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[Bar Ilan U] Ariella Azoulay on 'Right of Return': The governed must be defended: toward a civil political agreement

Ariella Azoulay, Department of Hermeneutics http://www.biu.ac.il/interdis/hermeneu/members.html 


The governed must be defended: toward a civil political agreement

Ariella Azoulay

Zochrot conference, June 2008

The right of return is not the topic of this conference organized by Zochrot, but its presupposition, the basis for a discussion on "Strategies, Practices, Visions" toward the ”the return of Palestinian Refugees". Suffice to look at the list of speakers, at today's audience, in order to understand that what's involved is not a conversation between authorized representatives of two sides in order to reach agreement on the implementation of the right of return, but rather a discussion among citizens which, even if it deals with practical issues, points to a utopian horizon that lies beyond the boundaries of the political discussion that are set by nation-states, in general, and by the state of Israel, in particular.  One of the conditions for conducting this discussion is the creation of a space in which the Palestinian demand to implement their right of return, which has been recognized in international law and by decisions of the United Nations (including those to which Israel is a signatory), can be publicly heard, in Arabic and in Hebrew, inside the borders of the state of Israel.  Thinking the return in Hebrew, creating a place for it in the Hebrew which took part in the expulsion and the ongoing refusal to discuss the return, is to begin negotiations over the ways to implement this right, as well as on the limits of the political imagination of citizens who wish to participate in a discussion about their shared political life. Let me make clear that in using the term "citizens," I'm not referring to the status of citizenship in a particular country, but to all individuals  comprising the relevant political body of governed who should participate in the formation of the regime that will be established. In the short time available to me today, I will try to problematize the category of "refugee problem," and think anew about what might be the appropriate political body to consider the regime to be established between the river and the sea. 

Let me begin with some questions:
Is what we call the "refugee problem" the problem that must be discussed, or is it its effect?
Is the conceptual framework of the right of return the solution to the "refugee problem," and is it a sufficient solution?
Is the "refugee problem" solely the problem of the refugees and their descendants, or does it represent a problem for all Palestinians, and is it a problem only for Palestinians?
Is the return of the Palestinians possible without regime change?

The "refugee problem" is the result of the establishment of the Jewish nation-state on part of the territory in which, up to that time, lived a Jewish minority (600,000) and an Arab majority (900,000) under a British Mandatory regime. This account, it seems, is a fundamental working assumption, at least among those who dare to make the state of
responsible for the "refugee problem." But the creation of the "refugee problem" already began in 1947, that is, before the establishment of the state of Israel, so the above account must be qualified in order to avoid reproducing the imperceptible conceptual leap that moves from discussing the Palestinian refugees in the context of colonial relations, to discussing them in the context of ethno-national relations, a necessary outcome of which was the establishment of a Jewish state. From the moment was established, Hebrew was subjugated to this conceptual leap, which enables the boundaries of Israeli political discussion to remain within a theological historical framework that transforms the eventual establishment of the Jewish national state into something that is seen as self-evident. Thus, the "refugee problem" should be described, first of all, as a result of colonial relations created by the takeover by the Zionist movement of land on which Palestinians were settled, and imposition of the ethno-national narrative on the totality of heterogenous relations existing here between Jews and Arabs. But this description must also be qualified somewhat. Colonial relations are the context of the refugee issue, but the refugee problem is the result of the founding of a particular regime and the legitimizing mechanism it institutionalized. The new regime tried to obtain legitimation only from the Jews, and all the other inhabitants of the country were neither considered nor counted, and their existence was transformed by its agents into a problem even before the regime had been established and before they had become refugees. The presence of a Palestinian population everywhere in the country – what the Zionist leadership called "the problem of the Arab minority" – was a problem that concerned Zionism from its birth as a national colonial movement, and making refugees of the Palestinians was, therefore, the solution to the problem, and not the problem itself. Moshe Shertok's comments during the 1948 war regarding the "transfer post-factum" present the essence of the problem, and what was seen as an historic "opportunity" to solve it: "The opportunity the present situation presents to us, to solve once and for all and in a comprehensive manner the most pressing problem of the Jewish state [i.e.:  the problem of the Arab minority (Benny Morris's parenthetical comment, despite the fact that the Arabs were in no sense a minority at that time)] is more far-reaching than we could have ever imagined […] so we must take the utmost advantage of the opportunity that history has provided so quickly and unexpectedly" (Benny Morris, 1991, 194).1 The "solution" that Shertok and others referred to was, therefore, removing the Arab inhabitants of the country from within the borders of the state, so that the incongruence between the potential subjects of the political entity that the Zionist leadership wished to create, and the inhabitants of the country, would not interfere with their vision of a Jewish state. The self-initiated, as well as the involuntary movement of Palestinians beyond the borders of the country appeared as an "opportunity" that made possible the following:
      1.  Establishing a regime that had not been constituted from all of the inhabitants, which did not represent certain parts of them, but was constituted from among the political body whose borders it itself determined
      2.  Legitimizing, among adherents of democracy at home and abroad, a regime which does not represent the inhabitants of the region in which it was established, and which was required to remove many of them in order to come into existence
      3.  Removal of the population that could not have acknowledged a separatist ethnic regime and participate in its justification
      4.  Abandonment by the new state, in order to realize a political vision, of responsibility for the local inhabitants by removing them from their country and turning them into a "problem"
      5.  Establishing, after the fact, an historical narrative of ethno-national conflict between two hostile parties that justified making the native population irrelevant to the political life whose boundaries were now set by those who became the majority (the Jews)

