Saturday, April 21, 2007

Right of Return

Chayyei Sarah has an article in the April 2007 Hadassah about Egyptian-Israeli Jews. It's worth reading in its own right as an important window into social change and historical memory in an Arab Jewish community, but I want flag this bit:
"The final blow came in 1956 with the Sinai campaign; that year, the government ordered the expulsion of the entire Jewish community, declaring that 'all Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.' By the time the Camp David peace accords were signed in 1978, only a few hundred Jews remained in Egypt to benefit from the agreement. Today, about 80 to 100 Jews remain, most elderly women who have outlived their husbands and whose children have moved on to more welcoming countries.

"'I remember as a child during Passover with my family waiting to see the first star appear in the sky so we could start the Haggada together, and pray and sing,' said Joseph Abdel Wahed, who was born in Cairo and left Egypt in the 1950’s. 'These were magical moments for me and my family...because we celebrated our liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But little did we know that, in a few years, we would celebrate our second exodus, which was our liberation from Nasser. If you know your Bible, it says, ‘There arose a king in Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ That was Nasser. He was very brutal.'"

Every Arab country was different, but several governments did turn on their Jewish minorities both shortly before and after Israel's declaration of independence. In Iraq, for example, Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa'id threatened to expel all Iraqi Jews as a bargaining chip on the Palestinian issue and use their property to compensate Palestinian refugees. Ultimately, with government encouragement, all but a few Iraqi Jews did emigrate, and the Iraqi government got most of their property, but I never saw where it was used for Palestinian refugees.

This is what makes the Palestinian demands for a right of return to Israel seem so tendentious. The real issue, in my mind, has nothing to do with Israeli desires for a Jewish majority or who did what during the War of Independence. From what I've been able to gather on a subject covered over in polemic, many Palestinians in Israel fled just like lots of people do in a war zone, while others were forced out of what the Israeli military deemed sensitive strategic areas, especially in the central part of the country. For cold-blooded political reasons, Ben Gurion's government never had any intention of letting them back in, though they did initially intend to pay compensation in exchange for recognition.

Taking the region as a whole, however, it's clear that any Israeli bad behavior was matched by the Arab states, and perhaps surpassed as the latter have preferred to use the Palestinians to bolster their own Arab nationalist credentials rather than prepare groundwork for moving on and integrate them the way Israel was able, with great economic difficulty, to integrate the influx of Arab Jews. While today one still hears comments that Israeli Jews should "go back to where they came from," it's not clear the commenting ones are fully cognizant of the full demographic picture, one where at a certain point Arabs constituted a thin majority of Israeli Jews, though I suspect the Soviet Aliya tilted that balance toward Europeans. In any case, thanks to intermarriage, it's clear the distinction will be meaningless before long.

In short, while the Israelis were seldom great humanitarians in their treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, the story is one of generally ugly behavior all around, especially since the Arab Jews weren't even Zionist originally, a legacy of the historic lack of anti-Semitism in the Muslim Middle East. Lots of people got unwillingly uprooted through the projects of Zionism and Arab nationalism. Ultimately, the Israelis dealt with this, while most Arab states didn't, meaning that the Palestinians are still "refugees" decades later. I am often sharply critical of Israeli policies towards the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and support a full withdrawal from these territories, as well as the Golan Heights, or whatever else might arise from negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states. However, the "right of return" is a fantasy, the carrot you dangle in front of the donkey to keep in plodding in the direction you want it to go. It's time to start dropping it.

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