Seaside Memory in Gaza

IMG_3399
Memorials take many forms – some are grand and iconic like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC while others exude power through their very simplicity.

Here’s an example of the latter category:

During my trip Gaza last month, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches placed along the beachfront as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City. As we drove by, I noticed that some benches were empty; on another, a sole person sat gazing out to sea and another was filled with what seemed like an entire family. My AFSC colleague Ali Albari noted the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town that was forcibly depopulated by Zionist militias in 1948/49.

The majority of the almost 2,000,000 residents of Gaza are in fact, refugees – Palestinians who had originally lived in the central and northern regions of the country. After their dispossession they were herded into refugee camps in Gaza, fully expecting to return to their homes after the armistice. Now, almost seventy years later, they are still waiting.

It’s not difficult to grasp their sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Clearly, they have not forgotten.

Unlike most memorials, which commemorate that which was lost and never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their homes to be lost to them at all. On the contrary, I these benches testify to their faith that they will one day return.

(Thanks to Ali Albari for translating.)

IMG_3368

Safad (Safed)

IMG_3380

Jenin

IMG_3389 (1)

Hifa’ (Haifa)

IMG_3396

Bir Saba’ (Be’er Sheva)

 

Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

IMG_3519 (1)

Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

FullSizeRender (3)

AFSC Israel/Palestine staff meeting in Ramallah (with Ali and Firas joining us from Gaza via Skype).

It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.

Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

IMG_3411

With current participants of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.

There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.

Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.

IMG_3573

Left to right: AFSC staff Jennifer Bing, Lucy Duncan, Erin Polley, Brant Rosen, Mati Gomis-Perez, Aura Kanegis and Firas Ramlawi. Kneeling: Ali Abdel Bari

I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.

I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.

There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.

IMG_3554

The almost mile-long corridor between the Erez Crossing in Israel and the entrance into Gaza.

IMG_3419

Our meeting with the Gazan Fishermen’s Union. Ali translates the presentations of Zakaria Bakr – chair of the union and uncle of the murdered Bakr boys (Center), and Amjad Shrafi, President of the union (Right). Below: video from our morning excursion with Gazan fishermen:

IMG_3363

At the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

Recommitting to Solidarity in the Face of White Supremacy: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778

2017_0921rosen

Members of Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue, form a protective circle around the Imdadul mosque on February 3, 2017, following an Islamophobic shooting at a mosque in Quebec City.  (Photo: Bernard Weil / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Crossposted with Truthout.

When Temple Beth Israel — a large Reform synagogue in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia — opened for Shabbat morning services on August 12, 2017, its congregants had ample reason to be terrified. Prior to the “Unite the Right” rally held in town by white supremacists and neo-Nazis that weekend, some neo-Nazi websites had posted calls to burn down their synagogue.The members of Beth Israel decided to go ahead with services, but they removed their Torah scrolls just to be safe.

When services began, they noticed three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from their synagogue. Throughout the morning, growing numbers of neo-Nazis gathered outside their building. Worshippers heard people shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” and chanting, “Sieg Heil!” At the end of services, they had to leave in groups through a side door.

Of course, this story did not occur in a vacuum. It was but a part of a larger outrage that unfolded in Charlottesville that day, and part of a still larger outrage has been unfolding in our country since November. I think it’s safe to say that many Americans have learned some very hard truths about their country since the elections last fall. Many — particularly white liberals — are asking out loud: Where did all of this come from? Didn’t we make so much progress during the Obama years? Can there really be that many people in this country who would vote for an out-and-out xenophobe who unabashedly encourages white supremacists as his political base? Is this really America?

Yes, this is America. White supremacy — something many assumed was relegated to an ignoble period of American history — is, and has always been, very real in this country. Now white supremacists and neo-Nazis are in the streets — and they are being emboldened and encouraged by the president of the United States.

