Justice and Peace

Justice is often said to be a necessary condition to ensure a sustainable peace. On the other hand, peace is supposed to be a necessary condition for attaining true justice. Justice and peace, in this view, are symbiotically related, each dependent on the other although they refer to different spheres. Justice, that is social rather than just legal justice, is concerned with minimizing inequality. Peace is concerned with minimizing violence. Inequalities foster violence and violence benefits those who have little interest in human rights.

In the second week of the recent Gaza War, there were protests organized on the front steps of the building in which the Israeli Consulate is located in Toronto. Fake blood was pored down those steps. The organizations behind the protest accused Israel of “brutal occupation, military attacks and ethnic cleansing,” whether the policies and practices applied to Gaza from which Israel had withdrawn, the West Bank in which Israel practiced creeping annexation in Area C, East Jerusalem that Israel had annexed shortly after the end of the 1967 war, and even in Israel itself where Israel was accused of continuing the displacement and eviction of Israeli Palestinian citizens.

In other words, the cause of the violence was not the seven missiles Gaza aimed at Jerusalem, but the continuing violence and injustices Israel perpetuated against Palestinians. The missile attacks against civilian targets in Israel were but justified responses to Israeli violence and unjust treatment of Palestinians. The river of faux blood on the steps was the symbol that Israel had blood on its hands. Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, mostly focus on the injustice of shooting over 4,000 missiles into Israel, even though admittedly at least 25% fell short and fell into Gazan territory.

There is now a cease-fire. The main conviction is that the cease-fire is only temporary. It may last five years. But it is simply a lull in a long-term struggle, no longer between two national groups seeking self-determination in the same territory, but between an oppressed group denied self-determination by an oppressive colonial and apartheid regime that perpetuates injustice both by denying Palestinians the right to self-determination and by the unequal and unjust treatment of even its own citizens who are Palestinian. The logic of this position and narrative is that the only way the rights of the Palestinians can be won is by the end of the colonial oppressive Jewish state. The formulation is a recipe for a fight unto the death until only one group is left standing.

As Khalil Shikaki, a renowned Palestinian pollster, wrote in Foreign Affairs, the recent “Fighting in Gaza Marks the Start of a More Violent Era.” As he subtitled his piece, “The Search for a Two-State Solution is Over.” (19 May 2021) In other words, he pronounced the end of the quest for some justice for both groups, a formula in which the solution might be asymmetrical as well as the justice achieved, but where the goal was not a zero-sum game with only winners and losers. If justice for Jewish Israelis means injustice for Palestinians, there can be no peace other than temporary cessations in open warfare.

Just as there were four different conceptions of peace described in the previous blog, there are four different visions of justice.

Zero-sum games:

  1. Justice for one group and no justice for the other.
  2. More justice for one group and less for the other, but the conception is of a fixed amount of justice to be divided up.

Positive-sum games

  • Even as one group enjoys more justice than the other, the effort is made to raise the degree of justice for the other group even if total equality may never be the result given the history of the conflict.
  • Equal justice for all by making justice rooted only in individuals and equal rights and opportunities are guaranteed to all irrespective of the ethnic origin of that individual.

In the language of can and can’t, the first option is possibly a “can,” but very unlikely given the attitudes and roles of members of the international community. The fourth is almost certainly a “can’t” given the historically ingrained animosity and distrust between the two groups and especially the leaders of each. It has as little chance and probability of a future as the utopian vision of a one-state solution with equal rights for all.

Options 2 and 3 both remain in the “can” category. Most bets currently are on number 2 even as most international efforts are rooted in the effort to pull off number 3, even as the prospects grow dimmer day after day. A good reason for this is the radicals or extremists in each camp believing in and pushing for option 1. That is unequivocally the policy of Hamas which grew in prestige and status among Palestinians in the latest round of fighting. That is true of the extreme nationalist-religious groups in Israel who would easily choose an ethno-nationalist over a democratic outcome if there had to be a choice. Fortunately, these still remain a minority, though a growing one.

These extreme nationalist religious Jewish groups are behind the pressure for evictions of Arab families in Sheikh Jarrrah and in the mixed towns and cities, such as Lod. They are prone to challenge the authority of the Muslim Waqf (under Jordanian custodial responsibility) to which Israel handed back control after the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. There has always been a tension between Israel, which retains security control over the Haram esh-Sharif, and the Waqf which administers the holy places and the plaza. These extreme nationalists are also the leaders of the settler movement in the occupied territories.

The problem is not simply these extremist pressures, but the role of the state led by “more moderate” right-wingers to foster unequal treatment of Palestinian residents in the occupied territories and even in Israel, even though, in the last ten years, the Israeli government has made a concerted effort to raise the amount of monies invested in Palestinian schools and municipalities. But this gesture was offset by the support for the nation-state bill in Israel which explicitly and formally gave a preference to Jews while reducing the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel. Further, the Knesset defeated a motion to guarantee equal treatment of minorities.

The anti-democratic measures in the Palestinian-run territories have been even much more extreme. Hamas is explicitly anti-democratic, only favouring elections when its election prospects look good. Hamas runs a theocratic government that first achieved power in an election and then staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is itself anti-democratic, canceling the planned election ostensibly because of Israeli non-cooperation in facilitating voting in East Jerusalem.  Neither Palestinian government in the West Bank or Gaza supports an independent judiciary or an outspoken civil society, though the PA has shown more tolerance than Hamas that has become more ruthless in its attacks on Israel, risking to its own populace and certainly constitutional rules and norms.

As domestic extremist forces gain strength in each camp, the prospect of option 2 in the justice realm is outpacing prospect 3, though both still remain viable possibilities. The problem is the direction. For as option 2 increases in probability, option 1 moves from the “can’t” camp to the “can” or possibility camp. In that case, diaspora Jews would have to choose between retaining support for an increasingly undemocratic ethno-nationalist state and a decreasingly democratic one. That process is already underway as more Jews raise their voices and participate in  the utopian vision which, in reality, reinforces the extremist number 1 option in favour of the Palestinians. And liberals are torn between resigning themselves to accepting the inevitability of number two while continuing to push for option 3, but are discouraged as option number 1 gradually moves from the “can’t” to the “can” camp.

Next blog on Israel:

The Role of Empathy and Truth in Influencing Probable Outcomes

Physics and Peace

One way to get back to basics is to return to what we consider the core elements, in physics, the elementary particles, that found the science. However, more recent developments in physics have shifted attention away from the basic elements and the laws governing them, such as the Newtonian laws of motion, to the framing constraints and limitations. In physics, attention in Constructor Theory has shifted from those laws of motion to the laws of thermodynamics which determine the limits to the laws of motion. That is, they establish the impossibility of perpetual motion.  Fundamental laws are not the elemental determinants; the limits on the behaviour of those elements are. The primary focus is what is possible and what is not possible.

One enormous advantage of this gestalt switch is that altogether different spheres of study come into view – such as information theory or the understanding of the mind and even the physics of life. Further, in the search for guidelines for consistently reconciling different patterns of forces rather than focusing on the forces themselves, worlds that were once considered irreconcilable – quantum mechanics versus relativity theory ­– suddenly fall within the same frame. For the issue is no longer their reconciliation but the limitations under which each of them operates.

When I taught at the Hebrew University philosophy department as a Lady Davis Visiting Professor in 1977-1978, a colleague there, Igal Kvart, just published his book A Theory of Counterfactuals which he subsequently extended to an analysis of causes wherein causes were transformed from mechanical pushes to influences and knowing was turned into a probabilistic enterprise based on objective probability. Theoretical physicist Chiara Marletto at Wolfson College in Oxford has used this focus on counterfactuals and possibilities into redefining physics as the science of can and can’t. In other words, instead of beginning with norms and key elements to determine preferences, you begin with constraints to reveal what is possible and impossible to focus on probabilistic outcomes of different degrees. Instead of asking how do we get from here to there – say a state that is both Jewish and democratic – you begin by determining the constraints and limitations to combining the various key elements. The goal – to determine what transformations are possible and the probabilities one might reasonably attach to each.

As Marletto has stated, the science of can and can’t operates at an even deeper level than relativity or quantum theory to elucidate deeper principles at work to bring out different laws of motion and change at work. It permits unarticulated possibilities to come to the forefront. New pathways can then be perceived. In physics, according to the Heisenberg Principle, you cannot measure both stasis and change, position and velocity. A perfect measurer of stability and transformation is not feasible. So instead of concentrating on what is happening and the implied consequences – as I did in my opening to this series of blogs – the focus shifts from what has happened and what is happening to what can happen. What are the options? What are the possibilities of each? Which are demonstrably impossible? Are there new regularities that we can identify at the level of political interactions in conflict situations?

The intention is to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through such a revised shift in perspective in which counterfactuals and theories of possibilities focus on rational choice or agency, on the one hand, and media and mental or ideological representation on the other hand. (Cf. Boris Kment, “Counterfactuals and Causal Reasoning”). To prepare the ground, I begin with an analysis of the concept of peace.

A key element is assessing the conflict is justice. Everyone claims to obey the guiding principle that, “Justice, justice, that thou shalt pursue.” At the same time, the goal is said to be “peace.” But both justice and peace reveal themselves as very different terms occupying competing realms. Humanitarians try to achieve both, as when the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University organized, “Black Lives Matter Under a New Presidency: What Lies Ahead?” Justice is about egality and distribution. Peace is about reconciliation from places of inequality. The two concepts travel from different starting points and in opposite directions. They are also equivocal terms. I will have to deal with both concepts, but I begin with the analysis of “peace” first and four very different meanings assigned to the concept:

  1. Peace as simply the absence or cessation of violence with no implications for the future.
  2. Peace as having a limited time horizon, the current expectation of the cease-fire ending the recent Gaza War.
  3. Peace as permanently ending the violence between two sworn enemies.
  4. Peace as an eternal state in which, “There ain’t gonna be war no more.”

If we are operating in parallel to particle physics, we must choose how to characterize peace first. Is it simply the bare absence of violence? This is the position of the 138 members of the US Congress who called on Biden to insist on a ceasefire and “to boldly lead and take decisive action to end the violence.” Peace meant the absence of open and violent conflict even if the peace, that cessation of bombing and lobbying missiles, meant not allowing the conflict to precede to a point at which peace might result and betting on the slim possibility, perhaps impossibility, that Israel and Hamas could eventually actually make peace.

Or is peace the second option, something extracted from the battlefield in a very concrete context but with no pretext of any significant sustainability? Peace then is not only the termination of a battle, but a state with a probable guaranteed limited time period? Or is peace the permanent end of belligerency between two enemies. Or, finally, is peace a depiction of some utopian era in which the lion can lie down beside the lamb? There are biblical commentators who take these different positions. They are also reflected in different current political postures.

In Hebrew biblical commentary, Ibn Ezra took the first position, the same as that of the 138 American legislators. Peace simply means avoiding bloodshed. There is no time dimension. It is enough that the launching of missiles and the bombing have both stopped.

