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Debate Between Salman Abu Sitta and Michael Lerner of Tikkun on The Right of Return

other than Sharon and Eitan started a scheme in 1997 to sell the refugees’ land to builders to build apartments so that an American or Australian Jew can buy an apartment without being an Israeli. Kibbutz farmers who rented this land from the Custodian of Absentee (i.e. refugee) Property received a “compensation” up to 25% of its sale value. This illegal activity, selling a land in custody, prompted the UN to issue resolutions affirming the entitlement of the refugees to receive any income of their property for the last 50 years and calling on all states to present all documents and information they may have on the refugees’ property.

Now it is often said that Israelis oppose the return of the refugees for fear that this will change the Jewish character of the state. What do they mean by the phrase “Jewish character”? Do they mean legal, social, demographic or religious character? Let us examine these one by one.

First, what is the legal meaning of the Jewish character? In the words of a noted Jurist, (Mallison): “The Jewish character is really a euphemism for the Zionist discriminatory statutes of the State of Israel which violate the human rights provisions The UN is under no more of legal obligation to maintain Zionism in Israel than it is to maintain apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.” In March 2000, the reports of UN Treaty-Based Committees, such as Human Rights Committee, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Committee against Torture, have all condemned Israeli practices and characterized, for the first time so clearly, the exclusive structure of the Israeli law as the root cause of all those violations of international law. How, then, can the international community accept the premise of a “Jewish character” as a basis for the denial of the right to return home?

If they mean a social Jewish character, this idea is clearly a misnomer. There is not much in common between a Brooklyn Jew and an Ethiopian Jew, or between a Russian claiming to be a Jew and a Moroccan Jew. The gulf between the Ashkenazi and the Haredim can never be bridged. The Sephardim (Mizrahim) are allocated the lower rings of the social ladder. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are being polarised on sectarian lines. Israel has long given up on the idea of a melting pot.

There are 32 languages spoken in Israel. Prof. Etzioni Halevi of Bar Ilan University and a specialist on the Jewish national identity says, “we are not a single people, language is different, attire is different, behaviour and attitude are different, even the sense of identity is different.” How can then the Palestinians, the inhabitants of 530 depopulated towns and villages be the odd element in this mosaic?

If they mean by the Jewish character the numerical superiority of Jews, they have to think again. The Palestinians who remained in their homes now represent 26% of all Jews. How could Israel ignore their presence? Will Israel plan another massive ethnic cleansing operation? Very unlikely. They are there to stay and increase. In the year 2010, Palestinians in Israel will be 35% of Jews and they will be equal to the number of Jews in 2050 or much earlier when immigration dries up. So what is the value of chasing an elusive target while innocent people wait in the refugee camps?

If they mean the religious Jewish character, who says this is in danger? For one thousand years, the Jews did not find a haven anywhere for their religious practice better than the Arab world.

One must conclude therefore that the clich? “Jewish character” is only meant to justify keeping the land and expelling its people.

In practical terms, it is entirely feasible to plan the return in such a way and in such phases that the Je-wish residents will not feel any effect, except the pleasant feeling that a true peace is a reality at last

But the Israelis must come to terms with al Nakba, the Palestinian holocaust, and its consequences. They must shed their collective amnesia about the Palestinians, the notion that they landed in an empty country, conquered 530 empty towns and villages, cultivated a land where oranges, olives and wheat grew by divine intervention, and found urban and rural landscape carved by genies. They must learn to live with the Palestinians, not instead of them. They must believe that: no return means no peace.



5. Michael Lerner wrote:

I am unclear whose article this is. Can you send me a one line biography with the article? I’m not sure whether or not to publish it. It is very harsh, and doesn’t recognize that Jews came to Israel as refugees and that when they were homeless and there was enough land to share the Palestinian people tried to keep them out and would not share the land. Without that recognition, the article seems to strengthen the hands of the Israeli right-wing, because it seems so unwilling to acknowledge anything legitimate in Jewish claims. Of course, that may be an accurate description of how many Palestinians perceive the situation, but it doesn’t really help move things toward resolution. So, I’m not sure what to do. But in any event, please put a name and a one sentence description of who the person is who wrote it.


6. Abu Sitta wrote:

To: Rabbi Michael Lerner From: Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta

— Short Bio. Normally my letters are addressed and signed. But I followed your example of responding to the contents only. Hence, a possible confusion. My short biography:

Long-time researcher on Palestinian refugees (over 50 papers and other publications). Former Member of Palestine National Council (for 20 years). President, Palestine Land Society.

–It is “harsh”. I am not clear what you mean by this description. If you mean the description I gave to the treatment meted out to the Palestinians, this is a correct description. Every word in my piece (p. 1) can be corroborated by dozens of refugees. If you refer to my research about demography, Jewish character etc., I have not heard any one yet challenging the facts, although this study was read at the Israeli Anthropological Annual Conference in Jerusalem in May 2000 and published by Ha’aretz on 23 July 2000 (Hebrew edition only).