Transforming the refugees into a "problem" lacking any context allowed separating the fact of the existence of the Palestinian refugees from the conditions that made them into refugees: the violent establishment of a new regime that, in order for it to be established and gain legitimacy was obliged to exile more than fifty percent of the inhabitants who stood in its way. Resituating the “refugee problem” in this way, in the context of the regime, makes clear that the first division on which the regime was established in 1948 was between governed and non-governed who were removed from the area of sovereignty that had been obtained by force. This division, which turned the Jews into a majority and the Palestinians into a minority, enabled not only the establishment of the Jewish state, but also the foundation of a democratic regime all of whose governed were citizens. The government solved the problem created by the opposition of the non-Jewish citizens to the nature of the new regime by establishing military government and through legislation. The "Order regarding governmental and judicial organization" (Par. 1a), issued in 1948, after the authority of the British Mandate had expired and the state of
had been established, stated: "The provisional governmental council is composed of the persons whose names are listed in the appendix to this Order. Representatives of Arab inhabitants of the country who recognize the state of
, will be included in the provisional governmental council as the council will determine; their non-participation in the council will not detract from its authority." Thus, the new regime determined from the outset that the form of government to be established in Israel will be one that does not require the agreement of all its governed, nor are all of them needed in order to replace one government with another. The number of Palestinians who remained now suited the conception of the Arabs as comprising a minority.

To overcome the regime's illegitimacy, the governmental power that identified itself with the state and acted in its name had to conduct a struggle, ideological and violent, on three fronts simultaneously:
1.  Against the non-citizens, both non-governed (the residents of the refugee camps abroad) and governed (under the occupation regime since 1967).  The state conducts a brutal, violent and uncompromising fight against both their violent and non-violent resistance to the reality of the regime responsible for turning them into refugees, that defines their resistance as terrorism and a threat to the security of the state. The struggle of the refugees who have lived since 1967 under Israeli occupation, governed by the state of
, has been conducted against the occupying regime since the occupation began, together with residents of the occupied territories who are not necessarily refugees themselves. The state's battle against their resistance does not distinguish between refugees and non-refugees.
2.  Against non-Jewish citizens.  Here the state wages a battle that is primarily ideological, accompanied by periods in which it uses moderate, measured and relatively careful force. For almost two decades of military occupation the government has acted to repress opportunities for political organization by the Palestinians who remained, and to silence public memorialization of the nakba they share with the refugees.
3.  Against Jewish citizens. The state wages what is primarily an ideological battle that involves mobilizing citizens to maintain the reality of the regime, according to which anyone who is not a part of the political bodyy that justifies the regime is not considered and not counted. This battle includes total nationalization both of the governmental apparatus (ideological as well as repressive) and of its Jewish citizens to enable maximum mobilization of the Jewish population to strengthen the regime that continues to reproduce the sin of its founding by removing its opponents (refusing the refugee's right of return, rule over governed who lack citizenship and exclusion of non-Jewish citizens from a share in government).

In order to maintain this regime, its agents are required to continue this struggle continuously, on three fronts, and it has, in fact, continued during the 60 years since the day the state was established.  Ending the struggle means the end of the regime waging it. The group that directly pays the highest price, one that bears no comparison to the price paid by the other two groups, is, of course, the population of the non-citizens – both governed (in the occupied territories) and non-governed (in refugee camps outside the country). But the struggle of the state against this group, violent as it is, has no chance of succeeding if it is not also carried out on the other two fronts. This is a struggle to maintain an illegitimate regime, one that is tinted with the colors of an ethno-national conflict in which Jewish citizens participate as if it were a national struggle. As long as the regime sticks to its refusal to open its gates to the inhabitants of the country that it turned into non-governed, and to those over whom it rules without allowing them to become citizens, and to those citizens whose access to government is blocked, it is necessary to conceal its illegitimacy – that is, continue the struggle.