The second position is well represented by those who still cling to the Oslo Accords as a peace agreement, even though the agreements arrived at never tackled the core issues. It is best represented in current terms by Israeli negotiators who participated for years in peace negotiations and cling to the idea that eventually the two-state solution will emerge because no other possibility is viewed as realistic. In the case of the conflict with Hamas, where even a two-state solution is not on the horizon, a five-year long-term ceasefire is the goal, shunting aside all other issues – prisoner exchanges, repatriation of soldiers’ bodies, economic arrangements, political conditions. The aim is to buy enough time to rebuild Gaza once again. This doctrine of war did not entail defeating the enemy but only compelling the enemy to stop fighting for a limited number of years based on deterrence. War fought on the basis of such a doctrine does not destroy the enemy’s capacity to wage war in the foreseeable future.

The third position, not peace as the (temporary) cessation of violence nor peace as a longer-term absence of violence in the hope that the interim period can be used to end the violence, but peace as an intended product of war can be associated with the mediaeval biblical commentator, Rabbi Chizkuni. It means that war is not viewed as the polar opposite to peace but as the means by which peace is achieved by, for example, conquering territory as rapidly as possible while simultaneously totally neutralizing the threat.

The problem is that, although the war is truly brought to an end, unless the military victory is also translated into a diplomatic one, the potential for violence just undergoes a metamorphosis and Israel becomes burdened with the long-term weight of administering the territory it conquered, a process that eats away at the very fabric of Israeli society. The conquest of the West Bank and of southern Lebanon both instantiated this general rule. Unfortunately, as one military strategist commented, “Israel’s accumulated experience in times of war shows a disturbing pattern that has become a ritual: a serious gap always emerges between the achievements of the military and the failure of national public diplomacy.”

In the third option, peace is not simply a cessation of violence. Neither is peace the establishment of no war for a limited period. Peace, such as that which the allies achieved after WWII, entails an overwhelming, clear and unequivocal victory such that the enemy cannot rise again to fight another day. The armed forces of one side must rapidly and simultaneously neutralize the enemy’s capabilities. And then, the victor must subdue the enemy without fighting or coercion. (Cf. Sun Tzu)

The fourth utopian view of peace is held by a number of right-wing ideologues as well as Islamicists, including Hamas, and ultra-orthodox, evangelical Christians. For the latter, “A heavenly portal, a spherical opening of light, will soon offer divine protection to the Jews protected from demonic interference by the angels who will then be free to come and go between heaven and earth and deliver perfection.”

If we subject these four alternatives to the logic of “can” and “can’t,” there is easily a consensus that, by definition, the fourth option is not an earthly possibility. But neither is the third in the present context where the international community, especially the Arab and Muslim societies, will not accept the vanquishing of the Palestinians by the Israelis. On the other side, for now, America will not allow Israel to be vanquished. But with a longer time horizon, groups like Hamas hope that this situation will change; when that day comes, Israel will be eliminated from the Middle East. However, given present projections, neither vanquishing the Jews nor the Palestinians seems possible.

Clearly the first choice is possible but is seen as a needed but not a desired outcome. There is a general consensus that the absence of violence is simply a minimal first step, but one in itself unlikely to result in “real” peace. The analysis, therefore, leaves only the second option in the “can” category. So Egypt is active in building upon the temporary ceasefire a longer term solution that will extend well beyond five years. Following its success in arranging the ceasefire, Egypt accepted the leadership in forging a diplomatic agreement for far more than just five years. The goal is peace and stability between the warring parties.

To accomplish that, agreements have to be arrived at for security for both sides and for policies to be laid down which will allow both sides to thrive. The dilemma is that such a prospect seems impossible when the major goal of one side (Hamas) is the elimination of the other. Hamas seems unwilling even to introduce confidence building measures, such as the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the return of two Israeli civilians held hostage. This presumably would be in exchange for Palestinian prisoners or extending the fishing zone or some other quid pro quo.  The more Israel gives, the greater the possibility that Hamas will agree to limitations on its import of missiles that could induce Israel to lift its blockade.

However, none of these moves change the fundamentals. The most important mission of Hamas is the elimination of Israel even if the pragmatic elements in the Hamas camp are willing to enter into agreements that will strengthen its position. That is why the goal of America, Egypt and Israel has emerged to focus on vanquishing and sideling Hamas by diplomatic means to restore the “can” to this option.

This is what diplomacy is about, translating a ceasefire with an estimated time horizon into longer term arrangements which foster peaceful dialogue rather than a resort to violence between the contending parties. That entails establishing communication channels and the input of other parties, such as Qatar and the UAE, to reinforce such efforts.

If utopia and militarily vanquishing one side or the other are ruled out as possibilities and mere cessation of violence is viewed as not real peace, then the focus is on only one possibility, a diplomatic agreement between the parties. But is that possible if one of the parties is represented by a political movement that regards the other as fundamentally illegitimate and if the other party rejects Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner because of the latter’s position? Diplomacy “can” lead to peace, but, given the leading parties in the conflict at the present time, that would seem to be impossible. Hence the effort to resurrect both Fatah as the leader of the Palestinian cause and, along with that resurrection, the two-state solution.

For the one-state solution is either a utopian unrealistic option or the result of one side vanquishing the other. Thus, although Oslo can be pronounced dead, its resurrection in some form may be necessary if “can” is to be the ruling framework. Hence, Jordan’s King Abdullah’s willingness to put “all its diplomatic relations and capabilities” both in service to the Palestinian cause and the absence of any alternative except advancing “a two-state solution to achieve just and comprehensive peace”. That means strengthening the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas.

Then other possibilities emerge – such as creating joint industrial zones in the Erez and Karni crossings. To do that, Israel requires guarantees from Egypt and the US that international investment will be used, not for the purchase of arms, but to rebuild infrastructure. To explore these realms of the possible, three other conceptions must be introduced and analyzed – justice, empathy and truth.

The analysis from the perspective of “can” to be continued.

The Latest Gaza War – Back to Basics

Peter Beinart wrote two important pieces in Jewish Currents, one last summer that claimed, “The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed.” Early this month he published a second essay on the right of return for Palestinian refugees in which he proclaimed: “If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland, neither do we.” While I have written sporadic criticisms of the one-state option and a sustained detailed and comprehensive criticism of his opting for the right of return of Palestinian refugees, unlike Peter, I have not revisited my basic presumptions.

Perhaps it is because I, unlike Peter, began as an anti-Zionist and only came to liberal Zionism later in my life. But the present situation needs, indeed demands, revisiting basics, even though I found Peter’s laudable effort to be both empirically and logically very flawed. The recent Gaza 2021 war has made that fundamental re-evaluation even more imperative and urgent.

A major reason is the huge chasm between what the IDF accomplished in the latest Gaza war and the more important larger failures. When, after prayers finished in the al-Aqsa Mosque and the largest proportion of the worshippers left peacefully, a relatively small group of protesters (in the hundreds) began taunting police, waving banned Palestinian flags and some throwing stones and other even more lethal missives which the police claimed were Molotov cocktails. The police dispersed the “rioters” with batons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. It was this dispersal that was carried in the media, not the provocations.

Why? First, the media coverage was intended to reveal that those who police the al-Asqa plaza are brutal thugs. Secondly, as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas top official in Qatar, proudly pronounced, though Hamas “concluded eleven long and painful days of war and absorbed enormous damage,” Hamas had the following more important successes worth the sacrifice:

  • The rocket attack took Israel by surprise.
  • Hamas demonstrated it could send its rockets into the population heartland of Israel.
  • Hamas demonstrated that it could surmount the blockade and import long-range rockets.
  • Heavy rocket barrages launched toward multiple locations almost simultaneously almost overwhelmed Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.
  • Hamas demonstrated that Israel could no longer dominate the Palestinians with impunity.
  • By standing up to the militarily far more powerful Israelis, according to Hamas, Palestinians proved to the whole world that Jerusalem belonged to them.
  • Though a bare majority of Palestinians already strongly believed that the Al-Asqsa Mosque was under threat by Israelis, this perception was heightened, broadened and dramatized, reinforcing a trend that went back to 1921. (Cf. Yisrael Medad “The Roots of the ‘Al Aqsa is in Danger’ Myth: Alfred Mond and a Speech Distorted,” 21 May 2021.)
  • Hamas not only ensured that Palestinians could wallow in their victimhood, but used the collapsing high-rise buildings in Gaza to remind the world of the collapsing New York towers in 2001, but not the radical Islamicist threat that produced that result.
  • Upset the delicate balance of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.
  • Reversed the effort to erase the identity of Israeli Arabs as Palestinian and reinforced the idea of a shared identity.
  • Hamas has for a period made its own people forget how inept and corrupt its rule in Gaza has been.
  • Hamas emerged in a position to proclaim itself as the undisputed leader of the Palestinian cause.

These were visual and ideological victories, not military gains on the ground. The accomplishments were media ones on the assumption that the media dimension of modern warfare is far more important than actual military victories. Those unequivocally went to the IDF which:

  • Demolished hundreds of millions of dollars of military infrastructure
  • Proved that the Hamas effort to launch an attack by sea, using miniature submarines, was a total failure
  • Destroyed numerous anti-tank missile crews
  • Intercepted Hamas spy and strike drones
  • Most importantly, blew up miles of underground intra-Gaza tunnels and bunkers in the “Metro” as well as cross-border terror tunnels
  • Tricked the Palestinians into emerging from the tunnels only to be met by bombs rather than a land invasion
  • Targeted and killed numerous Hamas military leaders (Israel claimed that at least 100 high-ranking military leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were assassinated during the conflict.)
  • Proved, thereby, the effectiveness of Israeli intelligence
  • Used much greater precision targeting for bombing buildings and infrastructure
  • Minimized the collateral damage compared to the 2014 war; only 248 were killed, not over 1,400, and only 66 were “children,” noting that some of them were teenage child soldiers and an estimated 25% of the deaths were the result of Hamas rockets falling short and landing in Gaza, not Israel
  • Avoided a ground war in which there would have been many more casualties, both Palestinian and Israeli
  • Prevented Hezbollah from joining the war effort from the north.

However, military shmilitary victory! First, Operation Guardian of the Walls only restored “quiet and security to Israel” for perhaps five years; it did not remove the threat. Further, was acquiring a few years without any measurable violence even relevant when Hamas won the media war? As Honest Reporting noted, “In the past two weeks, we’ve seen an unrelenting onslaught of media bias against Israel waged by Canadian news providers, the likes of which we have never seen before. In the backdrop of recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas terrorists, our [Canadian] media singled out Israel for opprobrium, perpetuated outright falsehoods, and resorted to grotesque moral equivalences.”

Did it matter if the war was not won but merely set the stage for another war within ten years? As Abu Marsouk said, the war will only end when Jews end their occupation of Arab land and leave Palestine. “There will be no compromises allowing Israel to continue existing or the Jews to remain in the land.” This is a declaration of absolute jihad. The Jews are illegitimate occupiers of Arab land, the last expression of European colonialism, and there can be no compromise with colonizers.

Further, the majority of Palestinians believe that Israel’s true goal is to occupy the entire land of Palestine and ethnically cleanse enough Palestinians to ensure they maintain a clear and unthreatened majority. Jews even intend to rebuild their temple on the ruins of the al-Asqa Mosque. Thus, Hamas won an enormous ideological as well as media victory. In the media victory, they were brave victims of an overpowering military force. In the ideological war, they were in the position of David out to totally destroy the threat of Goliath.

