Jewish Leftists Need to Have the Talk

Why bother bringing up the right of return now? Why should Jewish leftists go out of their way to discuss ROR in depth with one another, with other Jews, other leftists, and, if possible, with Palestinians as well?

These days, it's a little too easy for Jewish Leftists to avoid having the Talk. The Talk, an open-minded consideration of the Palestinian right of return, might well be divisive, corrosive, just one further blow at a time of Israeli – and world Jewish - apathy and depression and paralysis.

It's certainly more comfortable to let the issue run in the background, as many groups on the left have done, either coming down at one stroke on one side or the other, as if the issue were not breathtakingly complex, or, alternatively, deciding not to decide.

Jordan Nakba May 13, 2011.

It's much, much easier to simply get off the betrayed-by-Israel bus altogether, as Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt suggests of friends in her much-shared Life after Zionist summer camp.

"Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel," she writes. "It seems my trajectory is not at all unique. My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there."

The lack of real ROR debate on part of the Jewish left is fostered by the holding pattern of Middle East peacemaking. There is no dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, barely any between Israel and the American administration, and at this point, next to none within Israel or the Jewish community.

So why bother to bring up the right of return now? Why should Jewish leftists go out of their way to discuss ROR in depth with one another, with other Jews, other leftists, and, if possible, with Palestinians as well?

The answer is, that the right of return debate goes to the very core of what a Jewish state can and should be, and whether there should be one at all.

The issue goes to the warring facts and perceptions and half-truths and outright falsehoods that characterize the events surrounding the founding of Israel in 1948 and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The issue goes to the war among Jews over the occupation of the West Bank. It informs and lends urgency to arguments among Jews about whether a formally and specifically Jewish state can ever truly call itself a democracy. It goes to why some Jews favor a two-state solution, while others want to believe the current situation can and should be perpetuated indefinitely, and still others would like to see no Jewish state at all. And, if done right, the debate should also enable Jews to relate with compassion and seriousness to what dispossession has done to Palestinians.

The right of return is also an integral part of the fierce debate within the Jewish community and on the Jewish left regarding Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns.

A very worthwhile starting point is the compelling ROR debate on Israel Reconsidered, which until recently was an online exchange between Seattle-based journalist and blogger Richard Silverstein (Tikun Olam), and American-Israeli Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner.

Silverstein, whose perspective is far to Derfner's left, opened with a post titled Naksa Day: How do you spell relief? R-O-R.

Derfner, who is probably as far left as a centrist can be, countered with a piece called The right of return is wrong.

Which, in turn, spawned a reply.

Although the discussion has since come to an end, it seems to me an extremely important beginning.

The temptation - in these terrible days of Bull Connor Lieberman and Father Coughlin Yishai and a prime minister who is, at heart, a hopeless groupie of the hard right – is simply to decamp. To say to Israel: Not in my name, and to give up.

Like it or not, though, this is where and how Jewish history is being made. This is where and how the meaning of what it is to be Jewish is being determined and, yes, distorted.

Allison Benedikt wants her kids to be raised as Jews. She would clearly prefer that they not be disgusted with Israel, where their first cousins and their aunt live. If that's what she wants, decamping, by itself, is not an option.

Sooner, or later, she, too, will have to have the Talk.