Paradoxically, the struggle waged against the third group - against Jewish citizens, who pay the lowest price - is the crucial one in the state's refusal to deal with the refugee problem. Concealing the past and present illegitimacy of the regime is the core of the struggle, presenting it as the realization of a legitimate national vision – "establishing a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people in the
land of Israel
." This camouflage is made possible by means of political indoctrination presented in the guise of democratic citizenship and implemented in all areas of life, one which mobilizes citizens from a very early age as agents of the regime, camouflaged as service to the state and the community. Coloring the struggle to preserve an illegitimate regime with national hues, and structuring it within the framework of an ethno-national conflict, transforms the mobilized citizens into the regime's willing representatives. This is an ideological struggle which encompasses almost every area of life, and its maintenance for decades has succeeded in making Jewish citizens identify the flawed political space in which they live with political space in general. Without the struggle on this front, the illegitimacy of the regime that lacks its governed consent, and the crimes it continues to commit in order to continue to exist, would be publicly visible in all their nakedness – products of a regime the violence of whose foundation did not become a bitter memory from the past but became a daily routine, an existential need. Thus, in order to establish a state and a regime that is not based on the agreement nor on the support of a large portion of the population on which it has imposed its authority, the government must nationalize the civic space and deprive it of one of its fundamental characteristics – a space that is open, in whose framework citizens – both men and women – conduct their political lives, lives that include speech, gaze and action that are not enslaved to an external purpose whose primary goal is preserving the regime engaged in fighting them: exiling those standing in its way, ongoing domination of the non-citizens, and excluding the non-Jews from government.

The reality of this regime forms the basis of the state of
's stubborn refusal to recognize the refugee problem as its own problem, and to open the gates of political participation to governed it has ruled for forty years, most of whom are themselves refugees or the descendants of refugees.  The few times that the rulers dared to look in the refugees' direction, they acted primarily to eliminate them or the “problem” they represent. The question of the refugees is excluded from the political agenda, and the act of exclusion creates a trail of anxiety and threat regarding the existence of the state of
. The main power the refugees possess against a state having enormous military might stems from the fact that by their very existence they manifest the limits of Israeli democracy – their removal was, and remains, the condition for establishing the regime. During the war, between 1947-1949, in addition to their persecution by the organizations that would soon become government institutions, their literal existence here was threatened, and they saw no alternative but to leave, or were expelled, because they feared for their lives and became refugees. But when the war ended, and their lives were no longer in danger, they were compelled to remain outside their country, as a result of the refusal of the new regime that was established here to permit them to return. This refusal precede practical questions of lands, property and restitution agreements. It is, first and foremost, a refusal in principle to recognize the refugees as those expelled from the political body of governed, and to stubbornly maintain them as a problem lacking any context, not part of the state's political agenda, nor its responsibility. Recognizing the refugees as those who were removed from the political body of governed enable to see three things:
      1.  The refugees for what they are – political exiles
      2.  The Israeli regime for what it is – an illegitimate regime that has no way to maintain itself other than struggling by various means against all those who, in a democratic regime, would be part of the political body that comprises the governed (including, as noted, those it turned into non-governed)
      3.  Israeli citizens for what they are – mobilized citizens who have relinquished participation in a free political space, one in which a new beginning and solidarity with other governed persecuted by the regime is possible, and whose existence as political exiles is symptomatic of the regime under which they themselves live. 

But as long as the regime succeeds in the struggle it is waging against Israeli citizens, and mobilizes them to represent it, the threat posed by the category of "political exiles" is no greater than that that posed by the category of "refugees." Thus, when we understand the structural relationships among the regime, the citizens and those it turned into non-citizens governed and non-governed, it turns out that if there's anything that could pose an actual threat to this regime, it's that Israeli citizens – men and women – will join the claims of all those who are not counted – opponents of the regime – and together demand the dismantling of a regime whose principle of survival is an ongoing struggle – both ideological and violent – against the political body of governed. It's too early to bury the dream of return, nor the dream of a different reality, a different political space, a different life, a different form of cooperation, a different future. None of this can occur unless Israelis and Palestinians join together in opposition to the regime that represses these possibilities, and together place civic solidarity above the need to preserve the regime. 

Some time ago I saw a video film by Yael Bartana, in which a left-wing Polish intellectual looks directly into the camera and appeals to Jews to return to his country, their country: "We need you," he says. His words, full of pathos, stayed with me for a long time. "Palestinian men and women" – since then, I've been waiting for the chance to appeal to you. To say aloud, "Palestinians" – not as a noun, the object of a problem, but as an object of an appeal by an female Israeli Jewish citizen standing in the city square. A citoyenne who asks, "Will you be willing to join us as political partners? Will you agree to live with us? Will you let us live next to you? Will you forgive us for our crimes? Will you let us again live politically in our country, in your country?"

Without your agreement, and without your return, so long as you aren't part of political life here, civic life is not possible now, nor will it ever be possible. What kind of life will it be if we are sentenced to lie to our children about our memories of your expulsion or, alternatively, to tell them about it and make them hate the society that lies to them. Return. Return to live with us again. We need you! You and your descendants can change our lives here.
1     Benny Morris, 1991. The birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Am Oved Publishers.

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