Is It Realistic to Demand the Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees?

by John Spritzler

February 23, 2009



Many Americans, myself included, want our government to stop supporting Israel because Israel oppresses Palestinians. The root of the Israel/Palestine conflict is that Israel carries out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in order to ensure that the great majority of the population inside Israel remains Jewish. The biggest grievance of Palestinians against Israel is that it does not allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and villages inside of what is now Israel. They demand the right of return as a basic human right.

Many people who oppose Israel's oppression of Palestinians, however, do not emphasize the right of return demand; some avoid mentioning it altogether. Instead, they focus on the demand that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How come?

Their reasoning goes like this. Yes, the best solution would be for Palestinians to win the right of return with compensation from Israel for the property that was stolen from them by Zionists, and with the right to live as the equals of Jews under the law in all of Palestine. But this is a demand that is impossible to win. Israel would never allow it because it would mean the end of the Jewish state. The American political elite would never support it because they are committed to defending the security of Israel as a Jewish state. We must be realistic. The best that can be hoped for is to persuade American politicians to at least put pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. This is a realistic goal, because it doesn't challenge the idea of a Jewish state, and it is what American politicians (and other world leaders) already claim to support. It won't address the fundamental grievance of Palestinians, but it will at least end the terrible oppression of them in the occupied territories. It is a realistic strategy. If we start demanding the right of return and, in doing so, challenge the rightness of the Jewish state idea itself, we will lose whatever influence we might otherwise have among the people with the real power to change things. Demanding the right of return is an unrealistic strategy.

But is it really? As Dr. Phil would say, "How is your 'realistic' strategy working for you?" Few would deny that it has accomplished nothing. The Occupation shows no sign of ending, and the oppression is only getting worse, as the recent slaughter of people in Gaza highlights. Even if Israel officially ended its occupation of the West Bank it would continue to oppress Palestinians there just as it oppresses Palestinians in Gaza, which it purports not to be occupying now. The "practical" strategy is based on a false assumption--that American and Israeli leaders want a peaceful resolution of the conflict and can be nudged and persuaded to make it happen. All of the evidence indicates, on the contrary, that they want to keep the conflict going indefinitely.

There is a reason why they do. The conflict strengthens both the Israeli and the American ruling elites' control over their own people--always the top concern of any ruling elite. Israel's ruling class of billionaires and generals and politicians needs the conflict to continue in order to ensure that the Israeli public remains so frightened of "Arabs" that they will obey their rulers who claim to be protecting them. The American ruling class of billionaires likewise uses the "War on Terror" to control Americans, and this requires that Americans stay frightened of "Arab terrorists." The Israel/Palestine conflict provides the American mass media the film footage it needs to keep American TV sets filled with images of what the media say are "anti-Semitic hate-driven Arab terrorists."

This is why the truly practical strategy is a revolutionary one: forget trying to persuade the politicians to do the right thing and focus instead on building a revolutionary movement among ordinary people. Building such a movement means talking to people about lots of things besides the Israel/Palestine conflict, but when we do talk about that conflict--which we very much need to do--the approach should be to focus precisely on the fundamental injustice at its root, which is Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and refusal to let them return to their homes and villages inside Israel and live as the equals of Jews before the law. Unlike politicians beholden to the rich, ordinary people care very much about what is right and what is wrong. When they learn that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is actually between those who value equality versus those who value inequality, they rapidly take the side of equality and oppose Zionism.

When it comes to persuading ordinary people that Israel is wrong, focusing on the occupation, rather than the ethnic cleansing and the wrongness of the Jewish state idea, is a loser. When one only talks about the occupation, the pro-Israel side wins the argument by replying this way: "Israel hates oppressing Palestinians but it has no choice. It needs to maintain the occupation in order to make the Jewish state secure. Otherwise Palestinians who deny Israel has a right to exist would be able to mount an attack on Israel from the West Bank. You don't deny that Israel, the Jewish state, has a right to exist, do you?"

What is at stake here are not "long range" versus "short range" goals. Focusing on the occupation to be persuasive with politicians loses in both the short run and the long run. Relying on ordinary people by explaining the root of the conflict, and building a movement that aims, frankly, to overthrow the anti-democratic rule of the American plutocracy, wins in both the short and the long run. In the long run it makes it possible to actually win what we want--a more equal and democratic world based on justice and concern for one another. In the short run it maximizes the pressure on the ruling elite because what they fear more than anything else is a revolution. This is not to say that the elite will necessarily respond by oppressing people less; they might increase the level of repression instead. The only thing that the revolutionary approach can guarantee in the short run is the satisfaction of knowing that one is doing the only thing that has any realistic chance of ever solving the problem. The non-revolutionary approach cannot even accomplish that.


John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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