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Diaspora Jews Must Speak Out

by SAM BAHOUR

You are born in a country, say the United States. As such, you become a citizen of that country. You are issued a passport from your country of citizenship which allows you to travel to other countries, as a tourist, a foreigner. Of course, you can apply for residency or citizenship in a foreign country based on their immigration laws and, if accepted, you can be issued a second citizenship. Immigration laws are complicated, non-uniform, and, for democratic countries, go out of their way to be non-discriminatory, that is, unless you are Jewish.

If you are Jewish, a very discriminatory law in a foreign country applies to you, without taking your consent and without any formal ties between you and that country. It matters not that you are a citizen of America, Argentina, or Australia; as long as you are Jewish, you have a foreign country that claims to speak for you from the moment of your birth. You could be a sixth generation Alaskan Jew or a tenth generation Brooklyn Jew; it matters not. You, and your entire family for as far back as you can track could know no other place than your hometown in America, and you would still be “represented” by a foreign country, one whose language you don’t even speak. That foreign country is Israel.

Law in the Service of Discrimination

It goes without saying that for Palestinians, upon whose ruins Israel was established, this Orwellian-perfected, Israeli immigration law, called the Law of Return, is a disgrace and a stain on the quilt of humanity. After all, the Israeli Law of Return only applies to Jews. Those Palestinians who became refugees because of Israel’s creation, or those Palestinians who happened to be abroad when Israel militarily occupied their homes, like my father, or even for the Palestinians living as “residents” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, are totally excluded from this right to return home and gain automatic citizenship. Ironically, the word “return” directly applies to Palestinians given they were born here, lived here, tilled the land here, and were the subjects that Israel attempted to ethnically cleanse in order to build a new state—one which gives Jews exclusivity on both sides of the 1949 Armistice Line, referred to as the “Green Line.”

For the most part, world Jewry is silent about this reality of having an Israeli citizenship held in perpetuity for Jews only that awaits them their entire life. All they need to do to claim it is to visit Israel and request it. Partly because of this warped state of affairs, every Jew in the world is coaxed into thinking that they need to bear-hug Israel, regardless of whether Israel is engaged in war crimes or blatant racism.

Amira Hass, the Israeli-Jewish journalist who has been covering this conflict for decades while living amongst Palestinians under occupation, frequently gives public talks. When her audience is Jewish, she religiously starts by stating: “Any Jew in any part of the world is entitled to rights in Eretz-Yisrael/Palestine [from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River] that are being denied, in whole or in part, to every Palestinian.”

Then, Amira goes on to give some concrete examples: only Jews have the right to visit the country (something not self-evident for most Palestinians who were born outside the country, or were born there but live in the Diaspora), only Jews have the right to reside and work anywhere in the country, only Jews have the right for immediate naturalization, only Jews have the right to reside or buy property in Jerusalem (Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza are deprived of this right), the list could go on.

The Palestinian-Israeli “conflict,” as it is so frequently referred to, has many aspects. To understand this seemingly intractable conflict, one cannot detach themselves from a historical understanding of the Middle East, in general, and of the tragedy that befell the Jews (and all of mankind) in Europe ever since WWI. However, no tragedy, no matter how severe, should be used as a pretext to discriminate—not against Muslims and Christians of the land, and not against Jews who are also inherently linked to the same land. Likewise, no democracy, in today’s world, should have the “right” to speak for persons who are not its citizens, live thousands of miles away, and have not given their direct consent to be spoken for or “represented.”

President Obama Weighs In

“Put yourself in their [Palestinian] shoes.” This is what President Barack Obama told a group of Israeli students gathered in a conference hall in Jerusalem during his recent visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank. In an Israeli context, this is a bold statement, one they are not used to hearing. The president made several bold statements in that speech, making repeated reference to the need for Palestinians to be free from Israeli military occupation. The students applauded, several times, to these politically loaded overtures from the president.

The right-wing Israeli leadership led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not invited to the Jerusalem event, was surely fuming at how President Obama spoke directly to the Israeli public and evoked applause on issues related to the unjust Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights. Encouraging those applauses may have sounded nice to the untrained ear, but one fact remains clear: similar applause would be hard to come by from Jewish communities as represented by leading organizations such as AIPAC and the ADL.

If President Obama was sincere about wanting to see the conflict from a Palestinian perspective, then, instead of praising Israel for being a successful country of immigrants, he would have used his charm and oratory skills to portray to the Israeli public how wrong it is for a Jew born anywhere in the world to have more rights in Palestine/Israel than the Palestinians themselves.

The reality that the state of Israel lacks defined borders, which happens to be one of the key requirements for statehood as defined by international law, clearly articulates the preferential treatment that Israel has been provided by the international community ever since its establishment. When such preferential attitudes become embedded in a nation’s DNA, exclusivity is bound to reign supreme in every sphere of the state. Like in apartheid South Africa, such exclusivity is a recipe that jeopardizes any nation-state project, including Israel’s. Jewish communities around the globe can stop the damage Israel is self-inflicting upon itself.

However, if Diaspora Jews can accept having an Israeli citizenship being held ‘forever’ for them while Palestinians are denied not only citizenship, but basic human rights, then they too are directly partaking in the continued apartheid against Palestinians.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Youngstown living in Al-Bireh/Ramallah, Palestine.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio and blogs at ePalestine.com.

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