Zionism and the Right of Return

My friend Sara has a house in Haifa, my hometown. I don’t know exactly where it is; only that according to Sara, it has a view of the sea. If she ever finds out more, my friends and I will seek out the house. If it’s still there, and empty, we will squat it. When the police come we will show them a fax of the Kushan, the Ottoman property deed, and a letter of invitation from the rightful owner – who just happens to be Sara, a very cool Palestinian kid born in Lebanon who works as an independent journalist. To evict us, the authorities will have to contest, in their own courts, the rights of ‘absentee’ Palestinians – refugees and their descendants like Sara, forced to escape Haifa in 1948 during what Israelis call the War of Independence and Palestinians call al-Naqba, the Catastrophe.

The same year, my granddad entered his new home in Haifa. Only a few months earlier the people calling the same place home were a working-class Palestinian family. A manual labourer himself, granddad told me about the solid arched doorways, the brightness of the limestone walls, admiring the skill of whoever had managed to use sea-sand in the plaster. But in my imagination I could also smell the recently-emptied pantry, rummage through random possessions left behind in haste, and kick at the still-moist pebbles of goat shit in the yard. Now my mother’s crib was in that house. Through her eyes my granddad remembers his own mother, father and eight siblings. Rays of sunlight penetrate the foliage over a forgotten mass grave in the Ukraine.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been hammering out ‘creative solutions’ to the refugee problem for years, without ever touching the pain. Repatriation to the future Palestinian state; compensation schemes; possibly limited ‘family reunions’ in Israel itself. International funds, multilateral boards, administrative committees. We must be pragmatic, we are told. Which is to say we need to leave matters in the hands of existing and would-be power elites, and accept their cook-ups as panacea. ‘This agreement provides for the permanent and complete resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. No claims may be raised except for those related to the implementation of this agreement’. Nobody mentions that refugees will more likely than not be absorbed into the Palestinian state as an underclass. Nobody mentions that third-generation refugees, eking out an existence in situations of dire poverty in refugee camps, might not find it so easy to exercise ‘free and informed decision’ as to their permanent place of residence, let alone prove title to lost lands or the value of lost property. We tend to forget that diplomatic agreements are not about justice, they’re about interests.

All that Palestinian politicians want from their Israeli counterparts is a solution to the refugee problem which, despite being agreed over the heads of the refugees and with no more than symbolic input from them, will still be legitimate enough in the Palestinian public’s eyes not to jeopardise the politicians’ own power.

As for Israeli politicians, any solution carrying even the whiff of the possibility of an eventual Palestinian majority in post-agreement Israel is non-negotiable. An unrestricted right of return for Palestinian refugees is anathema to Zionism, especially to a political Zionism in its Israeli form, which claims its realisation under the banner of ‘A Jewish and Democratic State’. Only with the secure promise of a continued Jewish majority can a state that extends special rights to Jews still be able to hold up its shaky façade of democracy.

To systematically marginalise and discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel when they’re just a quarter of the population can still be covered up – albeit with diminishing success – by universal suffrage and ‘minority rights’. But to do so when they’re the majority can only be defined as apartheid – not metaphorical apartheid, not swearword apartheid – the real thing. This is why even Israeli politicians on the Zionist left have been using the Jewish majority argument to support separation from the Palestinians.

But we already know that ‘Israeli democracy’ is a sham, don’t we? It’s the same sham held up by millionaires who steal elections, by governments who go to war despite the protests of millions, by elected representatives who privatise water and healthcare. So what is the real reason for resisting the right of return? Is it just the prospect of exercising apartheid that makes Israelis pale at the thought of a Palestinian majority?

The picture becomes even odder when we recall that in the early days of Zionism, nobody thought of a Jewish majority in Palestine as attainable or even necessarily desirable. For the idealistic (some may say naïve) communards who founded the first Kibbutzim in the nineteen-tens, what mattered was not how many Jews ended up there, but what kind of life they would live. Theirs was a project of human renewal, in which Jews would come to Palestine not because they had to, but because they wanted to. To escape anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia one could just as well go to America. But the point was to leave behind the diasporic world of parochialism, inequality and uprooted-ness, to reconnect to the earth. They wanted to be self-sufficient, to work with their own hands, to live free and equal. Any land they settled on was to be either empty, or bought from its Arab cultivators fair and square. They recognised that they would have to prove themselves worthy of the land, to show that they could exist organically again, and to earn the respect of the felahhin who had been there for centuries.

