Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees: Practices, Strategies and Visions

Zochrot conference : “Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees: Practices, Strategies and Visions”
Introductory remarks
Eitan Bronstein
June 22, 2008

I am moved and happy to open this conference: “Towards Return of Palestinian Refugees: Practices, Strategies and Visions.”  This title promises a great deal, and if I may be permitted to do so right at the beginning, I’d like to be slightly more modest.  I hope that today we may begin a discussion of the actual return of the Palestinian refugees.  It’s a little like beginning to learn to walk, like a baby who begins talking without really having a command of language, so she tries, and fails, and stumbles.  We’re here today to begin to stumble over our words, in order to create a language that will allow civil discourse about the return of the Palestinian refugees.  Perhaps, in fact, not only in one language, perhaps in many languages, speaking Arabic, English, Hebrew, Russian, Yiddishabout the Palestinian refugees who will one day return to Palestine.  This will be a new language, and it’s difficult to say much about it today.  Because we don’t know much about what that future will look like, and also because we don’t really have the words to speak it.  The title of one of Oz Shelach’s writings can serve as an example:  “Grandpa, how do you say ‘decolonization’ in Hebrew?”

The well-known Viennese Jew  Theodore Herzl  is one source of inspiration for our attempt to speak in an entirely different language and about an entirely different place.  In 1896 he published his book, The Jewish State, in which he proposed establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.  That, incidentally, was after he asks: Argentina or Palestina?  He set down his vision in a storm of emotions, before he even had visited the “homeland of the Jews,” as he called it, for the first time.  His book details a vision of what life will be like here, and how the Jews will implement this project.  All this – 64 years before it was implemented in the 1948 Nakba.  His essay discusses issues that are very relevant to us today:  the constitution of the future state, labour laws that will apply there (he proposes a seven-hour work day), immigration regulations, where and how will people settle?  Language (he proposes that each person speaks their own mother tongue, as in multilingual Switzerland), separation of religion and the state, the flag, and more.

I suppose that today we won’t design a flag for the post-colonial future  maybe we’d rather do without flags?  But we will dare to envision, to suggest possibilities, to argue about alternatives?

Today’s discussion can be viewed as the third leg of a tripod.  The other two, I think, are more familiar  accepting the fact of the Nakba, and accepting the right of return.  Otherwise, any discussion of the decolonization of Israel is doomed to fail right from the beginning, and we will remain in the same violent arena in which we now find ourselves  the current reality of our lives.

Knowing the Nakba, and taking responsibility for its consequences, is necessary if we are ever to understand where we ourselves stand, where we live.  Here are two good examples:  A few weeks ago Zochrot received an email from a concerned mother.  Her adolescent daughter came home from school and told her that the teacher taught them that before the Jews arrived the country was empty.   The mother began to tell her daughter about the Palestinians who had lived here, and been expelled.  Her daughter got angry and replied:  If I have to choose between your story, and the teacher’s, I prefer to believe the teacher.

How is it possible to speak about the return of Palestinian refugees before we understand that we expelled them, that we prevented them from returning?

Three days ago Zochrot’s web site received an email from Micha, who fought in 1948:  “I’d like to correct an error in the above quotation, from your web site.  I was one of the soldiers in Battalion 52, which captured ‘Aker.  The village fell without a fight, after we fired only a few shots.  The inhabitants were brought to the village square and asked to hand over their weapons.  They were given 24 hours to do so, and in the interim we left.  When we returned at the time we had set to collect the weapons, the village was empty.  The villagers left voluntarily.  No one was expelled.
I’m proud to have been a soldier in the Giv’ati Brigade in 1948, the only one of the brigades in the War of Independence in whose sector not a single Arab remained, without having expelled people from their homes.”

First he tells us that shots were fired and they ordered the Palestinians to turn over their weapons, and then he claims they left voluntarily.

And then he continues, and asks us:  “The offices of Zochrot are located in the Zionist settlement of Tel Aviv, on the lands of Jaffa, Sumeil, Jamassin and Sheikh Munis.  Is that kosher?”

It’s not kosher, I answered, and invited him to come here today and think about what could be done about it.

If Micha meets that teacher, perhaps he could teach her a thing or two about the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Palestine in 1948.  Unless we know about it, how can we accept responsibility for it?

Whoever had to be reminded of how important it is to acknowledge the Nakba, was reminded by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister, who stated that peace will come only after the Palestinians remove the term “Nakba” from their vocabulary.  From her point of view, she’s absolutely correct.  Acknowledging the Nakba, and preserving its memory, contradicts the Jewish state as it has existed so far.

The second leg on which the beginning of our discussion stands is the right of return, that is, the opportunity of each refugee, male and female, to choose whether to return or receive compensation and be resettled elsewhere.  The right of return also includes returning property.  When we know something about the Nakba, and understand the tremendous crime committed against inhabitants of the country, we also understand that the right of return is the “natural” moral and political response to it.  It is also the basis for the discussion in this conference.  International law, and in particular UN Resolution 194, adopted in December, 1948, calls for the return of the refugees to their homes in the near future.  Israel was accepted as a member of the United Nations in May, 1949, only after it promised to fulfill this resolution, and the time has come to accept and act to implement it.  In recent years there have been many important conferences in Israel and abroad devoted to this topic  the right of return.  The most recent was held last weekend in Haifa, and its scope was extremely impressive.

