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At annual conference, Palestinians and Israelis turn 'return' into reality

Palestinians, Israelis and internationals gathered in a Tel Aviv museum last week for a two-day conference dedicated to the Palestinian right of return. Tom Pessah on some of the conference highlights.

By Tom Pessah

Former Palmach fighter, Amnon Neumann, delivers the opening address at the Zochrot conference. (photo: Eléonore Merza)

I don’t normally cry during academic conferences, although perhaps “academic conference” would be the wrong way to characterize Zochrot’s conference on the issue of the Nakba and the Palestinian right of return. This year’s conference, titled “From Truth to Redress,” was held in Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum (on the grounds of the former Palestinian village Al-Sheikh Muwannis) and featured two days of presentations by Palestinians, Israelis and others on turning return into reality.

The position of the right of return in Jewish-Israeli discourse is odd; it is always mentioned, but no one ever really talks about it. It is the one thing we obviously should all be against, we say to ourselves. It is the most predictable issue, we repeat, one that will go away after a peace agreement. Even thinking about it is unrealistic. So we don’t.

Which is what made Shadi Habib Allah’s presentation so stunning. It began simply enough: Habib Allah, an architect and refugee himself, assembled a proposal for a new Palestinian village within Israel. He talked to the potential residents, found out their preferences, studied the location, and used his professional skills to come up with a detailed plan for a community that will combine historical relevance and modern services. The twist, though, is that this isn’t an entirely new village. According to Habib Allah’s presentation, al-Lajjun, one of several hundred Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, would be re-established on its original site (which is currently a park). The village would be populated by its original residents and their descendants, and would look something like this:

What caught my eye was the Arabic-English-Hebrew signs welcoming visitors to the future village, as well as the meticulous planning which takes into account the presence of nearby kibbutzim and the future economic relations with them. In a previous Zochrot event, one of the speakers said that the discourse on return is often trapped between Jewish-Israeli fears and unrealistic Palestinian nostalgia, which seeks to recreate the world before 1948 without changing a thing. But the new al-Lajjun isn’t a time capsule nor an exhibit from a museum – it’s a plan for a concrete, living 21st century community that will fulfill the needs and desires of those who hail from there.

At another panel, Zochrot member Ami Asher spoke of return as something Jews like himself could actually want. Jewish Israelis are not suffering from the outcome of the Nakba in the same sense that Palestinians are, he says, and any comparison would be absurd. Yet, the situation these Israelis are born into, of having to take up arms to maintain the continued expulsion of Palestinians, is unenviable. It isn’t something Asher would wish upon his children and grandchildren.

But nothing about this situation is inevitable. Attorney Noa Levy presented the legal models that Zochrot has designed, together with the Palestinian organization Badil. According to Levy, only about 1,000 houses of the original occupants are still standing, in cities like Jerusalem and Haifa. Otherwise, return would mean construction of new housing comparable to that which took place during the immigration of Jews from the ex-Soviet Union in the early 1990s. These are only suggestions, aimed at showing that compromise is possible, even on this issue which remains taboo within Israeli society. Levy went further and, together with Palestinian partners, began sketching out legal arrangements to diffuse the thorniest issue – Jews who occupy these former Palestinian houses, in ways that would recognize both sides’ rights and push them to compromise.

I only spent a few hours at the conference, and it is still too hard to summarize it all. Being surrounded by a community that was willing to finally break the taboo of return together, intelligently and warmly, brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps I should just mention the Palestinian who quoted Arik Einstein’s classic “You and I Will Change the World” (“Ani Ve-Ata Neshane et ha-Olam”). This world where Israelis are sent to protect our borders – to kill Palestinians who want to live where their families resided for centuries. “You and I, then the others will come,” goes the song. “They’ve said it before me, but that doesn’t matter. You and I will change the world.”

Read more:
For Palestinians, the Nakba is not history
Why the inconvenient truths of the Nakba must be recognized
The Palestinian Nakba: Are Israelis starting to get it?

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    1. Richard

      “reality” on Youtube seems like a great outlet for these folks.

      Reply to Comment
    2. If all of the descendants of this destroyed village returned to its ideal replacement, I doubt the replacement would be able to accommodate them. Perhaps all would not wish to return; yet the village would be situated in by far the most vibrant economy on their horizon.

      I believe there must be some sense of partial recovery among those resident in Israel proper. I don’t know how you get there given the density of truncated lives and livelihood endured and remembered. But I am pretty well convinced that that is all that is possible under the greatest optimism. A global “right of return” is just used by the nationalist right to silence all accommodation with the past. I think, somehow, you have to stop giving them that weapon.

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Yesterday, in vibran, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Iraq, where most of the population are brother Arabs and Muslims, over 90 people were butchered in multiple suicide bombings and shootings. I don’t have yesterday’s body count for Syria yet, and don’t forget that is another multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Middle Eastern counry. Here in Israel, where the Jews and Arabs are not “brothers” like the people in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, our “progressives” studiously ignore such things, just like the Bolsheviks in Russia ignored reality and created an impracticle social/economic system that failed at the cost of millions of lives. In spite of all these lesson, “progressives” insist on making more and more costly and even suicidal experiments. This “right of return” and “1-state-solution” insanity is just another example of this syndrome.
      DON’T BOTHER ME WITH THE FACTS is their slogan.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kolumn9

      I guess Zochrot and similar organizations have to spend their European money somehow. Though I wonder what an Israeli is to think when the Palestinians demand the ‘right of return’ to Sheikh Muwanis – that is Tel Aviv. How does one square that with accepting the idea behind the peace process that the Palestinians are not interested in destroying and displacing Israel? I mean it is pretty obvious from this conference that the attendees would prefer that Israel cease to exist but it seems doubtful to me that many Israeli Jews will come about to sharing such a nihilistic and dangerous position. It certainly seems like a counterproductive way to spend European money if the goal is to prepare the two sides for eventual peace based on the two state solution.

      I don’t really know why Im Tirtzu wanted to cancel this conference. One points at this conference and its demands to turn Israel into another Arab state and one points to Iraq or Syria and what happened to the Jews and other minorities of those countries and you create someone who hates the people at these conferences and fears/despises what they represent with a passion. It serves as a recruiting platform for the right and makes it trivial to paint the left as a group of either incorrigible idealists or traitors. If I had more money I too would sponsor Zochrot as I think they are doing a wonderful job. Kudos. These guys make the most extreme settlers look like responsible members of society.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Yaron

      If fantasizing is necessary to create a future, then why not focus on a more relevant future for Arabs/Palestinians in the West Bank and beyond? The political reality is much more likely to come up with a final solution that will not include a right of return, so why waste the effort?
      Irritating is that Israeli’s are supposed to ‘get the Nakba’, but when do Arabs are starting to get their side of the story? When do they realize that the wide spread mentality of burning hate of the Jews among their people that was the source of the conflict and the reason to start seven wars does not fit with the very living together with them, not even mentioning the fact that this means the end of the Jewish state, either by a diminishing Jewish majority, mass expulsion of the Jews or the killing of them?
      Organizing a conference like this is meant as sheer bullying of those that try to hammer out a compromise. It is like the child crying without an end because it does not get what it wants. Some children are better left crying without giving them the attention they demand.

      Reply to Comment