Professor and commentator Peter Beinart wants Israelis to seek repentance for the Nakba by allowing five million Palestinian refugees to “return” to the land inside the Green Line. That’s the gist of his May 11 essay in Jewish Currents, “Teshuvah: A Jewish Case for Palestinian Refugee Return.” (A slightly different version appeared in the Guardian and a short version appeared as a New York Times op-ed.).
According to Beinart, the Jewish denial of a Palestinian right of return “is drenched in irony, because no people in human history have clung as stubbornly to the dream of return as have Jews.” Continuing with this false equivalence, he asks: “If keeping faith that exile can be overcome is sacred to Jews, how can we condemn Palestinians for doing the same?” To argue against the return of Palestinian refugees, Beinart maintains, is to “ask Palestinians to repudiate the very principles of intergenerational memory and historical restitution that Jews hold sacred. If Palestinians have no right to return to their homeland, neither do we.”
Thus, for Beinart, realization of the Jewish dream of return from exile somehow establishes a historical and moral precedent that Israel must now follow in the case of Palestinian refugees. To support his argument, Beinart employs a familiar but false narrative of Palestinian victimhood — in which Zionists waged an unprovoked colonial war of conquest, subjecting innocent Palestinians to “mass expulsion.” That narrative leaves out some important and determinative facts about the birth of the Jewish state and the larger historical context in which it occurred:
Arabs fought Jewish immigration to Palestine for half a century before the establishment of the state of Israel, showing no willingness to peacefully share the land. (It should be noted that during that period, Zionists settled on land that was purchased, not conquered.) In 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, Benny Morris — whom Beinart himself relies upon — writes that Arabs displayed a “posture of antagonism and resistance” motivated by “abhorrence of the Zionist-Jewish presence in Palestine, an abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots.” The foremost purveyor of that abhorrence was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian national movement during the mandate period. An inveterate anti-Semite, the Mufti enthusiastically disseminated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 1941 he traveled to Germany, where he met with Hitler, sought an alliance with the Nazis and asked them to help eliminate Jews from the Arab world. Hitler offered his support and the plan came close to fruition. As Colin Shindler relates in his History of Modern Israel: “Had it not been for the victory at El Alamein, SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauff would have ordered his Einsatzkommando to liquidate the Jews of Palestine. The Nazis expected local participation in their actions.”
The Mufti and his followers would allow no compromise. As Morris puts it, “from the start, the clash with the Zionists was a zero-sum game.” He notes that Arabs “repeatedly attacked the new settlers, initially in individual acts of banditry and terrorism and then growingly massive outbreaks, which at first resembled nothing more than European pogroms.” In what Morris terms their “culminating assault,” immediately after rejecting the November 1947 UN partition resolution, Arabs launched a genocidal war of aggression intended to stop the establishment of a Jewish state. In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Akhbar al-Yom dated October 11, 1947, the Arab League’s secretary-general, Abdul Rahman Azzam, had predicted that this would be “a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.” Continuing, he noted that it would also “be an opportunity for vast plunder.”
But the Arabs lost the war and, as a result, some of them became refugees in neighboring Arab lands. Refusing to be resettled, those refugees demand a right of return to what is now Israel.
To say that demand has the same moral value as the Jewish return from exile is obvious nonsense.
However, there is a compelling historical precedent that bears on the Palestinian claim to a right of return—found in the case of the refugees who were on the losing side in World War II. Take, for example, the millions of ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) and German citizens living in Eastern Europe who fled or were expelled at the end of the war. For hundreds of years, their families had lived in places such as Czechoslovakia and the former German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania, and East Prussia. Some had assisted the Nazis and some had not. About ten million demanded the right to return to their homes. But the international community never recognized such a right and the refugees were forced to be resettled. Indeed, the Allies expressly agreed to their transfer at the Potsdam Conference of 1945.
There were no international norms that might have rendered these transfers — or similar postwar transfers of Italians, Japanese and others — illegal. To the contrary, as law professor Andrew Kent notes in his seminal article, “Evaluating the Palestinians’ Claimed Right of Return,” at the time “compulsory transfer of populations in order to solve longstanding ethnic disputes was generally recognized as legal.” The transfer of German refugees “was considered a legal and rational way to align ethnic nations with territorial boundaries and, it was hoped, to thereby resolve one of the causes of the conflicts that had so badly scarred Europe.” “Nor was a requirement of a ‘right of return’ for the expelled or transferred authoritatively enunciated with regard to these actions.” Reasoning from this precedent, Kent concludes: “At the time of the Israeli-Arab conflict of 1947–49, far from being illegal, large-scale involuntary population transfers were an accepted feature of international statecraft.”
The Arab-Zionist conflict was exactly the sort of “longstanding ethnic dispute” that lent itself to the separation of competing populations. That was the judgment of the UN General Assembly in November 1947. But the Arabs rejected partition and went to war. They have tried to evade the consequences of that fateful choice ever since. But as Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf have written in their recent book, The War of Return, “Those who wage war to eliminate another people, and to prevent their achieving independence, cannot legitimately complain that ‘they suffered an exceptional injustice’ when they lose and flee the land.”
Nor does historical precedent favor such people with a right of return.