Monday, March 24, 2008

On the return of Palestinian refugees and the present and future Israel

The letter below, written by Tomer Gardi, touches on some of the core topics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, on prevailing attitudes to it in mainstream Israel and on chances and hopes for a true solution.

Brief, simply worded and direct, the letter broaches the "cockfight" typical of most exchanges in Israel about the origins and solutions of the conflict, precluding civil and real dialogue between Israelis of different opinions.

It outlines a view of the current state of Israeli society as not democratic but, rather, "a democracy only for Jews", militarized, brutalized and exploitative and oppressive of both Jews and Palestinians. The letter construes this condition as directly related to Israel's measures towards maximizing Jewish numbers and minimizing the number of Palestinians, making the country "a barricaded fortification, a huge, suffocating stockade, a prison we have constructed around us."

The letter concludes with Gardi's stand on the return of Palestinian refugees and his vision of a possible post-conflict state and society.

Tomer Gardi, who authored the letter, is an active member of the Israeli non-profit "Zochrot" (or "Remembering"), "a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948" (quoted from the Zochrot website at: Gardi is also editor of a Hebrew literary periodical Sedek [literally meaning "a crack"] focusing on topics that relate to the Nakba and its active erasure and aftermath within Israeli culture and society (the first edition is available on-line at:; the second is available through the website of Pardes publishers – see below). Sedek is published jointly by three organizations: "Parrhesia", a group of artists working to develop "a civil communications language: respectful, humanist, in dialogue; an alternative to the language of force used by the market and the regime" (; Hebrew-to-English translation
mine, RM), the independent publishing house, Pardes ( and Zochrot.

His letter is an answer to a position piece posted on the internet version of the Hebrew paper Ma'ariv, in which publicist Ben-Dror Yemini expressed his strongly negative view of Zochrot and its activities. (Yemini's piece [in Hebrew] can be accessed [via link] from the URL of Gardi's Hebrew letter, provided below.)

While none of the above organizations are household names in Israel, a discussion – or even a cockfight – raising the possibility of Palestinian return would not have been published in Ma'ariv till just a few years ago. As Gardi rightly points out, "people are being eliminated here daily … [and t]owns [are] being bombed on both sides of the border." Nevertheless, the visible existence of this debate in the public sphere in Israel, along with the terms and concepts it introduces is, in and of itself, a change.

Rela Mazali


Racheli Gai added:

For readers who would like to learn more about the ongoing joint Israeli-Palestinian study and formulation of questions regarding refugee return:

A Badil/Zochrot US Speaking Tour is taking place from March 27 - April 7, 2008.

It's titled:
"Acknowledging the past; Imagining the future: Palestinians and Israelis on 1948 and the right of Return".

The speakers will be Mohammad Jaradat from Badil and Eitan Bronstein from Zochrot.

About BADIL (taken off their website) : Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights takes a rights-based approach to the Palestinians refugee issue through research, advocacy and support of community participation in the search for durable solutions.

BADIL ('badeel') is an Arabic word that means 'alternative'. Badil's alternative approach to the question of Palestinians refugees and displaced persons is based on international law, relevant UN resolutions, and the participation of refugees themselves.

To find out more, go to

The tour will visit Providence RI, Boston, Chicago, Portland OR, Seattle, New York City, and Lancaster and Phildelphia PA.

Full tour information can be found at


Ma'ariv NRG
March 19, 2008

Translated by Charles Kamen

Dear Ben Dror Yemini,

I read your posting yesterday on the NRG site about Zochrot. I read, and thought to myself, “Forget it.” Why make the effort to respond? The differences between us seem so great, and I’d have to write so much even to get within hearing distance, so that even now, while I’m sitting and writing, I say to myself again, “Forget it; why even bother. Get on with your life.”

I’m strongly tempted to drop the whole thing. But there’s something else tempting me, my fingers itching on the keyboard, to join the cockfight. Perhaps because of the tremendous distance I’d have to travel to reach you, it’s easier and more tempting to get within shouting distance, rather than close enough for an actual conversation. I’m tempted. You yelled, “Enemy!” I’ll yell back, “Fascist!” You yelled, “Warped!” I’ll respond, “Racist!” You yelled, “Hamasnik!” I’ll cry, “Settleroist!” And we’ll go on like that until both of us are dead, hopefully in the fullness of our years, two bitter, hoarse foes.