  • Hamas declared victory because it survived the behemoth.
  • Hamas declared victory because the international community overwhelmingly identified and supported the Palestinians.
  • Hamas declared victory because it emerged as the pro tem true leader of Palestinian self-determination.

How did Israelis respond to the end of the war? There was a sigh of relef. There were no demonstrations declaring victory. There were some demonstrations of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis who pledged to continue to work to create a nation where all its citizens would have equal rights and there would be no inter-ethnic violence. Israelis, for a short time elated in emerging from the fog of the pandemic, were by and large depressed at the idea that the war had not accomplished anything permanent nor resolved the threat from Hamas. Israel’s readiness to agree to a cease-fire was perceived by Hamas as weakness. 72% of Israelis opposed the ceasefire. Hamas leaders have already threatened to open the next round of fighting. As Deputy Chief of Hamas, Musa Abu Marzouk, boasted, this “was not the final war with Israel. There will be more.” War will end when we negotiate the exodus of the usurping Jews from Palestine. Justice will reign and Palestinians will get what is justly theirs. The sacrifices will be painful. Victory will demand patience. But in the end, the Jews will leave.

The surprise is that, in spite of Hamas clear and unequivocal statements about its intent to exterminate Israel and expel the Jews from all of Palestine, the conversation in America, Israel’s key international supporter, has shifted. More specifically, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has moved the centre of gravity around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Cf. “’From Ferguson to Palestine’: How Black Lives Matter changed the U.S. debate on the Mideast,” Sean Sullivan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, 22.05.2021.) Note the following:

  • The BLM organizer who compared her clashes with police to those faced by Palestinians: “A ceasefire ends the bombardment — not the violence.”
  • Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of BLM: “Being in solidarity with the Palestinian people is something that’s been part of our work as Black Lives Matter for almost as long as we’ve been an organization.”
  • Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a former BLM organizer, on the House floor stated that the Palestinians have endured “military occupation, policing, and apartheid” and “our own government is funding a brutal and militarized disposition towards our very existence — from Ferguson to Palestine.”
  • The language of “apartheid Israel” has now become mainstream, reinforced, of course, by reports of B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Human Rights Watch;
  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY): “As a Black man in America, I understand on a personal level what it means to live in a society designed to perpetuate violence against people who look like me…My experience of systemic injustice, including being beaten by police at 11 years old, informs my view of what’s happening right now in Israel and Palestine.”
  • The official BLM organization called for “Palestinian liberation.” 
  • BLM pressed the Democratic Party to dramatically alter its approach to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • BLM has shifted the debate “from a tangled dispute over ancient, often-confusing claims to the far more familiar turf of police brutality and racial conflict.”
  • As Arielle Angel, the editor of Jewish Dissent, has written, “The Black Lives Matter movement can claim credit for helping masses of people understand the mechanisms of structural racism and oppression, and for consistently linking the Black struggle to the Palestinian one.” 
  • In Toronto Canada, Jews from If Not Now and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), alongside Palestinians and other allies, celebrated a shabat in Christie Pits Park immediately after the ceasefire and petitioned Justin Trudeau to stop arms sales to Israel.
  • Instead of a conflict between two peoples over the same territory, the conflict is now seen as one in which, Palestinians have long been evicted, terrorized and treated like second-class citizens.

More significant than the growing split within the Democratic Party in the US between the progressives and traditional liberals has been a parallel split within the Jewish community in the diaspora, particularly the American diaspora. Rabbi Amni Hirsch in an impassioned sermon identified and wept over the growing chasm in the Jewish community and within liberal Zionism. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) openly supports the BDS movement. I have already written about Peter Beinart, editor of Jewish Currents, shifting from support for a two-state solution to advocating a one-state solution and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. For a growing number of American Jews on the progressive left, Israel is now viewed as a brutal racist ethnocratic nationalist state founded on continuing Jewish supremacy.

“I don’t feel alone anymore. Though the years since 2014 have seen the growth of a small but committed Jewish anti-occupation movement, the last week and a half has brought an even larger circle of the community to a place of reckoning. We’ve seen Jewish politicians, celebrities, rabbinical students and others speak up loudly for Palestine. We’ve seen a powerful display of solidarity from Jewish Google employees, asking their company to sever ties with the IDF. At Jewish Currents, the left-wing magazine where I am now editor-in-chief, we asked for questions from readers struggling to understand the recent violence. We’ve been deluged.” Arielle Angel, “Jewish Americans are at a turning point with Israel,” The Guardian, 22 May 2021.

The above suggests an enormous paradigm shift underway in America, within the Jewish diaspora community, within Israel and in Israel-Palestinian relations. Those changes disrupt all of our basic assumptions and pressure us to undertake a fundamental re-examination.

Regret, Repentance, Resolve, Restitution, Restoration and Return

Peter Beinart ends his essay on the right of return of the Palestinian refugees with a reference to teshuvah. Teshuvah literally means “return,” more specially a return to God. However, it is often translated as “repentance” or “penitence.” According to Chabad, “Teshuvah means to regret some mess-up you made, and resolve never to do it again.” 

In this week’s parashah Naso, Numbers 5:5-7 reads:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way[a] and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.

Restitution is not the same as compensation. In legal parlance, the law of restitution is the law of gains-based recovery; that is, a court orders the defendant to give up his gains to the claimant. The law of compensation is the law of loss-based recovery; a court orders the defendant to pay the claimant for their loss. Peter Beinart holds the Zionist responsible for the Nakba, the large-scale displacement of Palestinians and dispossession of Palestinian property not only in 1948, but as a pattern of Zionist behaviour in the treatment of Palestinians ever since at least Israel’s independence. According to teshuvah, the Zionists are obligated to accept their responsibility for their actions, express regret for their behaviour, resolve never again to repeat the sin, pay restitution and not just compensation to the refugees, and permit their return to their homes and lands in Israel.

Contrast the concept of teshuvah, of repentance, restoration and return, with the Hindu and Pythagorean concept of “eternal return” resurrected in the modern era by Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche asked rhetorically (aphorism 341):

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything: ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”

Life is hell, akin to the experience of Sisyphus as depicted by Albert Camus in his 1942 volume, The Myth of Sisyphus, wherein, Sisyphus is condemned to rolling a boulder up a steep incline and when he approaches the top, it rolls down and he must repeat the effort. Again and again. Unlike the world of teshuvah, accountability, repentance and restoration, in the doctrine of eternal return, there is no escape from the human condition, from the futility of any effort, from the indifference of the world to what you do. You owe nothing to other breathing and active mammals. They own nothing to you. And no one has any debt or responsibility to God.

Eternal return is not like Groundhog Day, not like Two Distant Strangers, with each day being a variation of the same situation, altered because of what was learned in the previous encounters, each time with a determination to bring a different outcome, but each time with the same result in the end. It is the latter that makes both these movies and the concept of eternal repetition and return to the same place conceptually identical.

In eternal return, one always ends up back in the same place. No one has moral responsibility for making changes. No one is accountable. No one can change what is destined to be. Except the übermensch, the overman who can overcome and leave behind the moral system to which he is enslaved by creating his own value system.

The Zionist cause and the Palestinian one do not rest on an idea of eternal return, on an indifferent universe, or, alternatively, an escape from a slave morality to create your own value system. They are united by a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, by a recognition that qua sinners, humans must repent. Muslims must repent often and turn to Allah in repentance and for forgiveness. In hadith, Muhammad asked people to seek Allah’s forgiveness: “O People, seek repentance from Allah.”  

Without going into the subtle differences between the two conceptions, the key issue is who was the original sinner and what was that sin? Was it the refusal of Muslims to allow Jews to migrate to Palestine, to reject the history that Palestine had been the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and the exertion of trying to prevent Jews from buying land in Palestine? Or was it the efforts of the Jews to colonize Palestine, displace the Arab population there and replace Arabs with Jews. The problem with doctrines of regret and repentance, of restoration and return, is that one must first determine who committed the original sin and what was the character of that sin. Different evaluations result in different narratives to both justify and reinforce the focus on which party carries primary responsibility.

This propensity to create a narrative to show the other as the sinner, the other as responsible for the current calamity, is reinforced by the rise of social media like TikTok with its personalized videos, like instagram with its plethora of stills, and with twitter with its short and punchy feeds. Subtleties in assigning responsibilities are ignored in favour of caricatures of heroic victims and brutal oppressors. Instead of an emphasis on each party taking responsibility for its own actions, the primary emphasis is on assigning blame to the other and claiming victimhood for one’s own side in a collectivist neo-Marxian postmodernism.

The veil of victimhood displaces the robes of repentance. Instead of an escape from Egypt, there is a return to the symbiosis of master and slave. Instead of moving onward by accepting the rule of law and the assignation of responsibilities and penalties, guilt is determined by the overarching narrative rather than by the details of a case. The only escape is by allowing each individual to create and write their own narratives in the attempt to become übermenschen.

What then are the choices before us? In one, there is no escape; we are collectively consigned to roles as victors or victims in competing narratives of exploitation. In a second, there is an individualist escape by transforming and creating your own personal narrative and set of values. A third option requires attending to one’s own responsibility for creating a current conflict without letting the other off the hook. In fact, such a position demands that we use objective criteria of goodness, truth and justice to make such assessments.

The only problem with the latter is that it relied on the political and ideological absolutism of the enlightenment that gave preference to the story of white men liberating the world from oppression and raising the normative standards by establishing the rule of law and the essential role of human rights. That opens the door to a focus and attack on colonialism and patriarchy, on oppression and displacement not simply of peoples but of whole cultures.

That is why there is some difficulty in understanding the current alliance between a patriarchal religious hierarchy that rejects modernism altogether and the postmodernists who have aided and abetted Hamas in becoming the leaders of the anti-colonial revolution because they too abhor modernism, abhor objectivity, abhor a preoccupation with facts, abhor principles of consistency and coherence. For the story told is the be-all and tell-all of everything.

The only blockage standing in the way is the religious moral order of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each with its own overlapping universal and cross-cultural moral code.  Whether they are religious reactionaries, as found in Hamas and Zionist extremism, or bleeding- heart progressives who equate justice with the cause of those at the bottom of the heap and left behind by evolutionary forces of survival of the fittest, this unholy alliance really rejects the individual need to accept responsibility, the individual need to critique his own personal role and responsibility in the conflict.

The latter is very difficult to do when a confluence of circumstances and serendipity bring together issues from different political arenas to reinforce a common narrative that is indifferent to facts and predominant norms. For example, the current outbreak of violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians has gained its enormous thrust from four different dimensions of the conflict in four different geographical areas, but where each one reinforces a single narrative.

On the level of a sub-narrative, on the surface the story of the events at Sheikh Jarrah would seem to be the most inconsequential and the least important. Shaikh Jarrah is a tony overwhelmingly Arab area almost two miles north of the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Since the area was captured by the Israelis in 1967, there has been an effort underway to repossess 28 properties that were under Jewish ownership prior to 1948. With the purchase of the property rights in 2002 by an American company registered in Delaware, and presumed to be an arm of the settler movement, the legal claim then proceeded with some heft.