While this new political landscape may feel surreal, I believe this is actually a clarifying moment. Aspects of our national life that have remained subterranean for far too long are now being brought out into the light. We’re being brought face to face with systems and forces that many of us assumed were long dead; that we either couldn’t see or chose not to see. Following the election of Trump many have commented that it feels like we are living through a bad dream. I would claim the opposite. I would say that many of us are finally waking up to real life — a reality that, particularly for the most marginalized among us, never went away.

It is certainly a profoundly clarifying moment for American Jews. With this resurgence of white supremacist anti-Semitism, it would have been reasonable to expect a deafening outcry from the American Jewish establishment. But that, in fact, has not been the case. When Trump appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon to a senior White House position, there was nary an outcry from mainstream Jewish organizations. The Zionist Organization of America actually invited Bannon to speak at its annual gala.

Israel’s response to this political moment is no less illuminating. During a huge spike in anti-Semitic vandalism and threats against Jewish institutions immediately after the elections, it wasn’t only Trump that had to be goaded into making a statement — the Israeli government itself remained shockingly silent. This same government that never misses an opportunity to condemn anti-Semitic acts by Muslim extremists seemed utterly unperturbed that over 100 Jewish institutions had received bomb threats or that Jewish cemeteries were desecrated across the country. (More than 500 headstones were knocked down at one Jewish cemetery alone in Philadelphia.) And when neo-Nazis with tiki torches rallied in Charlottesville proclaiming “Jews will not replace us,” it took Prime Minister Netanyahu three days to respond with a mild tweet. Israel’s Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, whom one would assume should be concerned with anti-Semitism anywhere in the Diaspora, had this to say:

We view ourselves as having a certain degree of responsibility for every Jew in the world, just for being Jewish, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the sovereign nation to defend its citizens.

This is a clarifying moment if ever there was one. Support for Israel and its policies trumps everything — yes, including white supremacist Jew hatred. Just this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu said this about Trump’s speech at the UN:

I’ve been ambassador to the United Nations, and I’m a long-serving Israeli prime minister, so I’ve listened to countless speeches in this hall. But I can say this — none were bolder, none were more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today.

Why would the Israeli Prime Minister call a president who panders to anti-Semitic white supremacists “brave” and “courageous?” Because Trump pledged his support to Israel. Because he called the Iran nuclear deal an “embarrassment.” Because he vowed American support to allies who are “working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists.”

Historically speaking, this isn’t the first time that Zionists have cozied up to anti-Semites in order to gain their political support. Zionism has long depended on anti-Semites to validate its very existence. This Faustian bargain was struck as far back as the 19th century, when Zionist leader Theodor Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve pledged that as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.

This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced his government’s support for “the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that Israeli leaders are loath to condemn the rise of white supremacy. After all, they have a different enemy they want to sell to us. They want us to buy their Islamophobic narrative that “radical Muslim extremism” is the most serious threat to the world today. And you can be sure they view Palestinians as an integral part of this threat.

We cannot underestimate how important this narrative is to Israel’s foreign policy — indeed, to its own sense of validation in the international community. Netanyahu is so committed to this idea in fact, that two years ago he actually went as far as to blame Palestinians for starting the Holocaust itself. In a speech to the Zionist Congress, he claimed that in 1941, the Palestinian Grand Mufti convinced Hitler to launch a campaign of extermination against European Jewry at a time when Hitler only wanted to expel them. This ludicrous historical falsehood was so over the top that a German government spokesperson eventually released a statement that essentially said, “No, that’s not true. Actually, the Holocaust was our fault.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is pursuing an alliance with the anti-Semitic populist Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. When Netanyahu recently traveled to Hungary to meet with Orbán, leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community publicly criticized Netanyahu, accusing him of “betrayal.”

