FREE SPEECH ZONE | A refugee story


Among the documents that my husband kept for many years was a customs form, now yellowed and fading, with one corner torn where it had been folded. It is dated April 28, 1948, and on it in Arabic and French was written proof of everything my father-in-law, his wife, and three-year old child could bring with them when they fled Jaffa – nothing.

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The weeks preceding April 28 became increasingly alarming. Beginning April 4 villages between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were attacked and their residents expelled. On the 9th the Deir Yassin massacre occurred, where between 100 and 240 non-combatants were killed in their village and the survivors were paraded and humiliated in Jerusalem. On the 22nd Haifa was ethnically cleansed after months of bombing, sniping, intimidation, and house demolitions. That coastal city of 75,000 Palestinians saw a horrific exodus when nearly all the Palestinians were forced at once to the port, causing throngs to trample to death the slow movers and children, drowning others in the sea, and separating many from their family members.

News of these events reached Jaffa and terrified the already panicked population. A run on the banks made it impossible to withdraw money. Attempts to sell possessions in order to have enough money to go someplace safe were, of course, useless. Who would buy furniture or rugs when the entire city was trying to dispose of those items? Where could my father-in-law go? The roads leading out of Jaffa were blocked by the Haganah and the port seemed to be the only escape. It appeared that Jaffa would suffer the same fate as Haifa.

The moment arrived on the 28th. Panicked residents gathered their most important items and ran to the port. None of the boats there were capable of carrying many people; all were rickety, run down skiffs meant to shuttle crates of oranges between the shore and the ocean-going ships. The captains and owners of the little boats over-charged the desperate people, took too many passengers and not enough fuel, and then forced people to throw overboard the few possessions they had been able to take. My father-in-law managed to save his precious stamp collection, a beautiful history and geography study, with stamps from every country in the world beginning in the late 1800s up until 1948. I wonder what he had to throw overboard in order to keep the stamps – rugs, pots and pans, diapers, food…?

In all, about 750,000 people were ethnically cleansed from Palestine in early 1948, and made their way to Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere. In the 61 years since 1948 numerous refugees from other conflicts have found their way back home, with the help of the international community. But in order to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel, this help has not been available to Palestinian refugees.

Desiring to maintain an ethnic majority as an excuse for ethnic cleansing is intolerable in other circumstances. Do we accept ethnic cleansing in order to maintain a Hutu majority in Rwanda? A Serb majority in Bosnia? What is the difference?

I am a Jewish American, who has always felt conflicted between the Jewish ethics and values that I grew up with and the reality of the ethnic cleansing committed for my benefit. The cruel irony is that although my ancestors lived in what is now Israel not less than 3,000 years ago, I could today become a citizen there and live, possibly on the land from which my father-in-law was expelled in 1948. Yet my husband, the three year old child who was expelled with his parents, can never return. To maintain that vision of a Jewish state, Israeli law bars my husband from living there with me.

Obama is pushing hard to implement a two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does not believe in a two-state solution to the conflict, and has said so explicitly. I very much agree with him, although our agreement ends there. I believe all Palestinian refugees and their descendents should be allowed the right to return to their homes, as stated in Geneva Convention Number 4 and UN Resolution 194. All Palestinians should be given full and equal citizenship with all the rights and responsibilities that this entails. This spells the end of the two-state plan, but in reality, with the expropriation of West Bank land for settlements, the building of the wall well within the territory of the West Bank, the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and new laws stripping Palestinian Israelis of their citizenship, the two-state plan has been dead for a long time already. It is time for the country of Israel to become the democracy it claims to be.