In Israel today, all of this is of course long gone. The communards’ vision has been superseded by what turned out to be the dominant trend – the ‘catastrophic’ version of Zionism. This current already begins in the fin-de-siecle with Herzl, who was calling for a ‘night-shelter’ to absorb the waves of Jewish fugitives from Eastern Europe. At the time it could have been Palestine, Argentina, Uganda – whatever. The last thing these fugitives’ well-off cousins in Germany and France wanted was for a crowd of poor, uncultured, bearded, smelly Östjuden to crash their party. Even Jews can be anti-Semitic sometimes.

Today, the same predisposition continues to be fed by the Israeli-Arab conflict. The marauding Cossacks of the nightmare have transformed into armed Palestinians: Jews were at risk, therefore they needed a state. A state was founded on an act of dispossession, breeding resentment and revolt. Therefore Jews are at risk. Therefore they need a state. In a mind-boggling vortex of circularity, Zionism needs the Israeli-Arab conflict to justify itself. The solution of the conflict, real peace and coexistence, is supposed to take us out of this vortex.

Without a conflict, who cares about majorities and minorities? But Israelis who take communion at the table of their leaders have been brought up to think that peace in its fullest sense is something that can never exist; a dream that depends on its non-realisation. When I was a kid, people at least sang about peace, they had us draw pictures of it in kindergarten. Today even that’s gone. Because now for the first time people are beginning to understand that peace in its fullest sense, a coexistence spreading to all areas of everyday life, makes the boundaries between communities fuzzy, until they disappear.

The spectre of bi-nationalism is haunting the Israeli peace agenda. It grates on the nerves of those who, in Raoul Vaneigem’s words, carry cadavers in their mouths. Say ‘bi-national’ and you’ll see the cadavers peer out. Corner even the most moderate/liberal Zionist in an argument and you’ll get the same bottom line: ‘It can’t be allowed to happen again’. And this is the dark truth: politically, Israeli Zionism is indeed defined as the position that Israel should continue to be a Jewish state. Psychologically, however, it boils down to one factor: the fear of a second Holocaust. Bi-nationalism, with or without a Palestinian majority, only becomes a spectre against the backdrop of such a horizon. To put it as bluntly as possible: Israelis are afraid that they will be marched into the gas chambers. Again.


Peace. Not permanent armistice, not perpetual ceasefire – Peace. Tranquillity. Ease. To eat, sleep and shag without your existence ever being clouded over by the prospect of armed conflict.

Is this so unimaginable? Will we, Israelis and Palestinians, ever be able to live on the basis of the presently unthinkable working assumption that nothing bad is going to happen to us? For Israelis, confronting the question of the right of return of refugees is the litmus test of our readiness for such a situation. If current indications are of any use, most of us are far from it. A demon is going to have to be exorcised first, a demon that we have handed down through the generations like a black dowry. All I want to do in this article is point out its existence. Only by ceasing to define ourselves in terms of non-annihilation can we, the Jewish community west of the Jordan, finally recognise ourselves in our homeland, to the extent of casting off any claims of exclusivity towards it.

Let my Palestinian sisters and brothers speak of the Naqba demon, if they are willing to call it that. We need a reconciliation that would transform not only our material conditions, but our collective psyches. No on-paper agreement will ever be enough to achieve this. Healing the wounds requires not clever formulas but brave communities, willing to engage in grassroots dialogue in everyday life. Seeing one another as human beings on the street, in the fields, at the beach. Doing laundry together, making babies together, and perhaps finally turning into one people. Or just into people.

More information

  • Palestinians were displaced/expelled by Israeli military forces in two waves, during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.
  • There are now more than 5 million Palestinian refugees. More than half live in Jordan, around a quarter in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and approximately a sixth in Syria and Lebanon.
  • One third of the 3.8 million refugees registered with the United Nations live in refugee camps.
  • UN Resolution 194 (passed 11/12/1948) states that ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return’
  • The recent ‘Geneva Accord’, an unofficial template for peace signed by moderate Israeli and Palestinian politicians, accepts resolution 194 while expecting almost all returning refugees to live in the future Palestinian state.

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