May 23, 2013
Susie Linfield on How to Think About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Posted on Jun 5, 2009
The “right of return” is a phrase that has always baffled me. For if return is indeed a right for Palestinians, surely it must be upheld for others, too. And so, I wonder, what of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews who left, or were expelled from, the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, where they had lived for centuries? Some of them, and their descendants, might want to go “home”: Isn’t that their right? Will Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco welcome them back, usher them into their former homes, restore their businesses and professions? Think, if only for a minute, of the havoc that would ensue. With the “return” of so many “refugees,” both to Israel and the surrounding states, what would happen to the millions who would, of necessity, subsequently be displaced? Why would this not create new generations of refugees or at least masses of enraged, displaced people? How would this grand, mad population transfer take place? What relation does any of this have to justice, and why would it not result in social catastrophe and ruin on a massive scale?
Indeed, if each Palestinian has the right of return, so must every other displaced person on Earth. What, then, of the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Croats and Serbs who lost their homes (and much more) in the bitter Balkan wars of the 1990s? Should the Dayton Accords—which were, truth to tell, grievously unfair to the Bosnians, and which rewarded the murderous ethnic cleansing of the Serbs—be revoked, and each person of each nationality “restored” to her former home? Why would this one-state solution not be a prescription for another round of vicious wars, if not another round of genocide?
And if return equals justice, let’s take it further; post-World War II history is replete with states that came into being at the cost of immense violence and immense dislocation, and that have made some of their neighbors quite unhappy. Why not retract the division of the subcontinent—which resulted in massive expulsions, population transfers and an estimated million deaths—and impose a one-state “solution” on Pakistan and India? (And while we are at it, shouldn’t we force Bangladesh—which dismembered Pakistan when it unilaterally declared independence—to reunite with its former brethren? Over 8 million refugees resulted from that astonishingly short, pitiless war.) How far back should the clock be turned? Should the Sudeten Germans be returned to Czechoslovakia (a country that no longer exists)? Should the Treaty of Trianon, which robbed Hungary of two-thirds of its land and population, be revoked?
These examples are absurd, but only because they illustrate the essential bankruptcy of the concept of restoration, which obsessively revisits, and tries to re-create, a presumably edenic past rather than accept the far more difficult task of building a viable future. Indeed, the idea that justice lies not in creating history but in un-making it—which is the key idea behind the “right of return”—is the very definition of reaction, which is precisely why it is never advocated as a solution for anyone but the Palestinians, and why it is a sterling example of bad faith. In most circumstances, this attempt to vanquish history is commonly called revanchism, and is usually associated with ultranationalism and fascism. (See, for instance, the German right in the interwar years and, more recently, the Serbs during the breakup of Yugoslavia.) It usually leads to the most vicious, most unyielding politics, and it usually leads to war. It elides—in the case of the Palestinians as much as any other—the problem of forging a workable, good-enough, resilient solution for the future rather than seeking to eradicate the humiliations of the past through presumably glorious, and apparently unending, battles of redemption. It seeks ultimate justice: which may seem, at first glance, a beautiful thing but which usually turns out to be an ugly thing.
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