In a few cases, private financial and legal settlements with the occupants enabled the Jewish owners to gain title and move religious Jews into the reclaimed homes. The current attention was focused on four homes occupied by families originally from Haifa, Jaffa and West Jerusalem. Further, the homes on the property did not exist prior to 1948. The land owned by a Sephardic charity had remained empty. In 1956, Jordan in partnership with UNRWA built homes on the land for the refugees who surrendered their refugee ration cards in exchange for the homes. They were supposed to get legal title in three years, but title transfer never took place.  

As protests took place outside the homes claiming settler oppression and displacement and the misuse of law unavailable to non-citizens of Israel, the dominant narrative became one of a continuation of the Nakba rather than a legal battle over owners’ land rights and tenant occupancy rights. In that narrative, the court offered compromise – that directly reflected Peter Beinart’s proposals in eviction cases, namely, that the occupants would be allowed to stay as long as they paid rent, recognized the legal owners and agreed to vacate the premises on the death of the original tenant – was entirely ignored in favour of a tale of continued dispossession and Jewish settler expansion. It was told as a tale of the Nakba all over again. The simple morality tale easily took the dominant place as opposed to the complicated legal battle.

The violence that broke out on the Temple Mount followed the police request to turn down the loudspeakers on the mosque calling the worshippers to pray when it was Ramadan, but also when Jews were praying at the Western Wall. The authorities in charge of the mosque refused the request. The police cut the electrical supply to the loudspeakers. Crowds within the mosque emerged to throw stones at the police. The police responded with stun grenades and tear gas. Over 205 Muslim worshippers were injured as well as 17 Israeli police officers. The tale that emerged from the conflict was of the instruments of the state trying to infringe and limit Muslim rights on the Haram esh-Sharif. This narrative was reinforced with a video clip showing  Israeli celebrants dancing and singing on the Kotel Plaza to celebrate Jerusalem Day as, in the background, a tree burned on the upper plaza.

 The dominant sub-narrative – the rights of Muslims to pray on their sacred site – was being threatened.

After the end of the fast each day of Ramadan, worshippers gathered to socialize on the plaza in front of Damascus Gate.  An inexperienced Israeli police superintendent, fearing a riot at the end of Ramadan, as a precautionary measure put up metal barriers for crowd control. This was the catalyst for a protest as Palestinians understandably saw the effort as an infringement on their right to assembly. Another sub-narrative reinforced the dominant narrative of Jewish displacement and oppression.

In Arab-Jewish mixed towns in Israel – e.g. Lod and Ramle – gentrification resulted in Jews buying up larger and older Arab homes. The Palestinian-Israelis felt under threat on their own turf. It did not help that Israeli police had neglected those Palestinian neighbourhoods and hooligan gangs had taken over. Hamas instigators used the opportunity to add to the conflict and tensions between Palestinians and Jews by organizing the worst rioting against Jews and Jewish property since the state was formed. Ten synagogues among other structures were torched, three in Lod alone. Once again, the narrative of Jewish displacement and oppression of Palestinians was reinforced, but this time from a very unexpected source.

Finally, there was Gaza itself. Abbas had cancelled the announced Palestinian elections on the pretext that Israel had prevented the election by not allowing voting in East Jerusalem. In 2006, Israel had allowed such voting. Oslo II obligated Israel to permit East Jerusalemites to vote in East Jerusalem post offices. But Israel would not cooperate. Instead of facilitating voting in nearby urban areas under Palestinian control, Mahmoud Annas used it as an excuse to cancel the lection and remind everyone of Israel’s take over of East Jerusalem.

Hamas, resentful of the cancellation of the election in which they expected to do very well and possibly peacefully take over the Palestinian movement, gave Israel a deadline to back down. Israel did not. Gaza sent seven missiles directed at Jerusalem. The barrage of missiles increased over the next ten days to over 4,000 and Israeli reprisal attacks on Gaza destroyed buildings, blew up Hamas tunnels and sometimes houses and apartments with women and children. Over two hundred died, including many Hamas commanders. Israel had only suffered 10 losses in the same period. This time Hamas, though it lost a great deal in the battle, reinforced its image not only as David taking on Goliath, but as the only organized Palestinian political body willing to stand up to the Israelis and challenge their ongoing efforts at displacement and dispossession.

Thus, even though Hamas was the unequivocal instigator of this last war in Gaza, illegally sent its rockets to target civilian areas in Israel and even was responsible for up to 500 of those missiles falling short and killing their own people in Gaza, the dominant sub-narrative was that Gaza was the victim protecting Palestinians against Israeli oppression and willing to bear the costs of resistance.

Israel as the asymmetrically tremendously dominant party just could not win the public relations war for the dominant narrative. It no longer had a tale to compete with the Palestinian story of victimhood.

But it could have – if it played the regret card to the fullest, it Israel openly repented for the terrible costs for which it was responsible, of the areas of insensitivity for which it is to blame, if it insisted on self-critical commentary rather than boasts of military successes, and, most important of all, if Israel initiated a real and strongly driven program of restitution to the Palestinians, then Israelis could come across as penitents and Palestinians as unrepentant perpetrators of violence even though the weaker party.

Israel – and certainly the Netanyahu government – does not seem to recognize that this is war of competing tales and not just military battles on the ground in Gaza, Jerusalem and now in mixed Israeli Arab-Jewish towns.

VIIIC Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians

Morality, Policy and Practice

I have gathered Peter Beinart’s arguments into three clusters: a) those based on ethics and morality; b) those based on international law and policy; and c) those based on international and Jewish/Israeli practices. In each of these clusters, there are two trifecta, two sets of three arguments each. These clusters yield a total of 18 arguments in total. Given the large number, I will have to be reasonably succinct in dealing with each one.

  1. Ethical and Moral Arguments

Beinart offers us three negative and three positive ethical and moral arguments to reinforce his claim that supporting return is the morally superior position. The three negative arguments are based on logical consistency, political necessity and just deserts. Addressed primarily to liberals, the first argument claims that it is purportedly logically inconsistent to oppose the occupation and the settlement of the West Bank and oppose return since the underlying principle is the same – the right of a person to his or her home and land and not be forcefully deprived of the same. Second, if the argument against return is conjoined with the argument for a two-state solution, you have an unholy alliance since the two-state solution is now divorced from reality as a possibility. Third, the denial of return is based on an inapplicable principle of just deserts, namely, the Palestinians brought the expulsion upon themselves when the facts of history demonstrate that the vast bulk of the exodus was the result of forced ethnic cleansing by the Zionists.

However, opposing the occupation and the expansion of settlements entails resistance against new actions. Supporting return entails rolling back behaviour that has already taken place. It is one thing to oppose the continuing infringement on indigenous rights and another not to connect such a move with rolling back and reversing the white occupation of North America. It is not a contradiction to resist new initiatives yet oppose reversal moves even when the two situations appear to mirror one another, divided only by a present timeline.

The second negative argument is based on the premise that a two-state solution is unrealistic. But if lack of realism is the basis for dismissing a case, Beinart’s own support for a one-state solution is far more unrealistic and, on that basis, would seem to rule out support for return. Third, there is no necessary connection between the principle of return or non-return and moral responsibility for the exodus. The Palestinians may be partially responsible for the large-scale exodus. Or the Zionists may be largely responsible. However, the decision about what to do about the results is a distinct question on its own with no necessary connection to moral responsibility for the event. The Germans may have been responsible for allowing Hitler to come to power. But that does not mean the Marshall Plan for rehabilitating Germany was not morally justified. There is simply no necessary connection between the cause of a fault and determining the appropriate cure.

The positive moral case supporting return also has a trifecta of moral arguments. The first is the argument that the nakba was not restricted to 1948 but has continued until today; the actions of 1948 and those currently underway by the Zionists in power are the same. However, that moral presumption of commonality is highly questionable; its empirical premise is clearly and distinctly untrue. The international community voted in support of partition in 1948. There would have been no mass exodus if the Palestinians and the Arab neighbours had then accepted partition as Egypt and Jordan now do. In contrast, the international community almost universally opposes Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, even the creeping annexation by means of settlements. Thus, the encroachment upon and appropriation of land as a result of a defensive war, and the rejection of refugee return, may be justified in 1948 because of the need to secure a state. It may not be either necessary or desirable to expand that state.

The second positive moral argument is that refugee return is a necessary condition and prerequisite for Jews and Arabs to live side by side in peace and tranquility that ensures stability since political egalitarian systems are inherently more stable. However, the same voices often argue that for centuries, until the arrival on the scene of the Zionists, Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side in peace. But surely there is no basis for arguing that they did so based on equality. On the other hand, Jews and Palestinians within Israel have been living side-by-side in relative peace for seven decades until the recent riots, and, as Beinart would agree, they do not in practice have equal status. On the other hand, the inequalities for a significant portion of middle-class Israeli Palestinians has demonstrably narrowed, yet there can still be outbreaks of intercommunal violence. The reality is – pre-WWII Germany is an example – relative equality between ethnic groups is no guarantee of an absence of ethnic strife in the future. (See the story of former Yugoslavia below.)

The third argument is based on Jewish economic and political supremacy which return would be crucial in reversing. But Hasidic Jews are even more economically deprived than Israeli Palestinians. Yet much of the extremism against Palestinian Israelis can be located there. It is not the power differential that necessitates economic deprivation of the weaker party, though it certainly does not help. Palestinian return might simply lead to increased numbers among the poor Israeli Palestinians. Some Israeli Palestinians actually oppose return because it might threaten their own status at the same time as it might or would lead to greater average Palestinian Israeli impoverishment.

  • International Law and Policy

Perhaps the most important arguments for return are based in international law and policy. Beinart contends that the dominant international norm endorses the principle that, “People who want to return should be allowed to” based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN Resolution 194 which over the decades have assumed the role of a fundamental premise of international law.

Except, it isn’t. International rights law is universal. Refugee law is about membership in a specific state. Nowhere in its many articles does the Universal Declaration refer to refugees. In fact, Article 2 refers to the equality of all polities whatever their status and reads: “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

Given the equal status of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under international law with respect to human rights, Article 13:2 reads: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In the plain meaning of the text, there are two very different rights, first the right to leave a country, which everyone under the human rights charter possesses as an inalienable right, and the right of members of a country to return. Not everyone has the right to return. Jews only have the right of return to Israel because the governing authorities and the people of that country have bestowed that right. Except for Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, Palestinians explicitly do not have a right to return to Israel because Israel was not and is not the Palestinian’s country.

Article 13 is very different than Article 15. The latter insists that everyone has the right to be a member of some state. Statelessness runs against human rights. But the Charter of Human Rights does not specify which state that right applies to, only that it should be some state. “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

What about UN General Assembly Resolution 194? Article 11 of that resolution provides that, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” This resolution has the status of a moral advisory rather than an assertion of rights. Further, it is conditional on the following: 1) the permission of Israel; 2) the willingness of the returnee to live in peace and cease a state of belligerency; 3) recommends compensation be paid to those who choose not to return (versus those who want to return but are not given permission); and 4) the responsibility for compensation belong to governments (plural) responsible for the exodus and, given the debates at the time, this was a reference to the invading Arab armies that tried to stop Israel becoming a sovereign and independent state.

It is true that over the subsequent decades, particularly after 1967, that Resolution came to be interpreted as the refugees having a right of return, that the right was transferred to descendants of the original refugees, and that this mantra of “right to return” developed as a central belief in the Palestinian cause of seeking their own state or seeking to displace the Israeli state. In any case, UN General Assembly resolutions simply have no legal force.

