The right of the Palestinian refugees expelled in the 1948 war to return home was acknowledged by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. It is a right anchored in international law and in accordance with notions of universal justice. More surprisingly perhaps, it also makes sense in terms of realpolitik: unless Israel agrees to repatriate the refugees, all attempts to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict are bound to fail, as became clear in 2000 when the Oslo initiative broke down over this issue. Yet only a handful of Jews in Israel are willing to support it, in part because most Israeli Jews deny that ethnic cleansing was carried out in 1948 by Israel.
The aim of the Zionist project has always been to construct and then defend a Western/‘white’ fortress in the Arab/‘dark’ world. At the heart of the refusal to allow Palestinians the right to return is the fear of Jewish Israelis that they will eventually be outnumbered by Arabs in Israel. This prospect arouses such strong feelings that Israelis seem not to care that their actions are condemned throughout the world; the Jewish propensity to seek atonement has been replaced by pious arrogance and self-righteousness. Their position is not unlike that of the Crusaders when they realised that the Kingdom of Jerusalem they had built in the Holy Land was merely an island in a hostile Islamic world. Or that of the white settlers in Africa, whose enclaves have disappeared more recently, their pretence of being another local tribe shattered.
In or around 1922, a group of Jewish colonialists from Eastern Europe managed – thanks in large part to the assistance they received from the British Empire – to construct the basis for an enclave in Palestine. In that year and the next, the borders of Palestine as a future Jewish state were delineated. The colonialists dreamed of massive Jewish immigration to strengthen their hold. But the Holocaust reduced the number of ‘white’ Jews and, disappointingly from a Zionist point of view, those who survived preferred America, or even perfidious Europe itself, to Palestine. Reluctantly, the Eastern European leadership allowed a million Arab Jews into the enclave. They were put through a process of de-Arabisation, which has been well documented in post-Zionist and Mizrachi scholarship. This was seen as a success and the presence of a small Palestinian minority inside Israel did not dispel the illusion that the enclave was well constructed and rested on a solid base – even if the price had been the dispossession and uprooting of the indigenous population and the takeover of 78 per cent of its land.
The Arab world, and the Palestinian national movement, were resilient enough to make it clear that they would not be reconciled to the Israeli enclave. In 1967, the two sides clashed and the Zionist project extended its territorial grasp, taking over the whole of Palestine, along with parts of Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Victory produced an appetite for more territory. In 1982, southern Lebanon was added to the mini-empire, compensating for the loss of the Sinai, which was returned to Egypt in 1979. An expansionist policy was thought necessary to protect the enclave.
Since 2000 the Jewish state has ceased to expand; it has actually become smaller by withdrawing from Lebanon. Successive governments have even shown a willingness to negotiate withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, as Israel’s leaders have come to believe that land isn’t its most important asset. Other things now seem more valuable: in particular, nuclear capability, unconditional American support and a strong army. A Zionist pragmatism has re-emerged which believes it possible to limit Israel to 90 per cent of Palestine, provided the territory is circled by electric fences and visible, as well as invisible, walls. A minority of fanatics has refused to agree to this concession of territory, and there has even been talk of ‘civil war’. This is a charade, however: the vast majority of the public supports the ‘commonsensical’ policy of disengagement from Gaza.
So the final stage of the construction of the fortress, in which high walls are built around an agreed enclave, with some international – and even regional – consent, could be approaching. But what is going to happen inside the walls? Not much, if you believe the main newspapers here. There are threats from within the fortress, but they can be overcome. True, non-Jews have arrived from the former Soviet Union, but at least they are ‘whites’, and so can be welcomed inside. Immigrant guest workers, none of them Jewish, will either be deported or stay on as modern slaves; in any case they are not Arabs and so do not constitute a ‘demographic problem’: the phrase used by those Israelis who support the expulsion of more Palestinians from Israel, and the title of many academic conferences, including one to be held at my own university this month – the professors and state officials who will attend openly endorse a strategy of further ethnic cleansing. Arab Jews are not seen as a danger to the purity of the enclave because they have been successfully de-Arabised: it is assumed that the few among them who dare to trace their roots in the Arab world do not constitute a real threat to the Zionist consensus.