If there was ever any doubt about the profound threat that white supremacy poses to us all, we’d best be ready to grasp it now. White supremacy is not a thing of the past and it’s not merely the domain of extremists. It has also been a central guiding principle of Western foreign policy for almost a century. To those who claim that so-called Islamic extremism is the greatest threat to world peace today, we would do well to respond that the US military has invaded, occupied and/or bombed 14 Muslim-majority countries since 1980 alone — and this excludes coups against democratically elected governments, torture, and imprisonment of Muslims with no charges. Racism and Islamophobia inform our nation’s military interventions in ways that are obvious to most of the world, even if they aren’t to us. It is disingenuous to even begin to consider the issue of radical Islamic violence until we begin to reckon with the ways we wield our overwhelming military power abroad.

So, as we observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, where are we supposed to go from here? I would suggest that the answer, as ever, is solidarity.

Let’s return to the horrid events at Temple Beth Israel in Charlottesville. As it turned out, the local police didn’t show up to protect the synagogue that Shabbat — but many community members did. The synagogue’s president later noted that several non-Jews attended services as an act of solidarity — and that at least a dozen strangers stopped by that morning asking if congregants wanted them to stand with their congregation.

Another example: Last February, when Chicago’s Loop Synagogue was vandalized with broken windows and swastikas by someone who was later discovered to be a local white supremacist, the very first statement of solidarity came from the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Their executive director, Ahmed Rehab, said:

Chicago’s Muslim community stands in full solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as they deal with the trauma of this vile act of hate. No American should have to feel vulnerable and at risk simply due to their religious affiliation.

Here’s another example: last Friday, protests filled the streets of St. Louis after a white former city policeman, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black 24-year-old whom he shot to death on December 20, 2011. The St. Louis police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators retreated to Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, which opened its doors to the protesters. The police actually followed them and surrounded the synagogue. During the standoff, a surge of anti-Semitic statements trended on Twitter under the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue. (Yes, this actually happened last week, though it was not widely covered by the mainstream media.)

Just one more example: last January, a 27-year year-old man entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on a room filled with Muslim worshippers, killing six men and wounding another 16. The following week, Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue organized an action in which multifaith groups formed protective circles around at least half a dozen mosques. It was inspired by the “Ring of Peace” created by about 1,000 Muslims around an Oslo synagogue in 2015, following a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

This must be our response to white supremacy: that a threat to any one of us is a threat to all. That we are stronger together. This is the movement we need to build.

However, even as we make this commitment to one another, we cannot assume that oppression impacts all of us equally. This point was made very powerfully in a recent blog post by Mimi Arbeit, a white Jewish educator/scientist/activist from Charlottesville, so I’ll quote her directly:

Jews should be fighting Nazis. And — at the same time — we White-presenting White-privileged Jews need to understand that we are fighting Nazis in the US within the very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism. I have been face to face with Nazis and yes I see the swastikas and I see the anti-semitic signs and I hear the taunts and I respect the fear of the synagogue in downtown Charlottesville — AND please believe me when I say that they are coming for Black people first. It is Black people who the Nazis are seeking out, Black neighborhoods that are being targeted, anti-Black terrorism that is being perpetrated. So. Jews need to be fighting Nazis in this moment. And. At the same time. If we are fighting Nazis expecting them to look like German anti-Semitic prototypes, we will be betraying ourselves and our comrades of color. We need to fight Nazis in the US within the context of US anti-Black racism. We need to be anti-fascist and anti-racist with every breath, with every step.

To this I would only add that when it comes to state violence, it is people of color — particularly Black Americans — who are primarily targeted. While white Jews understandably feel vulnerable at this particular moment, we still dwell under an “all encompassing shelter of white privilege.” We will never succeed in building a true movement of solidarity unless we reckon honestly with the “very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism.”

I’ve said a great deal about clarity here, but I don’t want to underestimate in any way the challenges that lay before us. I realize this kind of “clarity” can feel brutal — like a harsh light that reflexively causes us to close our eyes tightly. On the other hand, I know there are many who have had their eyes wide open to these issues for quite some time now. Either way, we can’t afford to look away much longer. We can’t allow ourselves the luxury to grieve over dreams lost — particularly the ones that were really more illusions than dreams in the first place.