What about international policy? Beinart insists that, “Return is by far the most general pattern for resolving refugee crises.” In terms of general frequency, he is correct. But the vast majority of sources of refugees result from ideological conflicts or conflicts over power. Inter-ethnic conflicts rarely lead to return. When they do, it is only behind a conquering army. In inter-ethnic conflicts, refugee return is not only not the pattern it is not even the exception except when superior force is used to back return (e.g. the return of Tutsi to Rwanda following the genocide and the end of the civil war). The Palestinian Liberation Organization when it was formed in 1964 recognized that and determined to return with a conquering army.

  • International and Israeli Practice

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the side on which you are on, the cases Beinart cites not only do not support his position but undermine it. Take the Dayton Accords that brought a form of peace to former Yugoslavia. This was a case of inter-ethnic conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs. It is true that, “The right of refugees to return to their homes is the central promise of the Dayton peace agreement, which considers rebuilding a united multiethnic society in Bosnia-Herzegovina the key to a sustainable peace.” 

Except it never happened. The actual peace was a result of the Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs consolidating their power and occupancy in their own geographical areas. Like the Palestinians, but in larger numbers, one million refugees were either forced to leave their homes or fled to avoid being caught up in the violence. There were another million IDPs. Each of the ethnic groups strenuously resisted return and the international community met with persistent non-compliance. Further, even the efforts to provide compensation by making the former homes marketable was made virtually impossible by the new economic order undergirded by the United Nations and the international community which, in effect, gave the nationalist perpetrators of the war the initial economic and political power.  (Cf. for example, the United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 26, “Dayton Implementation The Return of Refugees,” which summarized the myriad of obstacles which undermined the goal of return.) Dayton, rather than providing an illustration of a right of return, instantiated the enormous difficulties of enacting return after an inter-ethnic conflict in spite of the enormous support for return from the international community.

The Somali and Afghan examples of passing refugee status down generations applies only to those refugees who remain stateless. Palestinian refugees who fled to Jordan received citizenship. Palestinians who fled to Gaza and the West Bank, in effect then Palestinian territory, were de facto internally displaced rather than refugees under the meaning of the UNHCR as having left their own territory. The reality is that the vast majority of the so-called Palestinian refugees are not refugees in accord with international standards, but followed an older pattern of designating refugees by humanitarian need rather than membership.

In another more far-fetched example, the cases of Jews returning to Spain and Austria whose ancestors were evicted years or even centuries ago are all examples, not of a “right of return,” but of states wanting to make amends and/or wanting the return of refugees who posed absolutely no threat to the home population militarily, politically, economically or demographically. These are simply cases bearing no resemblance to the Palestinian case. These Jews are not even called refugees, which adds another nail to the coffin of stupidity of this argument.

Finally, the attempt to undermine the Israeli resistance to return based on the argument of limited absorptive capacity or the need to balance compensation for the Jewish refugees from Arab lands with Arabs from Israel, and the insistence that return does not entail eviction, simply misrepresents the three points. Limited absorptive capacity is a side issue and is not the central argument against return. Compensation, on the other hand, is accepted in principle, but the issue becomes who pays and the assurance that everyone displaced as a result of the wider conflict be compensated.

The issue of compromise at the end of the essay is a joke if it were not so serious. That is because the description of the compromise of return without eviction takes precisely the form of the Israeli Supreme Court proposed compromise to the inhabitants of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah. No eviction if rent is paid, ultimate legal ownership is acknowleged and vacancy is guaranteed when the existing tenant dies.

When one gets to the end of the paper, it is as if one was dealing with a defence piling argument on top of argument whatever the value of each, hoping at least one would stick. A critical reader feels like he or she has escaped a manure pile.

Tomorrow: Teshuva

 Cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.

VIIIB Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians:

Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time

History is at war with nostalgia. In history, what takes place in the world – events and actions – matter more than what you think about them. With nostalgia, as in Marcel Proust, the mind has primacy. What you feel, what you think, what you experience is the real determinant of how the world is regarded and how we respond to it.

That is why Part I of Peter Beinart’s essay is so important. As the war rages in Gaza, and emotional identification battles reality within the hearts of both Palestinians and Jews in Israel, as the public relations battle takes place for the hearts and minds of Arabs in surrounding countries and in the citizens of Europe and North America, the symbolism of Jerusalem and the fight over the right of return has once again moved to centre stage as nostalgia has risen to challenge history’s monopoly of power and influence and authority on the political, social and economic dimensions of the conflict.

In that battle, Peter Beinart set down four basic propositions:

  1. Palestinian displacement is recent, within personal memory; Jewish displacement was centuries old.
  2. Jews are responsible for the Palestinian displacement; Palestinians are not responsible for the Jewish displacement.
  3. There is a bitter irony in Jews telling another people to give up on their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands.
  4. Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948.

Why does the timing of the displacement matter? It does not. Except in memory. Except in experience. Making that proposition the opening salvo not only prioritizes nostalgia over history but reduces the Jewish desire for return to a nostalgic wish and not a desperate survival mechanism married to an ideology to ensure that Jewish survival.  The intent is to make memory rather than reality the battleground for legitimacy.

And then responsibility. For if memory has priority in determining responsibility, Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, are self-evidently not responsible for the Jewish exile from Palestine whereas Jews in Israel are, at least partially (though that is bracketed and put in a side column) responsible for the Palestinian exodus. But responsible as a cause as history likes to determine, or responsible normatively within a subjective moral framework? To make the latter prior requires omitting the historical fact that the Palestinian leadership, from the time of the Balfour Declaration promising Jews a homeland in their ancient land, adamantly opposed the migration of Jews to Palestine, adamantly opposed the sale of Arab-owned land to Jews. By leaving this out, the demand for self-preservation of a Palestinian domination in all of Palestine is sidelined in favour of a narrative of settler colonialism and the will of the Jews to displace Palestinians and become the dominant demographic force in all of Palestine.

But the reality is that there is no irony. Jews do not insist now that Palestinians give up their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. The vast majority of Palestinians continue to live in Palestine and Jordan. The goal of the two-state solution is that, given the adamant opposition of Arabs to Jewish return migration and settlement, the homeland be divided into a Jewish majoritarian part and a Palestinian majoritarian part. The push for assimilation in foreign countries, which was a proposal for the relatively small groups of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, becomes the dominant story for Beinart, and not the division of the land.

Finally, the statement that it is a war, and that history would express its domination over memories and nostalgia, is the insistence that Zionists want to erase Palestinian memories and experience by not only denying that the nakba occurred in 1948 but extirpating the memory from experience. Further, in so doing, Zionists can prevent Palestinians from seeing and understanding that the nakba was not something that just took place in 1948 but has been a continuous pattern from the first arrival of the Jewish return to Palestine to the expansionist dreams of the settlers.

However, the nakba is taught – by Jewish progressives and the Jewish Voice for Peace. In that version, the nakba is not taught as if a significant percentage of the 720,000 Arab refugees fled their homes and the land that became Israel, but as “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment.” (https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/facing-the-nakba/)

Note what is missing. There were approximately 750,000 Palestine refugees from the fighting in 1947 and 1948. But 37,000 of them were Jewish Palestine refugees who were forced out or fled areas that Jordan took over and made judenrein, empty of Jews. Nostalgia works by making history highly selective and restricted, to turning objectivity simply into a reflection of personal memory and experience.

Further, the history initially taught in Israel of the War of Independence was a mythological tale of moral heroes and bravery beyond any expectations. That heroic method of writing and teaching history in Israel has been displaced by far more objective and comprehensive accounts. Since 2007, the Israeli Education Ministry, in response to requests from its Palestinian population, has, in fact, included the tragedy of the Nakba in its curriculum. Rather than being extirpated, it has been adopted and included as part of the understanding of Israeli history and, in particular, of the Palestinian experience that constitutes part of that history.

This raises the issue of the war between mythological memory, a partner often of nostalgia though not equivalent to it, and objective history. Peter Beinart in his comprehensive defence of the right of return, or, at least, one version of it, posed three further propositions, namely that Israeli history itself is founded on myths that stand at odds with the reality of history:

Myth: Palestinians fled because Arab leaders urged them to do so.  

Truth: Arab officials often pleaded with them to stay.

Myth; Zionist militants only fought a defensive war against invading Arab armies.

Truth: Zionist military operations were the major precipitants to flight.

Myth: Arab governments rejected the partition proposal of 1947.

Truth: Jews accepted partition nominally but, in reality, undermined partition.

It is a myth that most Palestinians fled at the urging of their own leadership. This was part of the initial heroic phase of Israeli historiography in which Jews were portrayed as morally pure heroic figures. Some Palestinians did flee as a result of such urging and stay as a result of other urging. But most did not. Most fled to get out of the way of the violence and many fled and were uprooted because of the “strategic” ethnic cleansing of the Israeli military forces, the Hagannah and the Irgun. This militance was a major precipitant to flight but not the major precipitant.

However, the above are all subtle differences between myth and truth. The claim that Arab rejection of the UN partition proposal as a myth is, in fact, a blatant lie. Arab governments did reject partition. They even rejected the minority report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommending a federation of two polities, a Jewish one and an Arab one. Arab initial absolute rejectionism is an incontrovertible element in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What about the portrait of the Zionist leadership accepting partition rhetorically while working assiduously to undermine it? This is, of course, a more subtle argument when appearance is juxtaposed with opposing reality. Fortunately, the overwhelming proportion of historical evidence supports the proposition that the Zionist leadership, reluctantly since 1936, had accepted partition as the only realistic solution while the Arab leadership adamantly rejected it.

The reason these fundamental historical propositions matter so much is because some critics of Zionism and of Israel want to make the battle one of consciousness, one of memory, one of experience, rather than a battle over what actually happened. There are many areas in which conflicts remain over the details of the story. But the broad objective outline has been established and this nostalgic version on the side of the Palestinians is not worth anymore than the initial heroic histories written by Israelis.

Now to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is, as Beinart declares, that it has been a demographic, and continues to be a demographic battle. But that does not mean that the Palestinian presence in the new Israel was intolerable. It was accepted, but only so long as it did not threaten the majoritarian Jewish character of the state either in terms of numbers or in terms of ideology. The Zionists, both because of internal factors and external forces, were determined to create a majoritarian Jewish state and not just a homeland in a territory ruled predominantly by Palestinians, in this case, Palestinians who rejected the increased presence of Jews and Jewish immigration.

It is simply not true that “in most cases” in the 1948 war, Arabs offered peace agreements with the Jews but that these were rejected out of hand and the Palestinians were ejected. This certainly did happen in some cases. In other cases, Palestinians were ejected without making an offer of peace or threatening resistance. In still other cases, the Palestinians were regarded as a strategic threat given their location. But there was never any effort to make Israel Arabrein or Palestinianrein.

Thus, the big new myth to replace the old myth that Jews bore no responsibility for the exodus of the Palestinians – Zionist forces were responsible for evicting 710,000 to 720,000 Palestinians. Zionists were not responsible for evicting the upper class leaders who left early for the safety of Cairo and Beirut. The Zionists were not responsible for the Palestinians who fled in panic. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled on the advice of their leaders. The Zionists were not responsible for those who fled when actual clashes broke out between an Arab town and Israeli forces.

