Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Israel at Full Circle

Zochrot is a Hebrew word meaning the plural female form of “remembering,” which is fitting as this, and many other peace-focused organizations, is mainly staffed by women. The 2008 Zochrot conference was held June 22-24 at the ZOA house, headquarters of the Zionist Organization of America. It began with a speech by the organization’s chairman, Eitan Bronstein, wherein he outlined Zochrot’s goal and method of achieving that goal all in one sentence: “How can we talk about the return of Palestinians if we don’t understand we expelled them?” Zochrot is documenting stories and evidence of the Nakba to educate Jewish Israelis about this part of their history. With this evidence, they hope to gain support for the return of refugees. He then echoed the fears of many Israelis in regards to the return, “Are we going back to the countries we came from? Are we going to swim in the sea? What are we going to do?”

Answering these questions was the goal of the conference.

Norma Musih, also of Zochrot, shared another common Israeli concern: for how long, how many generations of Palestinian refugees should be compensated? The answer she proposed is: until they are no longer refugees.

Activist Yael Lerer noted a trend among young Israelis to return to their countries of origin. She said, “Israeli Jews want Polish citizenship, compensation from Germany. Nobody questions this, of course they deserve it.” These Israelis are acquiring citizenship in the country of their parents or grandparents. Many are returning to the cities and countries their ancestors fled as refugees. Why should Palestinians not do the same? The parallel between the right of return for Palestinians and Jews will become increasingly harder to ignore to those whose friends and family continue to emigrate back to Europe.

Architect Amnon Bar Or discussed realistically Israel’s status as a David surrounded by the Arab Goliath when he said, “We have to acknowledge that this is a small culture and with this modesty, adopt another.” This echoed the sentiment expressed by Zochrot member Esther when she compared Israel to a ghetto of European Jews. She said, “We are in the Middle East. We have to be a part of the Middle East. We are not in Europe anymore.” I responded by saying “This may be the first time in history that the Jews have not blended into the society in which they live…and maybe this is the problem?” Esther responded unequivocally, “It’s a big problem, yeah.”

Kibbutz member Einat Luzati, speaking only on her own behalf, told the audience that the return of refugees and the creation of one state would benefit Jews because everyone would finally find peace. And in a statement where she either indirectly shamed Israel for the treatment of Palestinians or was blissfully ignorant of the parallel, she said, “For me and my family, Israel is a haven. Here, there will be no holocausts. Here, there will be no pogroms.”

The conference did not only focus on what Jews would have to give up, but cited “the Palestine of the past” and acknowledged that Palestinians would have to give up this dream. In response to the common Israeli question of why Palestinians can’t make a home in the surrounding Arab countries, Wakim Wakim of ADRID said, “There is no Arab regime whose hands are not covered in Palestinian blood.” And, further emphasizing the idea that the refusal of return hurts Jews too, Wakim said:
Did Israel fulfill its promise to its people to provide freedom and security? Or did they turn the country into one big ghetto they cannot protect?
Whether or not the ideas expressed in this conference can be effective, thinking outside the box certainly cannot hurt. And I was struck by the audacity of many of the statements. These speakers are people not deterred by naysayers. When confronted with the ever-popular reaction that won’t work, they dare to ask why not? This sort of attitude brought to my mind the father of Zionism itself: Theodor Herzl. A man who so deeply believed in both the need for a Jewish state and its possibility that he grew the tree of Zionism from a tiny, laughable seed. A man who said things like:
Our opponents maintain that we are confronted with insurmountable political obstacles, but that may be said of the smallest obstacle if one has no desire to surmount it.
Those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger, if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one.
But I am convinced that those Jews who stand aside today with a malicious smile and with their hands in their trousers' pockets will also want to dwell in our beautiful home.
Speakers at the conference echoed Herzl’s sentiments. Zochrot’s Norma Musih said, for example, “This requires a daring kind of act where Jews will be the minority.”

The conference provided only a hint of a practical solution despite one of the panel titles, “Practicalities of Return.” What it did provide was a list of questions that should be asked. A place to begin. Perhaps if these opinions weren’t held by only a small minority, they would have gotten further in their quest to answer some of the most pressing and complicated questions of our time. But they have the courage to ask them, while others pretend there is no question.

Like a monster hiding under your bed, the answers they imagine lay waiting for them are too terrifying to contemplate. But just like anything one doesn’t understand, if you bring the monster into the light, you’ll find there’s nothing there.

Zochrot’s ideas may be far ahead of their time: a one-state solution is not going to happen within this generation. Not just because the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are against it, but because it will not be possible before a two-state solution has been in effect for some time. The two peoples cannot come together without being equals. And Palestinians will not be equals without autonomy.

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