On Rosh Hashanah, the gates are open wide. This is the time of year we are asked to look deep within, unflinchingly, so that we might discern the right way forward. We can no longer put off the work we know we must do, no matter how daunting or overwhelming it might feel. But at the same time, we can only greet the New Year together. We cannot do it alone. Our liturgy is incorrigibly first person, plural — today we vow to set our lives and our world right, and we make this vow alongside one another.

So here we are. We’ve just said goodbye to one horrid year. The gates are opening before us. Let’s take each other’s hands and walk through them together.

Shanah Tovah.

Lamentation for a New Diaspora

0d03e43322bb5421f1550fec070fe051-d5j05xy

photo credit: NateHallinan.com

I’ve just written a new poetic take on Lamentations, the Biblical book traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av). The context of Lamentations is fall of the 1st Temple and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; it is at once a funeral dirge for the fallen city, a lament over the communal fate of the people, a confession of the collective sins that led to their downfall and a plea to God to rescue them from their dismal fate.

When all five chapters of Lamentations are chanted on Tisha B’Av, its impact can feel shattering. Taken as a whole, it might be said that this epic lament has the raw power of a primal scream. As Biblical scholar Adele Berlin has described it:

The book’s language is highly poetic and extraordinarily moving. Even though often stereotypical, it effectively portrays the violence and suffering of the events. The experiences of warfare, siege, famine, and death are individualized, in a way that turns the natural into the unnatural or anti-natural—brave men are reduced to begging, mothers are unable to nourish their children and resort to cannibalism. The book’s outpouring is addressed to God, so that God may feel the suffering of his people, rescue them, and restore them to their country and to their former relationship with him. The entire book may be thought of as an appeal for God’s mercy. Yet God remains silent.

According to the Mishnah (an early rabbinic era legal text), Tisha B’v commemorates five historical calamities that befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, and the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Over the centuries many other historical cataclysms have been added to be to be mourned on this day as well (including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War I in 1914). Although Lamentations was originally written to address a historically specific context, it’s popularity over the centuries testifies to a uniquely timeless quality.

While Lamentations is an expression of Jewish communal loss, this new version places these themes in a universal 21st century context, set in a not-too-distant future that I fervently hope shall never come to pass. In this reimagining, it is less an elegy for what was lost than a spiritual/poetic warning about a cataclysm that may be yet to come if our world does not turn from the perilous path we are currently traveling.

May the grief of this Tisha B’Av give us all the strength to fight for the world that somehow still might be.

Click here for the pdf. Feel free to share.

Haifa, 1948: Sweeping Away the Chametz

unrwa-beach_2-1

Palestinians fleeing Haifa, April 22, 1948 (Photo: UNRWA)

Rabbi Yehuda said: There is no removal of leaven except by burning; but the Sages maintain: he may also crumble and throw it to the wind or cast it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesachim 2:1)

On the eve of Passover, April 21, 1948,
leaflets and loudspeakers ordered
the 75,000 Palestinian Arabs of Haifa
to send their women and children away,
promising terrible consequences
if these warnings were disregarded.

At 6:30 pm a joint force
of the Haganah and Irgun
known as the Carmeli brigade
opened fire on the lower regions of the city.
The military called this “Operation Biur Chametz,”
which means “Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven” –
a reference to a sacred Jewish tradition,
which commands that leaven
be swept out of Jewish homes
prior to the onset of Passover.

This strange cacophony of loudspeaker voices
and gunfire lasted until midnight.
All night long, panic stricken civilians
fled homes that were in the path
of the Jewish militias heading
into Wadi Nisnsa and the areas
nearest Hadar HaCarmel.

Early on Passover morning,
the Irgun forces were making progress.
(As Menachem Begin, later remembered, they
proceeded to advance through Haifa
like a knife through butter.
The Arabs began fleeing in panic,
shouting “Deir Yassin!”)

By 6:00 am the cacophony had grown
and now included the cries of fleeing families
as well as new loudspeaker voices:
Arab leaders urging residents
to gather in the old marketplace next to the port
and seek shelter until an orderly evacuation by sea
could be organized.