–Jews are refugees too. Palestinians refused to share the land. This is your long-held view (Tikkun, p. 46, Vol. 4, No. 5). You add that “the collision of two nationalisms led directly to the creation of the Arab refugee problem”. The overwhelming evidence of thousands of testimonies of refugees, now supported by evidence in the declassified Israeli, British and American files, give a different and more graphic picture. It clearly shows a pattern of a determined, well-planned and sustained campaign (till today) of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. Zionists wanted Palestine Arabrein. If Zionists wanted to ‘share’ land, the Palestinians would have welcomed them as they did German Templars, Circassians, Bosnians, Armenians and others. In fact that is what they did until the infamous Balfour declaration.

–To publish or not.

I cannot argue with an editor, can I? If you would not, others would. But I thought the idea was to inform US Jews particularly. My guess is that they have a distorted idea of the Palestinians. They would do themselves a favour (at least in the long run) to learn more facts about the Palestinians before events rush them and then they complain about the “irrational” Middle East. Just before I read your email, I listened over the phone to a conference, held in Gaza, attended by PA ministers, political leaders of all types and by over a thousand refugees. They together recited the Oath of Return, they will not relinquish the Right of Return nor recognize any agreement which does.

–To strengthen the Right Wing Israelis.

Who are they? The war criminal Sharon? The fanatic settlers from Brooklyn? The “Kill the Arabs” terrorists? Those who want to blow up Al Aqsa Mosque and incur the wrath of over one billion Muslims? Those who committed the massacres of Deir Yassin Tantoura and 33 others in 1948 alone? The place to deal with those is the Truth and Conciliation Commission or the International Criminal Court. The right wing Israelis aim to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, by continued exile, or by resettlement anywhere in the world except their homes. The Palestinians are determined to defend themselves against this Nakba. History tells us that determined defenders win.

In conclusion, if you find any merit in informing your readers of the general Palestinian position, I am prepared to reduce the length closer to your limit of 1600 words. I understand your concerns but I hope they can be met without sacrificing the truth.


7. Michael Lerner wrote:

Dear Salman Abu Sitta:

I have trouble understanding the underlying strategic vision of people who hold your position. My view is that the Palestinian people should build a movement fully committed to non-violence, and with realizable goals (a Palestinian state on almost all the West Bank and Gaza, with dismantling of the settlements and no Israeli military presence). That is realizable, and should include massive aid to resettle Palestinians in the West Bank, so that millions could return to that Palestinian state. In that context, I believe that the world and a significant section of the Israeli public and world Jewry could become your active allies. I have watched other oppressive states like England in India, South Africa, and the American southern racist states melt under the moral pressure mobilized by that kind of nonviolent movement led by people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

I cannot see how anyone can imagine that the Palestinian people will ever win anything unless they adopt this kind of movement that creates a moral split in the Jewish people between those who care for human rights and those who do not. So, taking the stance that rejects both non-violence and achievable goals of the sort I mentioned, and clinging to violent struggle plus maximalist demands (right of return) is simply a choice to perpetuate the Occupation. Now, I can’t see how that is in the best interests of the Palestinian people, so I don’t understand the choice. Is it the belief on the part of some significant section of the Palestinians who took the oath you mentioned that they can militarily defeat Israel? If so, how? If not, then aren’t you choosing to perpetuate decades of Occupation? I really don’t understand-and hope you would take a minute to explain the strategic vision underlying this approach.

As to the article, I’ve missed the March deadline, so now I’d like to turn to the next issue of the magazine. I think what I would like to do is this: create a roundtable discussion (on the telephone) with some Palestinians and some peace-oriented Jews to have this discussion. There would be maybe 6 people, and we would tape the discussion. . Would you be willing to be part of such a discussion which would then be edited and used in the magazine? And is there someone else you highly recommend to be part of it?

I want your perspective to be heard. But knowing how many Jews in America today see me as a crazy self-hating Jew who is really a Palestinian apologist, and then recognizing that even I can’t understand the perspective that insists on return to Israel except by people who have given up on anything real and so must retain fantasies of destroying the Jewish state altogether, I can only imagine how others who think I am extreme would react. Still, my goal is to present an honest and accurate picture, and that’s why I think a roundtable might work. What do you think?

Warm regards, Rabbi Michael Lerner


8. Abu Sitta wrote:

Rabbi Lerner,

This is turning into some sort of debate. I hope it will help.

You have trouble in understanding my/our strategic vision. You advise that our strategy to recover our rights should have two qualities: (a) non-violent (b) realizable. I think you better direct this advise to the Zionist movement. This is why.

