Features Australia

The problem with ‘right of return’

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

26 January 2019

9:00 AM

The United Nations Global Compact on Migration has brought issues relating to migrants and refugees to the fore for many countries. In Australian, European and US politics – and also in Britain with Brexit – these issues already loom large, going to the heart of the identity, values and direction of these democracies.

When it comes to Israel, there is the call for the ‘right of return’ of Palestinian ‘refugees’ to Israel, and for a binational state in which Israelis and Palestinians including all Palestinian ‘refugees’ will have equal rights. These are official objectives of the BDS (boycott divestment and sanction) campaign against Israel, and are regularly demanded by ‘progressives’ and anti-Israel activists; the most notorious recent example being American media studies academic Marc Lamont Hill at the UN.

Before unpacking what a demand for the right of return and a binational state means, it’s important to note that almost all so-called Palestinian ‘refugees’ are not refugees as the term is normally understood. In the 1940s, there were over 50 million refugees and displaced people, resulting from World War II, the partition of India and Pakistan, expulsion of Jews from Arab states and so on, all of whom were long ago resettled. Only the 700,000-odd Arabs who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 War of Independence have not been. Those still alive, and their descendants, amount to about 5 million today and are registered as refugees, according to UNRWA, the UN agency that exclusively looks after Palestinians.

So, the ‘right of return of Palestinian refugees’, or a binational state, would mean about 5 million people, many of whom have never set foot in the land of Israel, being given citizenship alongside 6.6 million Jews and another 1.7 million Arabs who are already citizens (those who remained during the War of Independence or returned after it). Which would render the Jews a minority.

Israel was conceived of as the Jewish national home. The UN Charter entrenches the right of the Jewish people to reconstitute their national home between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; where the cradle of Jewish civilisation is, where the Jewish people were born as a nation and where their sovereign state was. It is where today citizens grapple to reconcile what it means to belong to a Jewish state with being a secular liberal democracy. In other words, it’s the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, where the dream of reclaiming Jewish self-determination, of decolonisation, has crystallised but is still evolving.

Israel guarantees by law all its citizens the same civil rights, but only Jews have the right to immigration and citizenship. Not all Jewish people are citizens of Israel, and not all citizens of Israel are Jewish, but it is the one state where the Jewish people have self-determination.

Fundamental to the idea of self-determination is the right to decide who can be citizens. Even more than most states, this issue cuts to the very core of the Jewish state’s identity, values and direction. The ‘right of return’ or a ‘binational state’ where Jews become a minority is code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically. The idea of Palestinian sovereignty has not been jettisoned in favour of co-existence and sharing power with their ‘oppressors’. It’s the same ideology of rejectionism and de-Judaisation that’s behind the failed wars and terrorism, just repackaged in the language of human rights, peace and justice – because it sounds palatable and progressive.

Honest anti-Israel activists would admit they favour replacing Jewish self-determination with Palestinian self-determination. Perhaps they don’t think Jews qualify as a people. Perhaps they accept the right to self-determination under the other League of Nations mandates – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Trans-Jordan – but just not for Jews. Perhaps they believe Jewish self-determination is contingent upon their idea of good behaviour. Perhaps they deem Israel’s ethno-religious character to be racist, but are unconcerned by the many other nation states that are less ethnically diverse (such as Japan, Armenia, Lebanon, Swaziland, Albania and Mongolia), or about the 42 other states with an official religion, most being Islam, and several being theocracies.

In any case, Jewish self-determination isn’t a thought experiment. It exists, it affects real lives, and its demise involves practicalities that are best considered by posing the following questions:

– Of the 50 or so existing Muslim-majority states, is there one democracy where all citizens have equal rights and live free from fear, including minority ethnicities and religions, women and LGBTQ, which could serve as a model for this new state?

– Given the current regimes in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, and the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Fatah, would the new state’s rulers embrace democracy, the rule of law, human rights and liberal values for all?

– If not, does it make sense to replace the one state in the Middle East where these exist, with one that does not?

– Given the charters and rhetoric of Hamas and Fatah, their attempted erasure of millennia-old Jewish history and delegitimisation of any Jewish presence in the land, would this new Muslim-majority state respect Jews living there?

– Why, after wars, terrorism, animosity and mistrust between the two peoples, would civil war not return?

– What cognitive dissonance enables people who dehumanise Israelis as an evil homogenous abstraction, and advocate disenfranchising Israelis and eschewing any dialogue and co-operation with them through BDS, to urge co-existence in a utopian state?

If such people aren’t worried about the possibility of a civil war, genocide and ethnic cleansing, they don’t care about Jewish life, welfare, equal rights or peace.

Israel, like every other state, has the right to determine its citizenship and decide on its identity, values and direction. That goes to the core of self-determination, which the Jewish people yearned for and suffered without for millennia. The Jewish state has taken significant risks for peace, but it will not self-immolate by opening itself to millions of people with different ethnicities, religions, cultures and values, many of whom have been told that Jews have no right to live among them, or at all. Any person who believes peace, justice and human rights require the Jewish people to sacrifice their self-determination and dismantle their homeland in order to make way for another Muslim state is a person for whom Jewish lives don’t matter.

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