100,000 refugees a year for the next ten years. The rest will receive fair compensation to which Israel will contribute. I have read in various sources that such a proposal might be acceptable to the Palestinians. A situation would be created in which the Palestinians would comprise 25% of the population of Israel. Today they comprise 19%.
One must emphasize that the right of return is not only a question of the physical return of refugees to the country. It is also, or perhaps even primarily, Israel’s (and Zionism’s) admission of guilt in uprooting another people.
As for the possibility of Israel continuing as an independent Jewish State in which its citizens would feel safe after the implementation of the right of return, my assumption is that the partial return of the refugees would constitute the basis for real peace and conciliation with the Palestinians. It would further enable Israel to establish normal and peaceful relations with its Arab neighbors.
A peace agreement under these terms is the most realistic way of ensuring the existence and independence of Israel. Otherwise we are doomed to live here in the midst of an unending war. It is a bitter truth that in the long run, in light of the balance of power in the Middle East, our continued existence is in no way assured. We live amongst hundred of millions of Arabs and Muslims with a deep national consciousness, tempered in their bitter struggle with Western colonialism – who see Israel as part and parcel of that same colonialism. In conditions of peace, our existence here would be a lot safer than it is now. I can still remember good neighborly relations which existed between Jews and Arabs even in the days of the British Mandate. Who says that life with a national minority is necessarily one of strife? Social and cultural cooperation between the two peoples sharing the land can lead to the enrichment of both.
National minorities of varying sizes exist in many countries and it would appear that their lives are not inferior to life in Israel. It seems to me that the Spanish people, for example, do not feel that their national life is in any way constrained because of the existence of the Catalonian or even the Basque minority. In any event, the Palestinians in Israel are a fact of life and Liebermaniac proposals, and their like, can only turn the country into an inferno.
I envisage a state in which the Arabs will be full partners while we will continue to develop our own Hebrew culture and chosen style of life. But we must be certain that, unlike the situation today, we will in no way infringe upon the rights of others, i.e., the Arab citizens of the country. I don’t see how recognizing the rights of the minority can in any way be detrimental to us. On the contrary, it will enable us to develop a more tolerant and humane society in our nationalistic “villa in the jungle” (a term coined by former prime minister Ehud Barak) which sits on a seething volcano that threatens to erupt every so often. In order to live in such a state we would have to make certain changes in our views of ourselves and our past. We would be able to do away with all of our persistent apologetics and our sanctimonious pose of superiority towards our neighbors. I believe that the idea of Jewish exclusiveness is not necessary to Jewish national life. Exclusiveness is necessary only to a narrow, xenophobic kind of nationalism. I believe in a nationalism that is open to cultural contact and exchange with others, as was the case with all the great cultures of the world. Shutting off the world around can only lead to provinciality. Hostility towards the “other” is a poor form of national enrichment.
It is my opinion that a within a so-called national state a minority can flourish provided it is given adequate national living space. In any case, such a situation is more promising that what we have today – living in a state in which the national minority is deprived of its rights. So, to sum up this point, let me say that living in a state with a larger Palestinian minority than we have today but one which is not hostile, living in a state with a larger Palestinian minority than we have today but one which is at peace with its neighbors – offers us all greater security and freedom.
True, what will result will be different from what the early Zionists envisaged. Having breathed the air of European colonialism, they thought it only natural to occupy a land and rule over the native population – as did the great imperial powers of the time. No one had yet heard of de-colonialization.
But we could point out that my “utopian” vision of relations between Jews and Arabs is not so terribly remote from what Herzl wrote in his famous Altneuland. There he described an open and pluralistic state which was particularly tolerant towards the Arabs. True, he wrote it in response to the assertion – made over a hundred years ago – that the Zionist aim was an insular national Jewish State. Among the early critics of the book was Ahad Ha-am who in an ominous prophecy wrote that such a state could come into existence only on the basis of the complete displacement of the Arabs. Herzl’s utopian icing on the Zionist idea apparently did not amuse Ahad Ha-am. But Herzl understood that one had to describe a Zionist Utopia, a state which met the standards of universal human values. The motto for his book was: “If you will it, it is no legend.” In the sad state of affairs in which Israel finds itself today perhaps the idea of conciliation with the Palestinians on the basis of the right of return sounds like a legend. Still, if we will it…