(a) Non-violence

The first military militia was organized by Trempledor in the twenties, followed by the Haganah, Irgun and Stern gangs. Just before the end of the British Mandate, Ben Gurion went through his fourth version (Plan Dalet) of the plan for the destruction of Palestine; yes, it said plainly: destruct, expel, occupy, clear …etc. You must know, by now, that before the British departure, Ben Gurion amassed 65,000 trained soldiers, many of them were veterans of World War II, to conquer about 650 Palestinian towns and villages, which were defended by dozens of poorly-armed peasants in each village, totalling no more than 2,500. You must know that, with this force, Ben Gurion managed to expel half of the refugees before an Arab soldier set foot on Palestine soil. You must know that half of the 17 reported massacres took place before the British departure and Israel’s creation. Arab forces tried to rescue the remainder of Palestine, but they obviously failed. Ultimately Ben Gurion expelled the inhabitants of 530 towns and villages and confiscated their land and property. So, who is to be advised to be non-violent? Who today possesses the most lethal weapons of mass destruction? Who is responsible for the longest trail of blood, the largest volume of destruction and the highest record of world condemnation?

Does it surprise you to know that the Zionists/Israelis have not ever experienced the ravages of war domestically? never had whole villages destroyed as in Palestine, never had whole town quarters destroyed as in Beirut and Suez, never had water and electricity cut or railway lines ripped off as in many parts of Palestine, never had hundreds of victims lying dead as in Sabra, Shatila or Cana, or children heads smashed by hammers as in Dawayima, pregnant women stomachs ripped open as in Deir Yassin, or old men and women burnt alive as in Lajjun.

Yes, there were feeble attempts at dropping stray bombs on Tel Aviv (by Egypt in 1948 and Saddam in 1991). Yes, there is fear gripping the Israelis. But that is a chronic Jewish ailment. Israel’s actions are like the one who commits an actual murder on the pretext that the victim may think one day of harming him.

No, Rabbi. You are preaching at the wrong synagogue, so to speak. Please deliver this sermon to those who need it.

(By the way, I did not advocate violence. Where did you get this idea? I think that the moral power, especially in the current surge in human rights advocacy and high-tech communications, is the biggest support for Palestinians today.)

(b) Realizable aims

If Herzl heard you, he will laugh. Imagine Jews meeting in a Basle hotel room in 1897, and planning to expel millions of people and occupy five countries. Is that realizable? Imagine Ben Gurion pleading with Peel Commission in 1937 asking for a Tel Aviv area to cede from Palestine, while in his mind he wants to conquer all of Palestine, as he told Baltimore Conference in 1942! Is this realizable? Yes he did it and more.

Now, the Palestinians’ aims are more modest. They do not want to attack any body. They simply want to return home. This return has nothing to do with politics, sovereignty, occupation or even apartheid. They lived in their homes under Memlukes, Ottomans, British and some under Israelis. You see they do not have ‘aims’; they have rights. Because these rights are Inalienable, they represent the bottom red line beyond which no concession is possible. Because doing so will destroy their life. That they will not permit.

You say: can they militarily defeat Israel? I do not know. I do not think this is the main issue. Let us remember that Israel did not win, the Arab lost. This is not just playing with words. Tell me of one ‘real’ war (except in 1973) in the last 50 years.

But if we are talking ‘realism’, let us consider the following:

–In spite of many attempts at their destruction, Palestinians did not vanish. –They (88% of the refugees) are in and around Israel. Depth behind them is limitless. –If 99% admit they have no rights whatsoever, the 1% means 10,000 angry people in each of the five UNRWA area. With local support, they can seriously influence events. So the motto: no return = no peace is not without foundation. –No human being will accept less than his fundamental human rights, which include the return to one’s home. You can bargain on secondary levels of rights, political, economic or cultural, but not something that basic. –How do you expect the refugees to accept their fate and remain in exile when they see a million Russians (with little or no links to the land) living in their homes and in their land? How could any self-respecting Israeli to live in a house or on a land robbed from its owner? Refugees consider every Israeli, who lives, willingly, in their homes and on their land and deny them the right to return, to be their adversary, until he ceases to do so.

So, the Israelis should be advised to abandon violence and seek realizable aims. That is, they cannot continue to destroy the Palestinians and deny their human rights. Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’ brought blood and fire but will never bring permanent peace. Jews have no moral right to preach the west for what was done to them in the tragic years of World War II when they continue to inflict destruction on the Palestinians for all the years since then. They should shed their collective amnesia. If they want to live within the family of nations, they should first learn to live in Palestine with (not instead of) its people.

The Article in March issue. I am sorry you missed the deadline for publishing my article. I did my best to respond to your request by writing within 6 days of request. Now, I think there are two approaches:

1) Either you publish my piece and other contributions. Then I could have the opportunity to comment on them

or 2) you organize a small (or big if you can) conference on the Right of Return in which Palestinians, Israelis and neutral participants would attend. This way various aspects of the issue will be examined in a productive manner. Hopefully some useful conclusions may be drawn from it.

I appreciate your continuing to explore the ‘other’ view.

Salman Abu Sitta

9. Michael Lerner wrote:

Perhaps we should turn it into a debate and put it on the TIKKUN website? If so, maybe you’d like to try your hand at editing what we’ve both said so far in some kind of logical and readable order? then I’ll to respond to your latest communication.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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