Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israeli Independence and Palestinian Dispossession

In today’s Ha’aretz, Merav Michaeli has written a most engaging op-ed on the occasion of Israel’s 63rd Independence Day. She focuses in particular on the Orwellian “Naqba Law,” which bars public funds for any organization that marks the Palestinian tragedy that was part and parcel of Israel’s creation.

This was the image my friend Emily Hauser used for her piece on Yom Ha'atzmaut. Great sentiment for the day.

Michaeli wrote:

“…after 63 years, Israel is unable to recognize that no matter how necessary and justified its establishment was, it was accompanied by wrongs and pain inflicted on others.”

For me, this defines so much of what we deal with today, and it is precisely this sentiment that tends to rub activists of both sides (with a good number of exceptions, to be sure) the wrong way.

The establishment of Israel came after decades of conflict. When I look at the history of the early days of Zionist settlement, I want to weep for all the time that a change in attitude on either side might have changed the tragic course of the history of Palestine.

European settlers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought with them the European attitude of superiority. The presence of this sentiment was unavoidable in Palestine, an area of the Ottoman Empire whose upkeep was not a priority in Istanbul at the time.

Yet the hysterical reaction throughout the Arab world to early Zionist settlement ignored both the historical connection that the Zionists awoke in some Jews and, much more importantly, the very real persecution most of them were fleeing in Europe.

[For an outstanding summary of this dynamic, I strongly recommend Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914.For the next two decades, Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate is equally good.]

Few topics are as sensitive as the alleged “original sin” of Israel’s creation. As a country of immigrants who wanted to construct an ethnic state which, perforce, excluded the indigenous inhabitants, some serious problems were unavoidable.

But they didn’t have to be this intractable. If the forces, which did exist, that were working to bring the two peoples together had gotten any support, the dynamic might have been very different.

In studying the cultural geographies of Palestine during the early days of Zionism, one can envision a different reality—one where Palestinian Arabs could build together with Jews, where Jews could enter an extant Arab culture and bring in their own to form something new.

That didn’t happen, obviously. Instead, a people who came to Palestine fleeing persecution established their state in the wake of the greatest catastrophe we had faced in our history, one where the world shut their doors to our fleeing brothers and sisters. And it was one of the key Allied Powers, Great Britain, which had shut the door of Palestine in 1939, just as the Holocaust was gearing up.

Israel’s establishment resulted in the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population of the territory that became Israel. Today’s fashionable argument is over how many were intentionally driven out and how many fled. But the seeds of today’s dispute were planted not on their flight, but in the barring of their return.

In light of the ethnic conflict, it was, perhaps, understandable that Israelis would not welcome the return of the Palestinians. Yet for many of those refugees, they had left, whether in fear or by begin driven out, as refugees usually do in wars—with the expectation of returning to their homes when the war ended.

This is why the refugee question really burns, and why Israel doesn’t want to talk about it. Israel’s stance has held up well over the years, and has generally been backed by not only the US, but Europe as well.

Even the so-called “moderate” Arab states (such as Jordan and Mubarak’s Egypt) who knew they had to address the refugee question generally did so with the implication at least that there would be no significant return of refugees. This would, of course, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish (or Zionist, if you prefer) state.

One of the implications of the Arab Spring, in the long run, is going to be a shift in this equation. As the popular Arab voice gains more power, Palestinians will not magically be an exception.

And in Palestinian terms, one of the key sources of outrage at the revelations of the Palestine Papers was the complete silencing and marginalization of the refugees.

I believe there was a period where a deal could have been done with only a token return of refugees, and could have been concluded without the involvement of Palestinian refugees. That day, for better or worse, is done. There may still be a possibility of compromise on this issue, but it will have to be done by including the refugees in the discourse.

That leads me to this passage from Michaeli’s piece:

“Sixty-three years after its establishment, the State of Israel and its Jewish society lack confidence, require external approval and recognition, and feel threatened by the entire world – and even by the minority that lives within. Is that independence? Is that what the “free people in our land,” as per the national anthem, looks like?”

Many countries have learned the lesson: one might enjoy freedom on the backs of others for a period, but the insecurity that breeds is itself a reversal of liberty.

Like the refugees, the Palestinians inside Israel also need to be part of the solution. They’re not just a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Israel has, for a long time, been able to rely on a global Diaspora, and that is becoming more the case for the Palestinians. And, just as sometimes the Israeli government has to deal with Diaspora Jews who want them to do things differently, the Palestinian Authority has discovered they need to be mindful of those not living in the West Bank and Gaza, as Diaspora which, ironically, includes those Palestinians living in the Jewish state carved out of historic Palestine.

It will be difficult for Israel to move into this future, where the state is not just the home of more than the Jews, but also the homeland. Palestinian citizens of Israel are a part of the fabric of Israel, and Israel has to start acknowledging that.

It means more than just citizenship. It means bringing Arab concerns into the daily discourse. The path toward a two-state solution must also include moving toward and Israel which is a state of all its citizens. A state, in other words, like any other.

Israeli independence will not be fully realized until Naqba Day is historical for Palestinians and not a day marking a present-day reality, an ongoing catastrophe for so many.

Israel’s political intransigence in the Oslo era has made that day more difficult to attain. But, on Israel’s 63rd birthday, it’s still not impossible.