That does not mean Jews bore no responsibility. Depending on the case, they carried different degrees of responsibility and, in a few cases, did use Palestinian civilians as human shields, in many cases, stole the property of Palestinians, and in even a few cases executed unarmed Palestinians and raped Palestinian women. But the effort to place the total blame for the nakba on Israel and let Palestinians off the hook is just a myth to strengthen the moral battle for “the right of return”.

Tomorrow: Current Israeli Policy: Displacement and Replacement

VIIIA Peter Beinart and the Right of Return of Palestinians

On 11 May 2021, Peter Beinart wrote and published an article, “Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Return.” In this blog, I summarize his argument. In my following blogs, I will attempt to refute each and every one of his claims. Peter is worth taking on. His summary of claims is comprehensive, succinct and driven by both moral passion and verbal skill. I recommend reading the full article.

I have not grouped the arguments in the order in which they occur but under the headings of memory – general, mythological and truthful –then under international law and policy and then Israeli law and policy before taking up the issue in Part III of Teshuvah. What appears as a long list of clear claims, proves, upon examination, to be a horrific, even if intelligent, combination of misleading, misunderstood confusions and contradictions.

Part I – HistoryOn Remembrance of Things Past and Responsibility

A. Palestinian displacement is recent, within personal memory; Jewish displacement was centuries old.

“The Palestinian families that mourn Jaffa or Safed lived there recently and remember intimate details about their lost homes. They experienced dispossession from Israel-Palestine. Jews…only imagined it.”

  • Jews are responsible for the Palestinian displacement; Palestinians are not responsible for the Jewish displacement. Mahmoud Darwash “You created our exile, we didn’t create your exile.” 
  • The bitter irony of Jews telling another people to give up on their homeland and assimilate in foreign lands. George Bisharat
  • Jewish leaders keep insisting that, to achieve peace, Palestinians must forget the Nakba, the catastrophe they endured in 1948. Beinart: “Peace will come when Jews remember…the better we will understand why they deserve the chance to return.”
  • B. Mythological Memory
  • “The most enduring myth is that Palestinians fled because Arab and Palestinian officials told them to.” “Palestinian and Arab officials often pleaded with them to stay.”
  • Zionist military operations proved “the major precipitants to flight.”
  • Arab government rejection of the United Nations proposal to partition Mandatory Palestine is a myth and misleading. Beinart: “Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition plan on paper while undoing it on the ground.”
  • C. The Historical Truth
  • The presence of Palestinians was intolerable, not because the continued presence of Palestinians personally threatened Jews, but because they threatened the demography of a Jewish state.
  • In most cases, Palestinian residents of Arab towns were expelled even though they offered peace agreements with the Zionists.
  • In roughly 18 months, Zionist forces evicted upwards of 700,000 individuals, more than half of Mandatory Palestine’s Arab population. “They emptied more than 400 Palestinian villages and depopulated the Palestinian sections of many of Israel-Palestine’s mixed cities and towns. In each of these places, Palestinians endured horrors that haunted them for the rest of their lives.”
  • Israelis used expelled Palestinians as human shields. “They forced the bulk of Eliaboun’s residents to evacuate the village and head north, thus serving as human shields for Israeli forces who trailed behind them, in case the road was mined.”
  • Israeli soldiers robbed Palestinian rebels “of their valuables and loaded them on trucks that deposited them across the Lebanese border.”
  • Israeli militants executed unarmed or captured Palestinians in cold blood.
  • Israelis raped Palestinians. [several dozen reported cases but the tip of the iceberg]
  • Eviction was usually followed by theft. The plunder was systematized by the Law of Absentee Properties. “When the United Nations passed its partition plan in November 1947, Jews owned roughly 7% of the territory of Mandatory Palestine. By the early 1950s, almost 95% of Israel’s land was owned by the Jewish state.” 
  • Israelis do not teach the Nakba “because it is hard to look the Nakba in the eye and not wonder, at least furtively, about the ethics of creating a Jewish state when doing so required forcing vast numbers of Palestinians from their homes.”

Part II: Policy and Practice

  • D. Current Policy and Morality
  • Morally, it is currently wrong to oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza but supporting Palestinian return is taboo. Beinart: “If it is wrong to hold Palestinians as non-citizens under military law, and wrong to impose a blockade that denies them the necessities of life, it is surely also wrong to expel them and prevent them from returning home.”
  • The pragmatic argument for opposing the West Bank and Gaza policy and defending the rejection of return is bankrupt. Beinart “Palestinian refugees should return only to the West Bank and Gaza, regardless of whether that is where they are from, as part of a two-state solution that gives both Palestinians and Jews a country of their own. But with every passing year, as Israel further entrenches its control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, this supposedly realistic alternative grows more detached from reality.”
  • What remains of the case against Palestinian refugee return is a series of historical and legal arguments, peddled by Israeli and American Jewish leaders, about why Palestinians deserved their expulsion and have no right to remedy it now.
  • The forced displacement of 1948 and now are equivalent. “The Israeli leaders who justify expelling Palestinians today in order to make Jerusalem a Jewish city are merely paraphrasing the Jewish organizations that have spent the last several decades justifying the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 in order to create a Jewish state.”
  • “Refugee return “is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.”
  • “Envisioning return requires uprooting deeply entrenched structures of Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subordination. It requires envisioning a different kind of country. “
  •  “Political systems that give everyone a voice in government generally prove more stable and more peaceful for everyone.”
  •           That re-envisioning would require “redistributing land, economic resources, and political power, and perhaps just as painfully, reconsidering cherished myths about the Israeli and Zionist past,” almost impossible to imagine how it could occur.
  • E. International Law
  • On its face, the claim that Palestinian refugees have no right to return is absurd since, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” 
  • International law specifically asserts: Palestinians “wishing to return to their homes and to live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” 
  • The claim that General Assembly Resolutions aren’t legally binding and, that since Israel was only created in May 1948, Palestinian refugees were never its citizens; they would not be returning to “their country” are legalisms devoid of moral content.
  • In the decades since World War II, the international bodies that oversee refugees have developed a clear ethical principle: People who want to return home should be allowed to do so.
  • F. International Policy and Practice
  • “Since 1990, almost nine times as many refugees returned to their home countries as have been resettled in new ones.”
  • “Resettlement is preferred only when a refugee’s home country is so dangerous that it ‘cannot provide them with appropriate protection and support.’”
  • The 1995 Dayton Agreement with respect to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia states, “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin” and “to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities.” 
  • Jewish leaders endorse the rights of return and compensation for Jews expelled from Arab lands. Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, claims that Arab Jews deserve “equal rights and treatment under international law.”
  • International law strongly favors refugee return.
  • In the trade off between Arab Jews and Palestinian refugees, Israeli leaders concede the very legitimacy of the very rights they don’t want Palestinians to have.
  • Jews are guilty of a double standard re “who counts as a refugee” since the effort to exclude the descendants is both cynical and hypocritical since Jews do not hold to the principle that refugee status should not be handed down when in other protracted situations, in Somalia and Afghanistan, there are multiple generations of refugees.
  • Jews who reclaim the citizenship of their grandparents and parents (and even more distant ancestors – Austria, Spain and Portugal) are hypocritical in denying Palestinians the same right.
  • G. Israeli Policy and Practice
  • Israelis regard repatriating Palestinian refugees as an impossibility since return is not viable for such a small state; but Israel leads the world in demonstrating how false this is.
  • If Jews robbed en masse in Europe deserve compensation, so do Palestinians.
  • It is possible to calculate the value of lost property as proved to be the case when Jewish residents of Gaza were repatriated and they were compensated by the state.
  • It is possible to envision the repatriation of Palestinians without the eviction of current Jewish occupants.
  • If a Jewish family owns a home once owned by a Palestinian, first the original Palestinian owner (or their heirs) and then the current Jewish owner, would be offered the cash value of the home in return for relinquishing their claim. If neither accepted the payment, a further compromise would follow: ownership of the property would revert to the original Palestinian owners, but the Jewish occupants would continue living there until the Jewish occupants moved or died, at which point the Palestinians woud repossess their property.
  • Crimes of the past, when left unaddressed, do not remain in the past; Israel did not stop expelling Palestinians when its war for independence ended. It displaced 400,000 more Palestinians when it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967.
  • In the 1950s, 28 Palestinian families, forced from Jaffa and Haifa in 1948, relocated to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Jerusalem District Court ruled earlier this month that six of them should be evicted.

Part III – Teshuvah

  • On Teshuvah
  • Teshuvah, generally translated as “repentance,” literally means “return” and is a requisite to return from moral exile.

Displacement, Replacement, Return and Rights

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of the military wing of Hamas began the Gazan dimension in the current violence on 10 May by launching seven missiles towards Jerusalem, contrary to its previous practice of limiting missiles to the envelope around the Gaza strip. The missiles, with a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles), carried high-explosive warheads. Up until today, over 3,000 missiles have been launched.

The claim was that they were sent as a response to Israeli police actions on the plaza in front of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, what for Jews is the Temple Mount. The Israeli police authorities had cut the electricity to the loudspeakers on the minarets at the mosque when the mosque authorities there would not turn down the volume. With 70,000 worshippers gathering for the end of Ramadan, some began raining stones down on the Jewish worshippers praying below at the Wailing Wall. The Israeli police then attacked the “rioters” who had collected rocks and stones within the mosque. The police threw stun grenades and shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the Palestinians.

That was not the only instigation.

The Israeli police in a step that was unprecedented put barriers up on the plaza in front of Damascus Gate where the worshippers gathered after prayers to socialize and gossip. Further, 2 miles north of Damascus Gate, a dispute had been underway for decades between the Jewish owners of the land under four houses in Sheikh Jarrah as part of an effort to clear out 13 Palestinian families from their homes.

Everyone was awaiting a final order of eviction for the residents that had occupied their homes since they had been built by the Jordanians in 1956. Those residents believed that they had purchased those home in return for surrendering their UNRWA refugee cards, but the legal records did not support that claim even though Jordan attested to its truth. The residents would not accept the compromise offered by the Supreme Court to be allowed to remain in possession until the original inhabitant died, provided they paid rent and recognized who truly owned the land.

The Israeli actions in Jerusalem on the Haram Al-Sharif, the attack on the worshippers in the mosque, and the legal eviction proceedings, had just been preceded by the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelling the elections scheduled for 21 May on the claimed reason that Israel had prevented the election by not permitting East Jerusalemites permission to vote within East Jerusalem. Hamas saw all these events as an opportunity to seize the leadership of the whole Palestinian resistance movement by grabbing the headwinds of the maelstrom about to ensue. Further, they all reinforced a narrative of displacement and replacement, as did the process of gentrification in mixed Jewish-Palestinian towns that aroused so much resentment by the Palestinians.

Hamas grabbed the mantle of militant resistance and sent forth its fusillade of rockets. What Hamas had not counted on was how strong, sustained and successful Israeli retaliation would be. In the reprisal attacks, the IDF killed the Gaza City brigade commander, the head of Hamas’ cyber unit and missile development, the head of the projects and development department, the head of the engineering department, the commander of military intelligence’s technical department and the head of industrial equipment production.

