May 5, 2005
Right of Return—War of Words in L.A.
Nader Abuljebain said he wants to go home.
The Orange County engineer often thinks about returning to his father's old house in Jaffa. It was a family jewel, Abuljebain said, telling how Israeli forces expropriated that home more than 50 years ago to make room for Jewish residents. As the 54-year-old Kuwaiti-born Palestinian sees it, the illegitimate, racist and imperialist state of Israel is the barrier standing between him and the realization of his homecoming.
"The right of return is not just a political issue," Abuljebain said. "It's a human right, a collective right, an individual right, an inalienable right." Abuljebain belongs to Al-Awda, a nonprofit group that held a three-day conference in Los Angeles this month to advocate for the right of Palestinian refugees to reclaim homes and property lost in the aftermath of Israel's creation in 1948. The shorthand name for his cause is the right of return, and it's one of the most contentious issues complicating a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
If Abuljebain's vision comes to fruition, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Palestinian refugees could return to reclaim their property not only in Jaffa, the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere in land that is the Holy Land both for Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews.
Abuljebain, past president of the local chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was among more than 400 Palestinians and their supporters who came to UCLA for Al-Awda's Third Annual International Convention in mid-April. Conference participants heard speeches on the legal basis for the right of return, how to lobby for it and on the justness of the cause. Those who gathered ran the gamut from black-clad young activists sporting T-shirts bearing, "With our blood, with our lives, we will free Palestine," to distinguished academics in suits; from Muslim university students in hijabs to graying peaceniks carrying copies of Marxist newspapers.
All were united in antipathy toward Israel. To them, the "Zionist entity" created millions of Palestinian refugees through systematic expulsions, land grabs and the "racist ideology" of Zionism.
"We have to be clear and brave that our right of return is inextricable from the fight to end racism, whether it's in Israel or South Africa," said an impassioned and charismatic Elias Rashmawi, national coordinator of the National Council of Arab Americans, who was barred from the Jewish state for anti-Israel activities.
Mainstream Jewish organizations and Israeli officials accuse groups like Al-Awda of historical revisionism, of fomenting anti-Semitism and of opposing a negotiated peace.
"The right of return is another way of saying I'm not interested in negotiations, that I'm interested in continuing violence," said Zvi Vapni, deputy consul general of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. Israel "will never accept it."
It's "false and distorted history" to claim Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing, said Edwin Black, author of the New York Times bestseller "IBM and the Holocaust." Anti-Israel "agitators," in Black's words, ignore the crimes Arabs have committed in recent years against Jews. He added that unlike the situation in Israel, Arab governments in Iraq, Yemen, Libya contravened international legal norms by confiscating Jewish-owned property and expelling 850,000 Jews after 1948. In contrast, the Jewish state, he said, simply enforced a transfer of populations, which was intrinsic to the principle of a Palestine divided between Jews and Arabs.
If Al-Awda cares so passionately about the right of return, why doesn't it support a reciprocal right to those Jews booted out by Arabs or to the millions of Jews forced out of Europe? Black asked.
Abuljebain has a question of his own.
"The Jews had the right of return, as they say it, after 2,000 years and still have it," he said. "Why can't I have it after 57 years?"
Abuljebain said he favors a secular, democratic state called Palestine -- not a Jewish state nor an Islamic state -- in present-day Israel.
The conference at UCLA provoked reactions ranging from concern to a calculated silence among Jews and Jewish groups. Organizations including Hillel, the American Jewish Congress, The Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee and seven other groups met five times before the conference to discuss an appropriate response. In the end, they decided against public protests, statements or other actions that might raise the event's profile, said Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, director of the Relations Committee.
"We're not interested in having a confrontation," she said. "We know we're not going to convince anybody who's attending it."
Still, she and others criticized the event's timing, which coincided with warming ties between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership as well as Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and from four Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
"I'm very saddened that [Al-Awda and its supporters] don't look forward to peace of any kind or co-existence, where Palestinians have their own state and Jews have their own state," said Leeron Morad, a 20-year-old UCLA sophomore and spokesman for Bruins for Israel.
Al-Awda partisans counter that they want to set the record straight and expose Israel's criminal behavior against Palestinians. In his remarks, UCLA English professor Saree Makdisi challenged the very concept of a Jewish state. He told conference-goers that one-quarter of Israel's schoolchildren are Palestinian Arabs and fully 20 percent of the country's population is non-Jewish.
"I teach Romantic literature here at UCLA from the early 19th and late 18th century, which is very fantastical," Makdisi said. "I'm a great fan of fantasy, but we live in reality. Israel is a fantasy of the Jews."
Right-of-return proponents argued at the conference that Palestinians have the law, morality and, increasingly, world opinion on their side. They insisted that Israelis forcibly expelled Palestinians during the 1948 conflict -- which Israelis recall as the War of Independence -- and again during the 1967 War. They don't want the Palestinian Authority to trade land for peace or to compromise; they want the return of all land and property as well as compensation for suffering. Anything less, they said, is unacceptable.
Israel hopes to "benefit from the ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948 and then again in 1967," said conference speaker George Bisharat, a professor at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
Behind him, a map of the Middle East hung on a wall that identified Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The word Israel did not appear. Instead, above the Jewish state was written: "This is the largest planned ethnic cleansing in modern history."
Most Jews vehemently reject these accusations, said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. They believe Palestinians voluntarily fled from their homes during the bloody 1948 conflict, expecting to return in the wake of triumphant Arab armies.
That narrative oversimplifies history, Myers said. Over the past two decades, a group of scholars called the "New Israeli Historians" has uncovered archival evidence that members of the fledgling Israeli army uprooted more than a dozen Arab communities, expelling thousands of Arab residents of Palestine in the process. In other words, the idea of "the noble Israeli victory of 1948 needs to be somewhat revised by the likelihood of the forced expulsion of some Palestinians," Myers said.
Still, Myers said, for Israel to accede to the right of return today "would be an act of national suicide. Displacing Jews to make room for expelled Arabs does not right the moral equation."