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Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return

IN APRIL, when Joe Biden announced that he would restore US funding for The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education, health care, and other services to Palestinian refugees, establishment American Jewish groups reacted with dismay. A letter signed by Hadassah, B’nai B’rith, and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) blamed UNRWA’s schools for teaching Palestinian refugees “lessons steeped in anti-Semitism and supportive of violence.” AIPAC accused the organization of “inciting hatred of Jews and the Jewish state.”

But AIPAC and the ZOA did not merely accuse UNRWA of miseducating Palestinian refugees. Along with Israeli government officials, they have questioned whether most of the Palestinians that UNRWA serves are refugees at all. AIPAC has slammed UNRWA’s “misguided definition of refugees.” ZOA called UNRWA’s clientele “the descendants of Arab refugees.” Israel’s Ambassador to the US and the UN, Gilad Erdan, declared that, “this UN agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format.” 

The fundamental problem with UNRWA, according to this line of argument, is that it treats the children and grandchildren of Palestinians expelled at Israel’s founding as refugees themselves. Establishment Jewish critics don’t blame UNRWA merely for helping Palestinians pass down their legal status as refugees, but their identity as refugees as well. In The War of Return, a central text of the anti-UNRWA campaign, the Israeli writers Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf allege that without UNRWA, refugee children “would likely have lost their identity and assimilated into surrounding society.” Instead, with UNRWA’s help, Palestinians are “constantly looking back to their mythologized previous lives” while younger generations act as if they have “undergone these experiences themselves.” To Schwartz and Wilf’s horror, many Palestinians seem to believe that in every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally left Palestine.

As it happens, I read The War of Return just before Tisha B’Av, the day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the exiles that followed. On Tisha B’Av itself, I listened to medieval kinnot, or dirges, that describe those events—which occurred, respectively, two thousand and two thousand five hundred years ago—in the first person and the present tense

In Jewish discourse, this refusal to forget the past—or accept its verdict—evokes deep pride. The late philosopher Isaiah Berlin once boasted that Jews “have longer memories” than other peoples. And in the late 19th century, Zionists harnessed this long collective memory to create a movement for return to a territory most Jews had never seen. “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion,” proclaims Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The State of Israel constitutes “the realization” of this “age-old dream.”

Why is dreaming of return laudable for Jews but pathological for Palestinians? Asking the question does not imply that the two dreams are symmetrical. The Palestinian families that mourn Jaffa or Safed lived there recently and remember intimate details about their lost homes. They experienced dispossession from Israel-Palestine. The Jews who for centuries afflicted themselves on Tisha B’Av, or created the Zionist movement, only imagined it. “You never stopped dreaming,” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once told an Israeli interviewer. “But your dream was farther away in time and place . . . I have been an exile for only 50 years. My dream is vivid, fresh.” Darwish noted another crucial difference between the Jewish and Palestinian dispersions: “You created our exile, we didn’t create your exile.” 

Read entire article at Jewish Currents