Now we come to the subject of today’s conference, which is the third leg, and the title of our deliberations:  the return of the Palestinian refugees.  Whenever we talk about the Nakba and the return of Palestinian refugees, we’re asked, “Ok, so what do you propose?  What can we do now?  Go back to the countries we came from?  Swim away in the ocean?”  All the fears of Israel Jews float to the surface.  That, exactly, is what this conference is about.  In fact, for the past two years and more we’ve been trying to develop answers to this question, the question of implementing the return of the refugees.  We established a study group on the subject, and this conference is one of its products.  The idea is to try to think about what might occur in the future when the refugees actually return.  When we began to think this way we discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that almost no research, or developed ideas, exists on this issue.  There’s a great deal about the right of return and about the Nakba, as well as comparative research on refugee issues elsewhere in the world.  But there are almost no serious attempts to propose how the return could actually come about, and what its implications would be for our lives here.  It is important, in this connection, to mention what may be the only existing text, The Feasibility of the Right of Return, by Salman abu Sitte, which shows that most of the area of the Palestinian villages is still vacant today.

We want our discussion to peel away the layers of myth that have accumulated over the years.  Here’s a realistic example, from a selection by Anton Shamas that appears in the third issue of Sedek.  Shamas writes how it’s impossible for A’ to return to Palestine.  “Rahat Filistin, that is, going to Palestine.  True, the territory didn’t disappear in 1948.  But their territory faded away  its name was changed, it was pulled out from under them, and so  it went. So there was no home to come back to.  But A’ wanted to go home to Filistin.”  He goes on to cite the Lebanese author who once wrote, “It’s impossible to return to Palestine; you must just go there.  And if that’s also impossible a person must, perhaps, create a Palestine of his own.”  We    simply want to begin going there, because if it’s really “impossible to return to Palestine” as it was, we should create something new that deals with what occurred here in 1948.

Discussion will begin with ideas about the actual return, and criticism of them.  The second session will present projects prepared primarily by planning professionals.  The third will deal with the situation after the return of the Palestinian refugees, and the final session will address what can be done now to bring about their return.  Today’s meetings will conclude with performances of song, some of them quite startling.

Before we begin, I would like to thank our speakers, who rose to a challenge that was by no means simple, given the topic.  It should be mentioned that, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t easy to find appropriate speakers.

Nor was it a simple matter to find a place to hold the conference.  This setting, the home of the Zionist Organization of America, should be seen not only as a cute joke, but precisely as an appropriate setting to begin a discussion of the decolonization of Palestine.  Here, in the middle of the Hebrew city that is busy cleaning itself up for its centennial celebrations, 114 years after the appearance of Herzl’s The Jewish State, and sixty years after his vision was realized, the time has come to think about a completely different reality.  This is a necessary political act in the present circumstances, and we’ll hear more about this during the day.

I would like to thank the coordinator of this conference, Rona Even, who landed in Zochrot in order to organize it  actually, it landed on her  and who worked day and night under difficult circumstances to guarantee its success.  Nor can I ignore the contribution of two partner organizations that are very important to us:  the Committee of the Uprooted, and Badil.  The Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Uprooted in Israel, whose representatives will address us today, has been a partner since the beginning of our work, and we are particularly pleased that Wakim is here with us.  Badil, from Bethlehem, has encouraged us since we started.  Unfortunately, Mohammad Jaradat did not receive permission from the authorities who are finalizing the occupation of Palestine since 1967, to be with us here.  A few months ago, when we began discussing the conference with them in Bethlehem, he said that the very fact that it is being held already represents a success.  Today I understand just how right he was.

The Iris O’Brian Fund provides financial support for the conference, and we are grateful to it.

Yesterday an exhibit opened in Zochrot’s offices, curated by Ariella Azoulay, on the architecture of destruction, fear and subordination  in other words, on the destruction of buildings and other forms of repression in the territories that were occupied in 1967.

The third issue of Sedek, published by Zochrot, has just appeared in conjunction with the conference, in cooperation with Parhessiya and Pardes Publishers, and most of it also deals with the return of the refugees.  Some of the texts it contains will be improved during the conference discussions.

In addition, Erased from Space and Consciousness, by Noga Kadman, a member of Zochrot, has just been published by November Books Ltd.  It deals with the repression of the memory and the physical presence of the Palestinian villages that were captured and mostly destroyed in the Nakba.  It is an exact, detailed study, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand the country in which they live.

The conference continues tomorrow, and your program provides details for everyone who wishes to participate in the planned activities.

I’m happy to invite our associate, Nada Matta, who will chair the panel, to open the discussion.


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