As Passover day unfolded,
Haifa’s market and port
turned into a scene of utter chaos:
children in pajamas,
men in old fashioned nightshirts,
women carrying babies,
running desperately
toward the water.

The Carmeli brigade stationed itself
on the slopes of Mt. Carmel
and launched three inch mortars
on the fleeing crowd below who eventually
broke through the port and tried to climb
aboard the boats moored in the harbor.

One survivor later recalled:
men stepped on their friends
and women on their own children.
The boats in the port were soon filled
with living cargo. The overcrowding
in them was horrible. Many turned over
and sank with all their passengers.

When the week of Passover was concluded,
scores of Palestinians had been killed
and 50,000 expelled from their homes.

The cacophonies have long since receded
and stillness now hovers
over the slopes of Mt. Carmel.
But every Passover, if you listen closely
to the water lapping back and forth
across the the shores of Haifa
you will surely hear a voice
whispering softly:

How can you sing your songs of joy
while my children are drowning?

Why I Support the Palestinian Right of Return

nakba540

(Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activeststills.org)

If there’s one thing that virtually all Zionists can agree upon, from the political right to left and everywhere in between, it is their abject unwillingness to accept the Palestinian right of return.

There is an almost visceral quality to this rejection, which is invariably presented as an existential necessity, rather than a political argument. Read here, for instance, the comments of the relatively moderate Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:

The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode.

Amos Oz, poet laureate of the Israeli peace movement, used identical rhetoric in a 2013 NY Times interview:

The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.

Since Palestinian civil society issued its call for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, which includes the goal of “respecting, protecting and promoting” the Palestinian right of return, many now claim that supporting BDS – a nonviolent call for equality, freedom and human rights – is itself tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. The progressive American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart has written versions of this position repeatedly over the years:

(BDS) calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.

Conveniently lost amidst all the rhetoric, however, is the fact that the right of return is a legitimately claimed right that is enshrined in international law. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Beinart’s point actually makes it very clear: the choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.

“The Old will Die and the Young will Forget”

Between November 1947 and October 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes by Jewish militias, an event Israel refers to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call collectively the Nakba (“catastrophe”). In December of 1948, as Palestinian refugees languished in camps waiting to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 by a majority of 34 countries, including the United States.

Article 11 of the resolution stated:

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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity.

The government of the newly declared state of Israel, however, refused to allow dislocated Palestinians to return to their homes. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed, many of which had new Jewish settlements built upon them. In towns and cities, new Jewish immigrants moved into empty Palestinian houses that had been appropriated by Israel. And to this day, “the earliest practical date” for the return of Palestinians to their homes remains unrealized.

According to the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, there are currently 7.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – the largest refugee population in the world. Yet almost 70 years later, the Palestinian people continue to hold their right of return as sacrosanct – as both a  collective dream and as an inalienable right.  At the same time, virtually all Israelis and Israel advocates have dismissed the right of return as a pipe dream – a political non-starter that will never come to pass.

“The old will die and the young will forget.” This quote is often attributed  David Ben-Gurion, who reportedly made it while commenting on the future of Palestinian refugees. While there is no documentary evidence that Ben-Gurion actually uttered these words, it is clear that the prediction has not come to pass. Quite the contrary: the children and grandchildren of the 1948 refugees have not forgotten. If anything, the right of return has become an increasingly indelible aspect of Palestinian culture, famously represented by the original keys to homes in Palestine which are passed down from one family generation to the next.

As for me, I can state openly and unabashedly that I support the Palestinian people’s right of return. I believe it is their inalienable right – not a “euphemism” or cynical political ploy that can be wished, threatened or rationalized away. And I do believe that there will never be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians until Israel honestly faces the injustices it has perpetrated against the Palestinian people and honors the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

“The Jewish Character of the State”

To those who claim that the return of refugees would “imperil the Jewish character of the state of Israel,” I would respond that there is a serious problem when the character of a country is dependent upon the denial of basic human rights to an entire people. When we speak of the “Jewish character of the state,” we should be clear on what we actually mean: a form of ethnic nationalism that necessarily privileges Jews over non-Jews.

