Social justice and the right of return


Remember a few months ago when I was being all cynical about the new social justice movement in Israel, the July 14 movement (or #J14 for the twitter savvy)? I really really badly wanted to be proven wrong. I wanted to see an amazing potential for social revolution. So the other week I went along to the Social Economic Academy‘s forum on social justice in Yaffa. The forum was a report back on the findings of the ‘experts’ committees on social justice’. I guess the word ‘experts’ should’ve been enough of a warning that I wasn’t gonna find what I was looking for here.

The committees focused on education, health, employment and welfare and it was interesting to hear what issues they thought were most urgent but overall I came away feeling like we had drastically different views on what social justice means. The main thing that struck me is how much the words ‘patriotic’ and ‘citizen’ were thrown around. Sometimes I feel like politics in Israel is just one big competition to out-Zionist everyone else. The unifying theme of this forum was people wanting to make the state stronger, to give it more power – as if the state is some kind of guardian against neo-liberal capitalism rather than its lackey.

I was disappointed and not surprised that the voice of those people who are most exploited in Israel (Palestinians, migrant workers, refugees from Africa) weren’t represented at all. The one speaker (Daphni Leef) who did mention the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Naqab/Negev made sure to emphasize that these Bedouin are citizens. As though ethnic cleansing is only wrong when its victims are citizens.

It’s that narrowness, focusing only on the struggle of one group of people – a group that’s relatively privileged – that makes me so sceptical about the July 14 social justice movement.

The same week I went to an exhibition opening at Zochrot (remembering). There are countless human rights NGOs in Israel that work against the occupation and most of them accept a two state solution and a return to the 1967 border as an end to the conflict. Zochrot is one of the few NGOs that actively works to raise awareness of the Nakba and educate Israelis about the hidden history of occupation in the 1948 territories.

The exhibition was about facilitating the return of the refugees from 1948 to their homes. Most of it consisted of a series of plans drawn up by architects looking at how to integrate existing Jewish communities with Palestinians returning home to their lands, based on the understanding that it’s not possible to turn back the clock and return to 1948, but instead we need to build something new.

But the exhibit that I found the most interesting was two short documentaries about the right of return. In the first, the filmmakers took to the streets of Yaffa and interviewed Jewish Israeli locals. First, they asked them what they thought of African refugees in Israel. The responses were mixed. Some people thought refugees should be welcomed to Israel, that as a state founded by refugees Israel had a special duty to support refugees. Others argued that refugees from Africa have no place being here, because they’re not Jewish, because they increase crime and prostitution, because of all the reasons people usually give for keeping refugees out of any country.

The second question was: if these refugees want to go home, should they be able to? The answer was unanimously yes. Everyone agreed African refugees have a right to go home.

Then they were asked: what about the Palestinian refugees of 1948, do they have a right to come home? Again the responses were mixed. I was really pleasantly surprised at how many Jewish Israelis said that they welcomed the return of refugees. Then there were the ones who said that people who ‘ran away’ didn’t have any right to come home, as if to escape a warzone is to forfeit your home.

The most interesting response was the guy who said that if Palestinians were allowed to return home to Yaffa then he should also be allowed to return to the house his grandfather had left behind in Budapest. Of course, he’s completely right. Jewish people – myself included – whose ancestors escaped Europe because of anti-Semitic persecution (whether it was during the holocaust or earlier) have every right to come home. But it’s not Palestinians who are denying us that right, and they shouldn’t be paying the price for European anti-Semitism.

The second documentary interviewed Palestinian refugees from Yaffa in the West Bank. The first question was: would you return to Yaffa if you could? Everyone, from teenagers to those old enough to remember 1948, said yes.

The interviewers also asked: How would you get along with your new Jewish neighbours? This is the question I was most intrigued by. The two teenage boys interviewed both said that they didn’t want anything to do with Jews, that both people will just keep to themselves, although they did say that if they ran a restaurant they would allow Jewish customers since ‘a restaurant would flourish with Jewish customers’. On the other hand an elderly woman who was 13 years old when her family was ethnically cleansed from Yaffa said that she didn’t think Jews were a problem, that her family had always lived side by side with Jews.

It made me think about how the longer the occupation (of both the 67 and the 48 territories) continues the more we take it for granted that it will always exist. The older generations, the ones who can still remember a time before all this, are dying. The younger generations have lived with the occupation our whole lives. It’s easy for us to see this conflict as something inevitable, that can never be resolved. The generations that come after us won’t even have parents or grandparents who can remember a Palestine that wasn’t under Zionist occupation. The longer the occupation continues the harder it’s gonna be to end it.


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