The discourse of segregation that envisions two units, one Arab-free and one Jewish-free, has worrisome implications for democracy and the relations between the two peoples. The Palestinian right of return must be part of a larger vision for the region, in which the regimes belong to all their citizens.
By Muhammad Jabali
Anybody claiming that state actions are legitimate from a perspective of power should be careful about the logic he legitimizes. For, according to this logic, the power and destruction of others is an essential and necessary part of a nation’s self-definition. This logic not only portrays past violence as essential to the creation of the nation-state, but it also legitimizes continued violence as an existential part of the self.
In the debate on Israeli statehood, the argument for homogeneity always arises, blocking our ability to see the richness and the opportunities excluded from the bilateral glasses that are forced on the political discourse, which make us see the land as two separate units – one for Jews and the other for Arab-Palestinians.
I recently wrote here about the problematic stance of claiming liberalism while holding on to the Jewish statehood claim. Most of the comments objecting to the statements in my previous post were hysterical. They ranged from explicit accusations of warmongering, to suggestions that I just can’t admit that the “Israeli nation” was created just like many other nations were. Other comments claimed that my emphasis on the Judaizing process of the space, which wasn’t empty to begin with, as the essence of the Israeli existence is merely an inflexible insistence on the full realization of the Palestinian refugee right of return. As if I called to bring back every refugee, and his or her descendants, to the same spot in which they had lived before 1948.
I deeply acknowledge the historical fact that to be sincere, one cannot ignore the fact that the Palestinian refugee problem was no exception in the Western existence in the mid-20th century. The world was full of refugees, having barely recovered from the Second World War. But let’s go further. Can we accept blood-religion-race as the base for citizenship in a modern state? Can we accept a political regime that is not color-blind? What is the difference between imposing a Zionist agenda on the state regime, and imposing the Ba’ath party ideology over the Syrian regime? These agendas grant people access to political power resources only if they themselves privilege the non-democratic state ideology.
I don’t imagine the Palestinian refugee right of return as the destruction of Israeli life. Moreover, I think the insistence of the “return” of all of the refugees and their descendants is also destructive for the Arab population. I hope for the right of return to be part of a larger vision for the region. I hope for all of the region’s regimes to be regimes for all their citizens. I do think that most of the Palestinian refugees should be granted the right to enjoy a link to the land; the right to visit, move freely and reestablish family bonds with those who remained inside the state of Israel; to reestablish some kind of Palestinian existence where the landscape allows for it; and to be granted compensation where the return to the land is impossible without exiling others. Resolving the Nakba doesn’t have to be imagined only in ways that destroy what is here now. That would mean more than the destruction of Israel – asking the refugees to abandon three generations of existence in the rest of the Arab world, in order to “return,” would actually create another Nakba for those many Palestinians who know and cherish another life. The true extremists are those who try to mask a segregationist discourse contaminated with Islamophobic and colonialist presumptions of the “self” and the “other,” portraying the right of return as the destruction of the Jewish existence.
Viewing the “Jewish existence” or “Israeli existence” as monolithic and completely connected to “statehood” is misleading, related to the imaginary of an urban, secular, Western society with immigrant dreams of the “new man” – like the American self-image. The most disturbing thing about this self-image that it is necessarily not Arab. To my mind comes a story by the brilliant Sami Michael (translated here from the Hebrew by me), recounted on the back cover of Yehouda Shenhav’s book “The Arab Jews,” in which he describes seeming to be an “Arab” in New York, while reading a book in Hebrew. He is approached by a Brooklyn Jewish woman who asks, “Where are you from?” Michael, cleverly guessing where the question is leading, answers “Jerusalem.” The lady asks, “But which side of Jerusalem?” Michael replies, “The northern part.” The lady persists, “What northern part, east or west?” He answers, “That depends where are you standing.” The lady then asks the inevitable question, “Are you a Jew or an Arab? “Michael responds with a smile: “Both!” The lady, puzzled by the answer, says, “There can’t be both an Arab and a Jew. There are only European Jews. Isn’t the Arab trying to kill the Jew?” Michael replies with the answer, “But isn’t the European the one who already killed the Jew?”
Denying the right of return means much more than the words generally used to justify it through hollow statements like, “It will mean the end of the Jewish state.” It has deep significance for the dynamics of the relationships between the peoples in this shared space. It has significance for the self-image of the Israeli. It justifies cleansing Arabs and Arabic culture from “Jewishness.” It also in turn justifies an Arab world clean of Jews. It means that Jews live here, and Arabs live there. In addition, it means that not only does it make it impossible to be a democratic Palestinian Arab living under the regime, but it also makes a democratic identity nearly impossible for Arab Jews. For, if they choose to be attached to their Arabic identity, they are also doomed to be more “Jewish,” more conservative and even more religious and right wing, in order to justify their existence in the Israeli project: their relation to Israeliness is reaped from glorifying the religious idea of the land of the Jews, an Israeliness that denies full citizenship to secular, pro-democracy Arabs.
Muhammad Jabali is a Palestinian Israeli activist and facilitator. He is a coordinator for the Ayam Association’s Jaffa Project-Autobiography of a City, which works to reconcile memory and space for a cosmopolitan Jaffa. He writes for Palestinian media and blogs within Israel, and has published poems in both Hebrew and Arabic. He is also a part of the Palestinema Group, which promotes films from the Arab world inside Israel-Palestine. He is also an occasional DJ.