Israel had wiped out a good part of Hamas’ military leadership. But after misruling Gaza and getting into war after war with Israel, Hamas had nevertheless positioned itself as the Palestinian Authority’s challenger and leader of the resistance against Israel. It had opted to participate in the Palestinian legislative and presidential elections from which it could emerge victorious whether the elections went ahead against a divided Fatah or if the elections were canceled and Hamas could assume the militant leadership in confronting Israel.

However, Hamas could not easily negotiate a cease fire. The odds went increasingly in Israel’s favour. By a feint ground attack by Israel, Hamas militants had sought safety in a warren of tunnels from which they could emerge to attack the Israeli invaders only to find they were trapped and subjected to penetrating bombs of the Israeli aircraft that blew apart the expensively-built places intended to provide security for the militants.

In the meanwhile, relative to the 2014 war, the civilian casualty count had been kept relatively low. Recall that in the 2001 war, over 4,000 Gazans were killed. In 2014, over 2,100 were killed, at least 75% being claimed as civilians, though Israel insisted the majority were militants. Israel in 50 days of warfare lost 65 soldiers and 6 civilians. Thus far in this war between Gaza and Israel, even based on the Gazan Health Ministry count in which a death is counted as a civilian if no armed group claims the casualty as a member, 200 have been declared dead on the Palestinian side after the most intense military barrage in the shortest period in all the battles. The whole of Gaza literally shook. The previous day, 42 Palestinians had been killed, including 8 children and 2 doctors, one a renowned cardiologist.

In Israel, 10 have died and only one a soldier. One six-year-old child lost his life. As each day goes by, the ratio between Gazan deaths and Israeli deaths grows and the gap has already become very wide. The gap between the wounded is not nearly as great, 1,200 on the Palestinian side and 282 on the Israeli side. Never before has Hamas fired off so many missiles in such a short time – 3,000. Never before has a significant number of them landed in Gaza and been responsible for some of the dead and wounded. Never before have so many got past the Israeli Iron Dome defence system.

Israel this time is determined once and for all to wipe out Hamas’ offensive and missile manufacturing capability and to extend the conflict this time until that is accomplished. The question will be when the international outcry against the death and destruction in Gaza will get so loud and so shrill and the pressure on Israel so great that Israel will accede to a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

One factor propelling the strong Israeli response is the unprecedented large-scale rioting in Israel’s mixed cities in which Palestinian Israelis attacked synagogues in Lod, the mosaic museum there and burned down restored antiquities buildings in Acre. A novel front had been opened up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Hamas elements offered leadership to criminal gangs that had been allowed by the Israeli police to take over Arab neighbourhoods. The gangs have now been politicized and Israel was more determined than ever to teach the leadership in Gaza a very severe lesson. The Palestinians counted on the intervention of the international community to cut their losses and deliver them a moral victory as well as the crown for leadership of the Palestinian resistance. Thus far, 19 have been killed in the West Bank as well.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, had warned that the “fighting could have far-reaching consequences if not stopped immediately.” The Israeli authorities could not agree more, but they were looking forward to very different consequences this time that would finally eliminate Gaza as a source of aggression against Israel. No longer would Israel attempt to buy a few temporary years relatively free from missile attacks in return for allowing Qatar to support Gaza with funds. No longer would Israel provide energy to the Gaza Strip. Israel had underestimated the risks Hamas was willing to take to assume the mantle of Palestinian leadership. At the same time, Israel has been unwilling to go all the way and allow the economy of the Gaza Strip to be opened wide in the hope that monies would be invested in infrastructure and not tunnels and missile manufacturing.  

Hamas was far less risk averse than Israel believed and Israel now seemed more determined than ever to deliver a very fast and overwhelming blow to this small strip of land packed with over two million Palestinians.

However, behind the whole conflict has been the victory of a new dominant narrative for the Palestinians that had been percolating in the intellectual underground and the Palestinian propaganda efforts in North America and Europe. Israel is a colonial settler state practicing apartheid and determined from the start to displace and replace Arabs in Palestine with Jews. This story is being widely sold. The conflicts over the Haram Al-Sharif, the barricades at the Damascus Gate, but especially the eviction efforts in Sheik Jarrah, are all evidence to this diabolical plan.

At the core was the question: why should Israeli Jews be entitled to reclaim land in East Jerusalem when Arab residents of East Jerusalem could not reclaim their lost land in Israel? Further, why did Jews enjoy a right of return to Israel when their families had never lived there for at least a hundred generations while Palestinians who remembered living in their homes before 1948 were not allowed to move back and reclaim their homes. Once again, the right of return had returned to the forefront of the dispute when it had finally been conceded unofficially by negotiators at Oslo that the right might be acceded to in principle but in practice there would only be a token return. Once again, Palestinians were insisting on the right of return and insisting that, at the very least, East Jerusalem and the Old City belonged to them, with many arguing that the whole land had to be freed from the clutches of the racist ethnic cleansing Zionists.

Peter Beinart in a recent article, “Tshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return,” (11 May 2021) offered an argument for acceding to the right of return and, in so doing, revealed that, in spite of Peter’s well-intentioned efforts, he neither understands the meaning of refugee return either generally or in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor offers a sound interpretation of Tshuva.

The first misunderstanding is over the concept of refugees. Beinart opens his essay with a dispute with AIPAC’s challenge to including the descendants of refugees into the category of refugees. It is a charge endorsed by the Zionists of America (ZOA) and Israel’s Ambassador to the US and UN, Gilad Erdan. “The fundamental problem with UNRWA, according to this line of argument, is that it treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves.”

This is unique in the world. The children of refugees who flee and are born outside the state from which their parents fled generally have no claim on return. They may be refugees still, but, unlike the Palestinians, they are not by necessity defined as refugees. It depends on their circumstances. However, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, “treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves. Establishment Jewish critics don’t blame UNRWA merely for helping Palestinians pass down their legal status as refugees, but their identity as refugees as well.”

“In The War of Return, a central text of the anti-UNRWA campaign, the Israeli writers Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf allege that without UNRWA, refugee children ‘would likely have lost their identity and assimilated into surrounding society.’ Instead, with UNRWA’s help, Palestinians are ‘constantly looking back to their mythologized previous lives’ while younger generations act as if they have ‘undergone these experiences themselves.’ To Schwartz and Wilf’s horror, many Palestinians seem to believe that in every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Palestine.”

But this is Shevuot when Jews across the world are asked to imagine themselves as once again at Mount Sinai when God delivered the ten commandments. Don’t Jews everywhere religiously chant, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why should Jews not very readily understand this feeling among Palestinians? As Beinart asks, “Why is dreaming of return laudable for Jews but pathological for Palestinians?”

Instead of trying to answer the question, Beinart engages in advocacy. He tries to pull the ground from underneath the question by insisting that if Jews are to be coherent and consistent they must grant Palestinians the same right of return that they themselves now enjoy. It is the height of irony for Jews to tell Palestinians to assimilate in other lands while they themselves insist on returning, or, at the very least, the right to return to their homeland. For Peter, it is not that Palestinians should forget the Nakba but that Jews should remember the reasons for the catastrophe and “understand why they (the Palestinians” deserve a chance to return.” For Peter, the moral distinction between the Jewish “right of return” and the denial of the Palestinian right of return makes no moral sense.

The Jewish argument on which the Oslo Accords were based offered a compromise, a two-state solution in which Palestinians could return to those parts of the West Bank ceded to the Palestinian Authority as the geographical foundation for their own state. But with settler encroachment, that segment of the land became smaller and smaller. The Gaza Strip consisting of 70% of people who were refugees or are descended from refugees is already densely packed. Palestinians who make up almost the same number as the Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are to be relegated to the Gaza Strip and, at most, one-quarter of the rest of the land – but, of course, the land Palestinians continue to own within Israel is not counted.

Peter argues that the justification of expulsion and the denial of the remedy of return and restitution is a fatal challenge to the very foundational principles of Zionism. Beinart’s position: “Refugee return therefore constitutes more than mere repentance for the past. It is a prerequisite for building a future in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy safety and freedom in the land each people calls home.”

Tomorrow: Beinart’s defence of his position


Shavuot begins this evening and continues through Tuesday 18 May for Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Twenty-four hours of weighty reflection is my portion. I rarely send out blogs on Sunday, but Shavuot is my excuse. Further, my rabbi, Yael Splansky, offered a Torah study on Shabat morning that reminded me of a schema of thinking about God that I was taught many years ago. I will not give credit because I am not sure if my memory is correct, and I cannot locate the original source.

It happens to be an appropriate time to conceive of God in the various ways that I will when COVID-19 is within sight of being defeated, this invisible to the human eye circular microbe with protein spikes protruding from its spherical surface. COVID-19 is so ominous and threatening. It is also the time when my brothers and sisters in Israel (literally, my grandchildren and great grandchildren) are hiding and sleeping in safe rooms as missiles rain down on that country, as murderous mobs haunt the streets of Israel’s mixed cities and target synagogues and restored buildings of antiquity, as Palestinian men, women and children hide from bloodthirsty Jewish unruly and disorderly crowds intent on vigilante revenge, and as Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza do not even have safe rooms or solid stairwells where they can find relative safety from the missiles being shot from Israeli warplanes to once and for all try to intimidate Hamas from sending rockets against innocent Israeli civilians.

Three days ago, Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan and prepared for Eid the following day, like Jews on Shavuot, often spending all night in preparation. Yesterday was Nakba Day, the day Palestinians remember with deep sorrow the catastrophe that befell them with the creation of Israel. In a week, Muslims will celebrate Eid ul Fitr, usually a celebration of gifts and sweetness, but this year, laced with bitterness for Palestinians. Normally a day of festivity, it is also a day that Muslims are commanded not to forget the suffering and deprivations of others.

I write this fully aware that I am biased and worried more about my own family, my own flesh and blood, than other Israelis, and I am more concerned about my fellow Jews in Israel than the Palestinian and foreign workers who also crouch and seek safety in Israel and suffer casualties as well. Most of all, my heart bleeds more for all these types of Israelis and others living in the Promised Land than the tremendous number of hapless Gazan men, women and children who are being killed at ten times the rate of those dying in Israel.

Why do I care with such differential emotion? Because God offered my people – they are my people – an ancient covenant on Mount Sinai, and my people have celebrated that event for millenia, for 3,333 years more precisely, to stand as one nation before God, even though I recognize we have always been riven with differences and schisms through all that time, but especially at such times as this of fear and foreboding.

And tonight, I will study with my fellow Reform Jews from across the country until the wee hours of the morning.  I no longer teach on such occasions, but I do participate in study sessions. And I will be reminded by the story of Ruth that, perhaps the greatest heroine in Jewish history, Ruth, the most archetypal Jewish mother, was not born a Jew. But she said that your people shall be my people with such truth and commitment that she would give birth to a line of Jews that produced King David.

Shavuot is the holiday to commemorate when Jews were given Torah. What they were actually given, and if they were given even the tablets with the ten commandments, can be debated for another three millenia. But the depiction of the giving of that gift cannot be denied.