It’s difficult to resist a temptation, and doubly difficult to resist two. But I’ll try anyway, try to get close enough to talk, by writing these words. Although I’m a member of the group you’re attacking, I’m also writing as an ordinary person. I don’t have the strength to formulate a document that all the members of the organization will discuss, reword, agree to and sign. Its activists, including me, hold many different views.

You accused Zochrot of acting to eliminate the Jewish state. A fairly common accusation. In my view, though – if you really want to know – a state isn’t something to be eliminated. A state is only a tool, a civil instrument that groups of people need in order to organize their communal life. I don’t see any essential difference between a state and a municipality, a local council or a regional council. I think it’s absurd to talk about eliminating the state. A state can be changed, and its citizens should engage in a political discussion about the nature of social arrangements in the territory where they live. A state can’t be eliminated because it isn’t a living entity. A state is institutions and government offices. What can be eliminated, killed, destroyed is not the state, but people. And people are being eliminated here daily in any case.

I don’t think Israel is a democratic state. Although its legislation includes some liberal democratic elements – my freedom to write this, for example – there’s a big difference between a regime that contains democratic elements, and a democracy. This May, the political entity known as the state of Israel will celebrate sixty years since its establishment. Subtract the forty-one years (1967-2008) that Israel has ruled over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have no rights, and another seventeen years (1949-1966) during which the Jewish majority imposed military rule over the Palestinian minority inside the borders of Israel, and you’re left with two years out of sixty that Arabs were not subjected to Israeli military rule. It’s hard for me to call that “democracy.” Israel is, in essence, a democracy only for Jews.

Zochrot actually does hope to threaten this regime, openly. Not by surreptitious spying, or by trickery, but publicly, for all to see. We want to threaten this regime and change it fundamentally, not only for reasons of justice and morality – reasons always denigrated as being no more than the fantasies of idealistic dreamers. The continuing Israeli project, whose essence is to push as many Arabs as possible out of as much territory as possible, is a disaster not only for the Palestinians who are being pushed out, but also for us who are doing the pushing. I’m really amazed by how upset you are at the fact that citizens want to bring about a fundamental change in Israel’s current social and political order. Look outside, read the papers – what’s so wonderful here that it’s worth preserving? A country of oligarchs and of people collecting bottles in the streets? Towns being bombed on both sides of the border? Unemployment, poverty, violence, aggressiveness?

You characterize Zochrot’s aim as “transferring power to the enemy.” That isn’t my aim. My political vision is that the people who live in the territory to which the laws of the state apply, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, should have the right to rule and participate in its government. Why shouldn’t Jews live in Beit El and Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Shmona and Kiryat Arba, Dugit and Deganya, or Arabs live in Hebron and Haifa, Ramallah and Jaffa, call their towns Haif’a and Yaf’a – what’s the big deal? Israel is already a Jewish-Arab state. Why not make it a Jewish-Arab democracy?

Zochrot does support the return of the Palestinian refugees – not only supports, but acts to make it a reality. Here, too, not only for reasons of morality and justice which are easy to mock, and to ignore as fantasies. The stubborn efforts to prevent the refugees’ return has turned the country into a barricaded fortification, a huge, suffocating stockade, a prison we have constructed around us. I support the right of Palestinian refugees to live wherever they choose between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, because I prefer living in an open rather than a closed society, willingly heterogeneous, whose resources are invested in education, culture and welfare rather than in airplanes and fences, a society that doesn’t reek of gun oil.

It isn’t possible in a short text on the internet to give much detail about the vision of this kind of society, especially since much is still unknown. It has to be developed and expanded into a comprehensive and convincing political paradigm, in opposition to the one that assumes that maintaining a Jewish majority is the necessary condition for living here. What kind of economy will this society have? What will be the relation between religion and the state? How will the Palestinian refugees be absorbed? What arrangements will there be for compensation? How will the country’s resources be reallocated, not only between Arabs and Jews, but also among the classes? What relations will exist among social groups? What about those strange groups of people who are neither Jews nor Arabs – they exist in the world as well as here – Philippine migrants, Ukrainians, Chinese, Romanians, Sudanese, a growing number of migrants who aren’t Jewish but nevertheless entered by virtue of the Law of
Return? How will cities be planned, water resources allocated? What arrangements can be made to insure the security of citizens of the new state during the transition from occupation to civilian democracy? What can we learn from the experience of other countries, like South Africa, Albania, Namibia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Ruwanda? This coming June, Zochrot will hold a conference to begin discussing these questions. You’re invited, Ben Dror Yemini, along with all the other readers.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Alistair Welchman

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