It is clear why no paid-up Zionist can raise the possibility of negotiating the right of more ‘Arabs’ to return to the Jewish state, even if this were a means to end the conflict. The refusal to entertain the return is nonetheless bizarre – if, that is, one is even slightly removed from the Zionist perception of reality, given that Israel has already ceased to be a state with a Jewish majority, thanks to the influx of Christians from Eastern Europe, the increasing number of guest workers and the fact that secular Jews can in only one sense be regarded as ‘Jewish’. It is less bewildering when one realises that the primary goal is actually to keep the state ‘white’ (the black Jews who came from Ethiopia live in poor areas and are scarcely visible). What matters in the eyes of both left and right in Israel is that the gates are kept closed, and the walls high, to ward off an ‘Arab’ invasion of the Jewish fortress.
Israeli governments have failed in their attempts both to encourage further Jewish immigration and to increase Jewish birth-rates within the state. And they haven’t found a solution to the conflict that would bring about a reduction in the number of ‘Arabs’ in Israel. All their solutions would, on the contrary, lead to an increase (since they regard Greater Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the large bloc of settlements in the West Bank as part of Israel). The Palestinian birthrate is three times as high as that of the Jews, and you don’t need to be an expert in demography to understand what this means. Moreover, while the proposals for ending the conflict put forward by the Sharon-Peres government – with the silent endorsement of the Zionist left – may satisfy some Arab regimes, such as those in Egypt and Jordan, they will not be enough for those countries’ civil societies, politicised by radical Islam. The American goal of ‘democratising’ the Middle East – as currently pursued by its troops in Iraq – somehow doesn’t make life inside the ‘white’ fortress any less anxious. Levels of violence are still high and the standard of living of the majority is constantly dropping. These concerns are not dealt with: they are almost as low on the national agenda as the environment and women’s rights. What matters is that we – I include myself, since I come from a German Jewish family – constitute a majority of ‘whites’ on our enlightened island in a sea of ‘blacks’.
Rejecting the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is tantamount to making an unconditional pledge to defend the ‘white’ enclave. This stance is particularly popular among Sephardic Jews, who were originally part of the Arab world but have since learned that membership of ‘white’ society requires a process of Hishtakenezut – of ‘becoming an Ashkenazi’. Today they are the ‘white’ island’s most vociferous supporters, although very few of them, especially among those who come from North Africa, will find themselves leading the comfortable lives enjoyed by their Ashkenazi counterparts. However strenuously they de-Arabise themselves, they will sooner or later come up against a glass ceiling.
Most important, the Zionist belief in Fortress Israel guarantees the perpetuation of the conflict with the Palestinians, their Arab neighbours and Muslim societies as far away as South-East Asia. But it isn’t only cultural solidarity and religious affinity which will eventually ensure that formidable Arab and Islamic energies are pulled into the struggle against Israel: all the developing world’s frustration and all its desire for liberation will some day be channelled into the rescue of Palestine.
The intimate relationship between Jews and Palestinians which has developed over these troubled years, both inside and outside Israel, and the composite nature of those sections of Jewish society in Israel that have allowed themselves to be shaped by circumstances rather than by human engineering, promise reconciliation despite the years of apartheid, expulsion and oppression. But the window of opportunity will stay open only for a while. If the last postcolonial European enclave in the Arab world does not willingly transform itself into a civic and democratic state, it will become a country full of anger, its features distorted by the wish for retribution, by chauvinism and religious fanaticism. If this happens, it will be almost impossible to demand, or expect, moderation from the Palestinians. It may come eventually, but given what we have seen in other Arab lands liberated by armed struggle, the chances that it will be sooner rather than later are slim.
Those of us who support the Palestinian right of return believe that the window of opportunity has not yet been closed. There is still an almost unbelievable gap between the weight of Israeli oppression and the fragility of Palestinian vengefulness. But how long we will be able to benefit from this gap is hard to tell. Not very long, I fear, and unless we get some help from the outside world, worse is to come.