The children of Israel in flight from Egypt had reached the foot of a mountain in the Sinai desert. Moses ascended that mountain. God came down from heaven atop that mountain. And the two met. And God blessed the Israelites and instructed Moses as follows: (Exodus 19:3-6)

ד  אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי.4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself.
ה  וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי–וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.5 Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine;
ו  וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’

I am the God that uses fear that is greater than the fear you had of the Pharaoh of Egypt. He cowered in fear before Me. I am God that intimidates. I am God who meets out divine justice. The people cowered in fright before God who had appeared in a thick, black cloud of smoke and fire. But do not try to touch the mountain for you will surely die. As in COVID-19, keep your distance.

On the third day, there was a revelation. As dawn broke, as thunder blasted away and lightning flashed, as heavy dark clouds hung over the top of that mountain, as the people stood at the foot of the mountain in fear and trembling, God descended in a stream of lava and smoke from a mountain that had blown its top. And God confessed. “אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי” (I am a jealous God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” I am a punishing God. I am God to be feared. And those who do not fear, I curse and do not bless.) (Exodus 20:4)

Thus, there are two aspects to this God of fear and intimidation. God coerces humans to obey Him and curses them who do not. But people are free to curse God in turn. And, more importantly, to regard the blessing of the Torah given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai as a curse, as a burden no human should be asked or expected to carry. To expect Jews to be a nation of saints, a priestly nation, a light unto the world, is just too much.

But the God of coercion and the God of the curse is offset by a very different side of God, a God who provides a blanket of protection, a God who offers a comforting cover. But the other side of this God of mercy that infantilizes, that makes us complacent and passive, is the God of mercy who challenges us to act, to commit, to freely enter into a covenant with God to care and collaborate and heal the world.

Thus, God can be represented in terms of different directions. There is the God of wrath, of intimidation, the God of fear that rules by coercion, but in requiring your cooperation and commitment of the highest order, turns a blessing into a curse, a curse of expectation and double standards in terms of which Jews shall be judged. But there is also the God of mercy who provides a shelter, who covers us with a blanket of protection, who vaccinates us against the invisible sources of unseen death. God is the God of grace, who bears the Israelites on eagles’ wings and brings them into God’s embrace. But the God of mercy has another side, a caring and collaborative side, God that requires commitment and action by us, that regards humans as self-legislators, as moral individuals responsible for their own actions and what happens to them.

                                      The Four Faces of God

                                      The Four Faces of God

Passive (1&3)God of FearGod of Mercy
Opposites (1 & 4)God as coercive and commandingGod of Care and Commitment
Opposites (2 & 3)God as a CurseGod as a Protective Cover
Active (2&4)JusticeCompassion

We cannot see the face of God because God is multi-faceted. Depending on the direction we look, we experience a different God and respond in fear to God as coercive or God as a curse. Or we respond with love and appreciation to God as a cover, a protective blanket, or, alternatively, as a caring God of commitment and the covenant. If we keep our end of the bargain, God will keep His.

Thus, on Shavuot, the shofar sounds; we once again experience the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. God first reveals Himself as a coercive being who rescues us from bondage to a cruel human form of oppression and slavery. Then God is revealed as jealous, as demanding exclusivity, as commanding service of an inordinate kind, a God to be cursed and, in Christianity, crucified not simply for what God demands of us, but for the divine sacrifice He makes. We as humans cannot chew gum and swallow at the same time. Giving oneself over to God is a curse for which, at many times, it is God you will want to curse rather than the enemies of God.

What does it mean when we are commanded not to take God’s name in vain? We are reminded of its meaning every day when before our vanities in the washroom we brush our teeth, wash our faces and comb our hair. Do not treat God as a vain possession. God is jealous and you cannot have another God. That means you cannot regard yourself as a God. You cannot be a narcissist. Excessive pride in oneself, especially an admiration for one’s own accomplishments and the face you put before the world, is vanity and is treating God in vain, for one treats God’s creation as if it were God.

Then there is the fourth commandment – to remember the sabbath. Sanctify the sabbath. Do not work on shabat. Study. Reflect. Rest and be blessed. How? By re-commitment. By re-commitment to moral and ethical behaviour, to commanding oneself and taking responsibility for what you do, to understanding that the covenant demands commitment and not just obedience out of fear or desertion because you resent the burden and responsibility that commitment means. Yet also recognizing that, while the Iron Dome may provide a protective cover, defence is unsufficient. Such a retreat is cowardice.  You can curse God for the burden placed upon you, the greatest burden being to defend oneself and kill others to do so. Caring for oneself and one’s loved ones, commands us to use coercion, to send fear through the hearts of those who would harm us, and, worst of all, kill bystanders caught up in the maelstrom.

Unfortunately, there is no true face of God. Face a different direction and you see another face. And even that face is hidden behind a veil. It demands that you interpret, that you reflect, that you weigh the use of force against your own moral inhibitions, that as you curse God for the condition you are in, you recognize the blanket of protection a state must and does provide for its people and its citizens.

Bamidbar Numbers 1 &2: Flags and Folly

This past week I filled out a census form for the Government of Canada online under threat that I would be fined $600, at least that is what I was personally told, if I failed to complete it by the assigned deadline. In this week’s parshah, the Israelites, on the second month of the second year after they entered the wilderness, underwent a military census. It was taken by groups, by the ancestral house or clan, of those males who were at least age 20 years of age and who were capable of bearing arms. The exclusion of the Levites from the main census confirmed it was a military census because the Levites had the unique responsibility of taking care of the Mishkan and were not required to go into battle.

Chapter 2, verse 2 of Numbers reads:

ב  אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.2 ‘The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.

Each tribe had its own standard or flag with symbols depicting the unique strengths and characteristics of that tribe. Each flag had a different colour and special symbols and, according to the Talmud, every group of three tribes formed a company in modern military terms with its own flag. Each tribe also had a different stone on the breastplate of the warriors from that tribe. And then there was the uniting symbol for them all, not a military flag, but a religious symbol, the tent of meeting, the Mishkan, around which each of the tribes were arranged like the numbers on a clock. The Mishkan provided the united national expression that they all were Israelites.

The ancient Israelites who fled from Egypt quickly learned the importance of communitarianism, of team loyalty, but also of a common national spirit, that the divisiveness of particularism had to be offset by a spirit of unity, a national rather than just a tribal spirit.

The Israelites were united by religion, by a common mission and by a common narrative. Yet, they were divided to create their own local loyalties to develop and perfect the characteristics attached to that tribe. For example, the tribe descended from Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, had a flag with a rising sun like the Japanese flag symbolizing the first born and the beginning, the first hour of the birth of a new nation. The flag also had a blossoming plant, for Reuben was thoughtful and considerate and the flag showed him with an infant in his arms. Reuben was sensitive and collected flowers for his mother. He tried to save Joseph from the wrath of his brothers. On the other hand, he rashly slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. He was a loving and caring man in all senses of the term.

But flags are also symbols of conflict and militant divisiveness. Earlier this week, Israeli flags were set on fire outside two German synagogues in the city of Gelsenkirchen. The flag burners marched through the town shouting “shitty Jews” and chanting “free Palestine.”

Today is Friday May 14th, the day before Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the catastrophe they suffered when Israel was created on 15 May in 1948. Jews in Israel and in France have learned that anti-Israeli passions are often aroused in the sermons given in the mosques on a Friday, especially when the media carry stories of Muslim worshippers being attacked right in the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem and when their predominant ownership of the plaza on which that mosque and the Dome of the Rock are placed, a plaza believed to be an exclusive Muslim gathering place or, at the very least, a predominantly Muslim one. But the border police see the worshippers as threats to the Jews below saying their prayers at the Western Wall being subjected to stones being thrown down on them when they go there for the prayers that they recite at the beginning of their sabbath.

The Muslim worshippers carried with them not only their holy book, and their book of prayer, but allegedly stones and certainly Palestinian flags, a tricolour of three equal horizontal stripes (black, white, and green from top to bottom), overlaid by a red triangle issuing from the hoist. That was the flag adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 28 May 1964. In the protests that almost inevitably follow a sermon at this time of year, but especially in the aftermath of the Sheikh Jarrah protests, the 1,700 missiles being shot at Israel and the reprisal air raids by the IDF in Gaza, and, most significantly this time, the inter-ethnic riots between Jews and Israeli Palestinians in the mixed cities of Akko and Ramle, Jaffa and especially Lod, one watched in fearful anticipation and dread of even worse violence, more destruction, and more innocent civilians killed and wounded on each side.

Flags unite. But flags also divide, but they divide in potentially violent ways when parties are not united by an overarching symbol and a common narrative. Instead, what we have is an almost irreconcilable narrative of Palestinian replacement and displacement by invading Jews on one side and a story of a return to their homeland to create a prosperous, dynamic, creative country on the other side, a side which treats its Arab citizens with tolerance and respect but not always with equality.

But how can there be even basic equality when Jews in the same city of Jerusalem can use Israeli law to reclaim the land they lost in the 1948 war, but Palestinians cannot use the same law to reclaim the property they lost in that same war. Recall that in Jerusalem, 2,000 Jews were displaced in that war from East Jerusalem and resettled in Western Jerusalem, while 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians lost their homes. There were 37,000 Jewish refugees and 720,000 Palestinian refugees. In addition, of the 250,000 Arabs left in Israel proper, 100,000 were displaced. They had lost their homes or their villages had been razed.

This year, and uniquely, the narratives of displacement and replacement of the Palestinians in Gaza, where 70% of the inhabitants are descended from refugees, the Arabs in the West Bank, especially from Area C, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and a large percentage of the Palestinian Israelites have a demonstrably common theme – displacement and replacement.

They march and demonstrate with calls and signs announcing, “Palestine from the river to the sea” and, echoing the fascists in Charlottesville, Jews will not replace us. In the Lod riots, three synagogues were torched. And Jews responded by lynching an Arab and killing two others, attacking Palestinian-owned businesses and homes. An interethnic war had been ignited that carried nationalist sloganeering to extremes.

And behind it all was a census and a demographic battle. For living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are almost the same number of Arabs as Jews. They are virtually at parity – 6.5 million Arabs and just a few more Jews. Instead of the two tribes being counted in a common census around a common religious symbol, religion divides them.

But there is hope. The leader of the radical Orthodox Jewish ultranationalist party in Israel, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), is Itamar Ben-Gvir, That party won one of the six seats as part of the Religious Zionist List. That party led protests in Sheikh Jarrah against the Palestinian squatters who had lived in their homes built by the Jordanians since 1956. He advocated immediate eviction. However, in the aftermath of the violence in Lod and in other mixed Arab-Jewish towns and cities, he advocated a cessation of violence and strongly deplored the mob of Jews who had lynched an Arab.

On the other side is, Mansour Abbas, leader of The United Arab List Party (Ra’am), an Islamic Palestinian Party that won four seats in the Knesset. He had suspended negotiations for an Arab backed Jewish coalition government in Israel. However, he also promised to resume discussions when the rioting stopped and there was a ceasefire in Gaza. He too strongly deplored the violence as did the leader of the other Palestinian Party.

Further, Abbas is actually a close friend and ally on a number of issues with Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, the largest of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset with 9 seats. They unite on a number of points close to conservative religious hearts.

Saner heads may hopefully prevail. And perhaps one day the Palestinians in Israel and the Jewish Israelites will be able to assemble and march under a common flag with the symbols of both groups. Someday.