Who's Afraid of the Right of Return? A Response to Kathleen Peratis on BDS
In many ways, it was refreshing to read Kathleen Peratis’ latest article (“If You Want Two States, Support BDS,” Open Zion 10/16/2013). “Ending occupation is low on the agenda of Israeli voters, lower even than the price of cottage cheese,” she writes. “Israelis are not demanding an end to occupation because the status quo is working for them.” To shake that indifference, she advocates embracing “the wake-up call that occurs when a rock group won't perform in Tel Aviv, when the E.U. refuses to fund Israeli projects that have any presence over the Green Line, when the Presbyterian Church threatens divestment in companies that profit from the occupation.”
I can completely relate to that. This isn’t about demonizing Israelis. We’re no different than the average American—unconcerned about Afghanistan, Iraq, or even conditions in the nearest Indian reservation. As Peratis notes, while boycott initiatives may well engender a siege mentality, the policy of “carrots only and no sticks” has spectacularly failed. The pressure needed to shake this indifference may be uncomfortable in the short term, but it’s probably unavoidable. We’ve tried the other options.
If Peratis can agree on that, what prevents her from joining forces with the global BDS movement, instead of separating herself from others working to end the occupation? She writes of “the whiff of anti-Semitism that rises from some of the BDS organizations, including some in the Global BDS Movement. Their advocacy of the 'full' right of return of Palestinian refugees means an end to Jewish Israel. Their one-sided condemnation of '48 is a rejection of our democratic Zionism. We cannot march shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Advocates of the status quo are well aware of the potential impact of the global BDS movement, and are working hard to attach a “whiff of anti-Semitism” to it. To coin a phrase, they want to “antisemitize” it. Precisely because it is attracting more and more serious activists, including many Jews, it is necessary to portray its advocates as dangerous racists. Jewish Voice for Peace has an entire blog, Muzzlewatch, devoted to such efforts. In response, it is worth mentioning strong statements signed by leading Palestinian activists condemning anti-Semitism , as well as the recent statement clarifying that “BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli.”
So where’s the anti-Semitism? What Peratis mentions in this context is the insistence of the global BDS movement on recognizing Palestinians’ Right of Return.
As an Israeli Jew, I can definitely relate to her fears. Our entire political existence is predicated on the preservation of a Jewish majority at any cost, and this is justified through the history of persecution Jews suffered from, for centuries. However, the Right of Return is so rarely discussed among both Israeli and American Jews that any mention of it triggers a lot of ignorant assumptions. So perhaps it would be worth dispelling some:
1. Palestinians are attached to specific places. People’s families lived in certain cities and villages for centuries. The Khalidi family has ancestors from the middle ages still buried in Jerusalem. These specific places had their own traditions, their own accents, their own costumes, their own plants, their own food—features which are unique and irreplaceable, which cannot be traded for residence in anywhere else. The simple knowledge that you are in the same spot as your ancestors were is highly important.
2. This attachment is central to their identity. They are as likely to give it up as Israelis are likely to “go back” to wherever their grandparents came from and forget about Israel. Just as people who have never met any Israelis are ignorant about us and feel we’re just a band of wandering “Europeans” who don’t have a connection to the place we’re born in, people who know few Palestinians imagine their centuries of attachment to this country mean nothing to them. This is a dangerous illusion that has no future, and is a serious obstacle to any progress.
3. It is absurd for Zionists like Peratis to insist on the right of Jews to “return” to a place their ancestors may or may not have lived in 2,000 years ago, and remain oblivious of people’s ties to a place they left merely 65 years ago.
4. If Palestinians had been displaced by Buddhists, Zoroastrians or Rastafarians, they would still feel attached to the places their families lived in. It isn’t about liking or disliking Jews. It really isn’t about us and our religion.
5. The Right of Return does NOT mean “throwing Jews into the sea.” Basically, this would be a form of immigration comparable to the mid-1990s, when many Jews from the former Soviet Union came to Israel. This time it would be non-Jews “making aliyah.” Deal with it.
6. Some of the refugees are internal, meaning they were displaced but remained citizens of Israel. An example is the residents of Iqrit, who recently attempted to return.
7. Palestinian and Israeli organizations have been hammering out concrete proposals to deal with legal issues, ownership of land, where new housing would be built, etc. Most of the sites of the former villages are now parks and agricultural areas.
Now, you may ask, why raise this issue now? Isn’t it more urgent to end the occupation? But the issue is advocated for by the global BDS movement precisely because Palestinians do see it as something that urgently needs to be addressed. Palestinians who tried to enter Israel from Syria and Lebanon on Nakba Day recently were shot. It’s hard to distinguish this violence from that of the occupation.
Kathleen, I want to challenge you: the next time you are on a panel, insist that a Palestinian also be invited to participate. And when she is, I want you to look her straight in the eye, tell her that you have democratic values, and then defend the idea that any young American Jew has more right to go and live in Israel/Palestine than she does. Even if she is from Jaffa or Haifa. If you truly believe these are democratic values, you should be able to do that. But if not, it’s time to stop cutting yourself off from the global non-violent movement for peace, justice and equality in Israel/Palestine.