Imagining Return
Dedicated to my comrades in Students for Justice in Palestine
By: Tom Pessah
Tom Pessah (on the left) with Zochrot at The Human Rights March in Tel Aviv 2012

This text was publishe first here.

I should have taken your email! People were all around us at the rally, shouting and singing, I really wanted to talk to someone but I didn’t notice how well you were listening, how you had patience to talk to me and read the flyer I was distributing. You had a red beard and skullcap, and a blue shirt with “Israeli Peace” on it. I wore the black shirt of Students for Justice in Palestine.

You read my flyer and asked me, “where it says in 1967 Israel occupied more territories populated by Palestinians, what do you mean by ‘more’? Are you saying Israel of 1948 was also conquered”?

I know what you are really asking: do “we people” recognize “your” right to exist, or… you know, want to throw you into the sea?

Dude, I’m an Israeli Jew, just like you! I don’t want to throw any Israelis into the sea, honestly. I’m a horrible swimmer and I have asthma, so although the sea in Tel Aviv is warmer than around here, I’d rather just look at the waves, maybe dip in my toes once in a while. Besides, the sea gets polluted: throwing people in could be dangerous!

But because I am Israeli, I know where you’re coming from. This question is one of our formulas, isn’t it? The ones we use when people tell us they were displaced in 1948, and we get really scared. You know them all by heart, don’t you? “These things happen in wars”; “If they had won they would have done the same”; “If they hadn’t rejected the partition plan in 1947, it wouldn’t have happened”; “the Arab states should have done more for them”, etc., etc.

I’ve tried not using those formulas and just listening to Palestinians telling me the place they are from, the place they can’t return to. I’ve tried looking at them straight in the eye when they say it, without responding. I feel so nervous it makes me sick in the stomach. I cringe. I feel like I’m going to explode.

Because when I look them in the eye, it stops being “us and “them”. For one moment, I wonder what if I was “them”. In Lydda, Yitzhak Rabin drove them out, firing shots above their heads; he tells the story in his memoirs. In Al-Majdal, which is Ashkelon today, they were loaded onto trucks after the fighting ended, and dumped on the other side of the border. In Jaffa they really were driven into the sea, under bombardment. Children were lost in the waves as their families fled to Gaza in fishing boats (did you know that? It was we who threw them into the sea, not the other way round!).  And then we took all of their property and they stayed refugees, for sixty years. For sixty years!

Now they are here, and here are their children, looking at me, straight in the eye. Do you see why we are so scared?

But they are just looking at me, actually they are smiling. You may not believe me, but I get regularly hugged by Palestinians. Not everyone hates us, Aryeh (I think you said that was your name?). I have Palestinian friends: they cook for me; they laugh at my jokes; we gossip; they burn discs for me; we get all mushy and cheesy with each other.

Yeah, don’t tell me: maybe my friends are nice, but how can I generalize? What about all the suicide bombers, all those photos of little babies dressed with weapons, don’t “they” teach their children to hate us? And then I could quote you some surveys about attitudes to Israel and willingness to compromise, and there we go, straight back to cliché-land.

Let’s go another way, and look at that fear again. A lot of it has got to do with this Right of Return thing. What do you imagine when you think of it? For a long time I was too scared to even try to picture it, but when I did, the first image that came up was from the Westerns I watched as a kid: the Indians swarming down the hills, shrieking, shooting arrows or whatever weapon people use nowadays: The attack of the barbarians.

But maybe imagine something different: a plane landing in Ben-Gurion airport with some “new immigrants” from the refugee camps in Lebanon. This really pompous politician is out to greet them, smiling from ear to ear. The first refugee comes down the steps and shakes people’s hands. The politician uses some fancy clichés, welcoming them to their homeland. These cute kids, third graders, are standing in line, with huge bouquets of flowers, too big for them to hold, pointing at the refugees who just got off the plane, looking a bit dazed by the strong sunlight and the humidity. And then some representative from the Ministry of the Interior goes up and gets their details. She’ll be calling them tomorrow about arrangements, where to go to from the hostel, when they can learn Hebrew, she’ll give them the contact information of the organizations that have volunteered to help them. And welcome back home, by the way.

There, isn’t that a nicer image than the previous one? But you think I’m totally crazy, don’t you? Don’t I realize the implications? What about the demographic balance? What about the Jewish nature of the state? What about all we have built over the last sixty years? Don’t Jews need a safe haven? And our right for self-determination?

So the options you are giving me, Aryeh, are these: we could get to keep our right for self-determination, our safe haven, my favorite bookshop-cafe in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, the songs my mother likes to hear on the radio on the holidays, our wonderful Hebrew slang, our “dugri” directness and our weather (well, maybe not our weather, at least not in August). But then I need to look my Palestinian friends in the eye and tell them: no matter how much you miss your homeland, you are never going back. Not you, not your parents, not your children, not your grandchildren, nor your grandchildren’s grandchildren. We got to miss the Holy Land for two thousand years, but you’re not Jewish, so you will never ever be allowed to return.

Or, we could completely destroy Israel, raze everything to the ground. Bring bulldozers, knock down all the beautiful buildings of Tel Aviv University, the mounds of grass, the corner outside the Arts building where students and teachers smoke weed together, the little frame-shaped sculpture that overlooks the sea, the café outside the university with the hot Moroccan shakshuka, we can knock down all of these and turn the university back into Sheikh Muwwanis, and let the refugees live in the village that was there before.

And you’re saying these are the only two possibilities. Seriously? Is that the best we Jews can come up with? We, the People of the Book? With Einstein and all our Nobel prize winners? With our Ladino love songs and marvelous Yiddish curses? With all of our films, winning prizes at every festival? Our thousands of years of poetry, from the Song of Songs to Amichai and Yonah Volach? The agricultural innovations we export to the whole world? Are you seriously suggesting that these two miserable options are the best we can think of? Why, I find that almost offensive. Aren’t we a little bit smarter than that?

Do I have a solution? I do have some ideas, but what I really want is to get people talking. I want to hear Palestinians telling us what they miss most, where they would like to live, what they would want it to be like. And we could tell them what is important to us, what we have learned over the last sixty years. It’s like two flatmates about to move in together – where shall we put the couch? What time do you get up in the morning? Oh no! Do you snore? Don’t waste all of that hot water in the shower! Those are the conversations we need to be having.

Now you really think I’m nuts, don’t you? We could be talking millions of people here, it’s a huge upheaval, where will we put them all?

The short answer is – we’ve done it before. Every time a wave of Jewish immigrants came to Israel, people said it would never work, there would be no room, everyone will starve. But we managed, somehow. This is no different. In fact, we’re stronger and more experienced now.

And the longer answer is that the reason this seems unimaginable is simply because of our fear. That fear has deep roots: Jews and Israelis have definitely been attacked and hurt, time and time again. It’s through this fear that we tend to think we are dealing with some kind of virus that must be kept in isolation. But Palestinians are human beings, and they deserve to be treated that way. We really could try and do that for a change, instead of forcing them to the other side of the border, setting up walls and checkpoints and prisons, and pretending any of that is a solution.

To truly overcome fear, reading this letter won’t be enough. What you need to do is to hang out with some of my Palestinian friends, see them celebrating Hanukka and Passover with us, stuff grapeleaves with them, all of that mushiness I was referring to earlier. You have no idea how much fun it is: let me know when you’re coming. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it! Just give it a try. 

December 16, 2009,
Berkeley, California

Zochrot online