In order to maintain this national character, Israel has created a system that allows any Jew in the world to become an immediate citizen of the Jewish state upon arrival – while millions of people who actually lived in the land (or have ancestors who did) are unable to set literally foot there for no other reason than they are not Jews. The bottom line: the Palestinian right of return raises the prospect of one democratic state of all its citizens – which for Israelis and Israel advocates means “the dismantling of the Jewish state.”

The real reason so many Zionists treat the Palestinian right of return as a non-starter is that it shines a bright light on the inner paradoxes of Zionism itself. Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has always been dependent upon its ability to maintain a demographic majority of Jews in the land. This ipso facto presents the presence of non-Jews in the land as a problem to be dealt with. While this problem appeared to be “solved” following the Nakba, seven decades later it remains as intractable as ever.

Liberal Zionists have attempted to resolve this problem by advocating a peace process that would result in a negotiated settlement for a two state solution. These negotiations have failed for many reasons, not least of which has been Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. Another critical reason has been Israel’s adamant refusal to even consider the Palestinian right of return during negotiations. Their consistent treatment of this right as a non-starter doomed the various iterations of the peace process over the years. For as many have pointed out, the right of return is not a right that can be negotiated collectively – it belongs to each and every individual Palestinian refugee.

“They Would Throw Us Into the Sea”

Many Zionists articulate the fear that a return of refugees would existentially endanger the Jews of Israel. Upon their return, the argument goes, “Palestinian refugees raised on hatred” would undoubtedly throw the Jews into the sea.

This is a patently racist argument that essentializes Palestinians as incorrigibly violent. In the end, we cannot honestly discuss Palestinian violence against Israel without recognizing the context of the daily violence in which Palestinians have been living for almost seven decades. Palestinian violence is not a product of their upbringing – it is a response to Israel’s violent expulsion of their families from their homes and the violence of brutal, ongoing oppression.

I have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying it’s all well and good for me to preach to Israelis that they must live side by side with Palestinians from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. It’s a fair question – and in good Jewish fashion I’ll answer it with another question: what will ensure the long term safety of both peoples: the  continuance of an oppressive status quo that will only guarantee a future of violence or an process of authentic reparation and repatriation as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?

Obviously we are a long way from an “honestly negotiated settlement.” But before we even get to the practical considerations of how the Palestinian right of return might be implemented, that right must first be acknowledged and honored on its own merits. We cannot yet say how this right will be practically realized – this can only come through mutual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the meantime, the Palestinian right of return cannot be summarily dismissed by shrugging our shoulders and assuming “all nations are created this way.”

What would it look like in a practical sense? The general parameters are actually fairly straightforward: those who choose to remain in the Palestinian diaspora would remain. Those who choose to return would be repatriated to their homes. Where not possible, there would be a negotiated settlement with those individual refugee families or with a collective body they each agree represents them.

Over the past few years, the organizations Zochrot and Badil have done valuable work envisioning ways that the Palestinian right of return might be implemented. As they note in their preliminary report:

(This) project builds on the deep respect in international law for the right of return,1 and its widespread affirmation as the only acceptable durable solution, and starts to address how refugees will return to properties and homes from which they were forcibly displaced, and how such a return can be implemented in a practical, fair, and efficient manner that protects the legitimate interests of all stakeholders involved.

I wish all Jews could read this report, even those who might not be ready to go to such places as yet. For myself, I find it to be extremely liberating to participate in this kind of visioning. Once we grasp that the inner paradox that a Jewish state can only be achieved by violating the rights of another people, we may well come to understand that the right of return does not mean the “dismantling of the Jewish state” – rather, it leads us to a place where are free to envision a future of equity, justice, return and reconciliation.

