Much of the political discourse following President Obama’s speech concerning the Arab Spring centered on his direct statement that the 1967 lines should serve as the starting point for negotiations between Israel and Palestine. His phrasing included ‘with mutually agreed swaps of land’, but was largely ignored in the subsequent hubbub. Commentators noticed that the 1967 lines, though serving as the basis of American policy for decades, had never been so publically stated by a US president.
Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu made a public statement, which, though serving as the basis of Israeli policy for decades, I had not remembered being stated so unequivocally. He proclaimed, ‘The Palestinian refugee problem will be solved outside the borders of Israel.”
Within the context of various political responses to this issue, I simply wish to remind readers of the very human lives involved in the refugee issue. Some of these were our friends when we lived in Jordan.
During the 1948 war following the declaration of the State of Israel by the United Nations, the first wave of refugees was created. War creates chaos and destruction; in the midst of this many ordinary Palestinians, with no stake in the fighting, chose to flee.
Yet many others, also with no stake in the fighting, were forced from their homes as whole villages were uprooted under threat of death. This was not a systematic Israeli policy, but neither were these isolated incidents. Yet while international law calls for the right of refugees to return to their homes, official Israeli policy following the war forbade this. Currently, it is treated as a negotiation point; that is, until Netanyahu made explicit what had previously been assumed. The ‘demographic realities’ of Palestinian refugees threaten the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state.
Among our friends in Jordan not all desired to return. Muhammad, a barber, told me his family now possessed Jordanian citizenship and had a decent middle-class life, with his children in school. He had great sympathy for the refugees struggling in camps, still possessing the keys to their grandfathers’ homes, but for himself, why would he leave? Besides, the homes for those keys no longer exist, long since turned into modern Israeli settlements.
Many say the poverty of the Palestinian refugee camps is due to Arab exploitation. Wishing to maintain an issue with which to accuse Israel, these governments fail in their humanitarian duties to incorporate Palestinian citizens into their own national fabric. These claims appear largely true. There are few saints in this dispute.
Yet there are human beings. These were the pawns in a struggle which originally were swept aside in effort to secure a Jewish predominance in the new state of Israel. They are the pawns who exist in squalor while the politics of peace rumble onward to nowhere. They will remain the pawns of a policy that denies their rights under international law, under auspices of demographic politics. Perhaps a compromise of settlement in an eventual Palestinian state will satisfy. Even so, the moral struggle is compromised as well.
What should be thought of the rhetoric of a ‘Jewish’ state? This is a difficult question since ‘Jewish’ reflects both ethnicity and religion. Many Jews in Israel are secular or atheist. Many Israeli citizens are of Arab ethnicity, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Does a Jewish state correspond to the unquestioned legitimacy of a French state or an Egyptian state? Does it parallel the nationalistic hopes of a Kurdish state or a Palestinian state?
Demographic realities are changing the world, challenging the ethnic block notions of nationalism on which current world politics were assembled. In certain parts of the US, ‘white’ no longer represents a majority of the population, especially as the Hispanic population increases through immigration and higher birth rates. In France, the Muslim population increases rapidly, threatening (potentially) its secular foundation. Meanwhile, certain smaller emirates in the Gulf have only a fraction of the population as national citizens, the rest being foreign workers. What do these realities spell for national heritage, and its preservation?
Americans, conceptually, can swallow demographic changes easier than other nations, as we embrace the alternate descriptions of ‘melting pot’ and ‘salad bowl’. Though degrees of diversity are debated in these expressions, both imagine that the end result is a common endeavor toward national values of freedom, liberty, and democracy.
Along American history we have swept away an indigenous people, questioned if we can integrate Catholics or blacks, but in the end our values triumphed over our prejudices. Yet currently we wonder about the threat to so significant a national identity marker as language. Can we allow demographic changes to supplant, or at least saddle alongside, our English tongue?
Along existing notions of statehood, it seems right that the ‘Jews’ should have a nation. Yet it seems wrong that they engineer their demographics to maintain an ethnic (or religious) majority for themselves. Critics of Israel invoke apartheid South Africa; though the comparison is not fair, does the policy of denying ‘right of return’ resemble a similar insistence on maintenance of ethnic power?
Israel is in a very difficult position. They can yield to a Palestinian state, in which they lose control over the area and open themselves to security threats. Or, they can simply annex the land they now occupy and lose the population battle, putting tension between their twin values of ‘Jewish’ and ‘democracy’, in which one might have to yield to the other.
Instead, it appears the policy is to maintain the status quo, no matter how much President Obama declares it to be ‘unsustainable’. Certainly Fatah and Hamas, as well as the other Arab states, share complicity in the problem. Hamas’ charter and other language to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ do not contribute to fruitful negotiations.
Yet while Palestinians suffer internally and in refugee camps, Israel profits through continued expansion of settlements and superior access to water resources. Yes, it risks nurturing the hatred given to an occupier, as well as international approbation. Yet so far, these have not been enough to push her towards a settled peace. Yet, having been invaded multiple times, on what basis can Israel trust a peace?
Yes, Israel’s position is difficult, but so is that of the ordinary Palestinian individual. Since 1948 the thousands of refugees have now become millions. Can Israel be expected to absorb these? It is the hard work of politics that does not allow sentimental morality to dictate solutions. Yet when the hard work systematically denies people their rights, and this on the basis of dubiously moral ‘demographic realities’, perhaps the sentimentality should be given more sympathy. In whatever position you take on Israel, remember the refugee who simply wants to go home.
Unfortunately, over the years on both sides, ‘home’ has become for many a zero sum game.