“Exchange of Populations”

Many who reject the Palestinian right of return make a kind of “tit for tat” argument between the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the 856,000 Jews of Arab countries who were either expelled, immigrated or brought to Israel around the same time. It is not uncommon for Israel advocates to equate the two, and claim that the events of 1948 resulted in an “exchange of populations.”

It’s a spurious argument on several levels. In the first place, while the actions of the governments of Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria cannot be excused for their violence against their Jewish populations, Jews from Arab countries (or Mizrahi Jews) did not become refugees – they were absorbed into Israel and became citizens, fulfilling the state’s demographic need for a Jewish majority.  Palestinians experienced the exact opposite: in 1948 they were forced from their homes and turned into refugees.

Moreover, the two expulsions did not occur at the same time. The Jews from Iraq and other Arab countries occurred after the Nakba and both occurred under very different circumstances. There is absolutely no documentary evidence to prove Israeli leadership intended an “exchange of populations” when they made the decision to prevent expelled Palestinians from returning to their homes.

Another important difference: while the right of return is almost universally cherished by all Palestinians, there is no equivalent call for return from Mizrahi Jews. If anything, the lion’s share of Mizrahi protest has been directed toward discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israel’s Askenazic elite and its erasure of their Arab cultural identity. Throughout the years, in fact there have been a number of Arab Jewish movements of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition that formed in the 1990s, to the current efforts of Mizrahi activists who are seeking to join the Arab Joint List party in the Knesset.

Ironically enough, it was recently reported that the calls to define Mizrahi Jews as “refugees,” have now been taken up by the Israeli government, presumably in order to somehow politically equate them with Palestinian refugees. By so doing, however, this cynical maneuver actually contradicts a central Zionist dictum: that all Jews are welcome and to become citizens of the Jewish state. It’s also profoundly insulting to Mizrahi Jews themselves, as scholar Zachary Smith explains:

Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.
Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.

No, history cannot be turned back, but Israelis and Palestinians can go forward together. The repatriation of refugees is not a pipe dream – it is a very real and practical concept for which we have ample historical precedent. The real question is not whether or not return is possible. It is rather: does Israel have the political and moral will to own the injustice it inflicted (and continues to inflict) on the Palestinian people and accept their inherent right to return to their homes?

As for me, I believe this acceptance is the necessary first step toward a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

Syrian Trio Hewar Returns to Chicago this Sunday!

On of the most powerful moments of Tzedek Chicago‘s inaugural year last year was a benefit concert by the world-renowned Syrian trio Hewar in support of Syrian refugee relief. I’m thrilled to report that Tzedek is bringing to Chicago for return benefit concert this Sunday on May 7, 7:00 PM at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St.

Hewar (which is Arabic for “dialogue”) is led by Kinan Azmeh, a Damascus-born clarinetist and composer, graduate of Julliard, and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Kinan has appeared worldwide as a soloist, composer and improviser; with Hewar, his trio of Syrian musicians engage in a breathtaking mash-up of Arabic music, jazz, scat and western classical melodies. Comprised of clarinet, oud and soprano, the band builds on the talents of each of its members, juxtaposing and meshing traditions to create truly unique, genre-breaking music.

I’m particularly excited that for this concert, Hewar will be joined by 15 members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including the Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. Following the concert, Jamil Khoury, the Syrian-American Founding Artistic Director of Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, will moderate a Q&A with the musicians. The musicians are donating their time and proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Save the Children.

As those who attended last year’s concert will attest, this promises to be an incredible and important evening. If you live anywhere near the Chicago area this Sunday, I strongly encourage you to attend. You can purchase your tickets here or pay at the door on the day of the concert.

Kinan made the news earlier this year when he was stranded in Lebanon during Trump’s Muslim ban. You can read more about it in this interview with Rolling Stone. Click on the video above for a taste of last year’s concert. I hope to see you there!

Co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee – Chicago, Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, Chicago Area Peace Action, Congregation Hakafa, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Refugee One, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, St. Nicholas Church; and the Syrian Community Network.