Confessions of a Jewish Refugee

Nobody likes to talk about it.

In fact, there is nothing that enemies hate more, than to be told that they are alike.

But just this once ...

Since it's Pesach on our side, it might be the right time to bring up the central obsession of both Jewish tradition and Palestinian culture: exile, and the hope for return.

It was the experience of exile that forged the Jews and the Palestinians both. We are who we are, in no small part, for the hardships and longings and insecurities that displacement from home confers.

The story we are commanded as Jews to tell on the seder night has everything to do with exile and its curses, the pain of the loss of freedom, the humiliation of the loss of humanity and choice, the fear of loss of collective memory, the strife - much of it self-imposed - of seeking redemption through return.

So crucial to us is the experience of exile, that every week we cite the exodus from Egypt in the Sabbath kiddush, in the same breath as the very creation of the world.

Certainly, for Palestinians, exile exerts no less commanding a power over the national personality. For many Palestinians, the issue of eventual return home of refugees is the one question before which all other Israeli-Palestinian disputes pale.

Palestinians the world over treasure the keys to former family homes in the Holy Land, many or most of which may no longer be standing.

On six continents, Palestinians and Jews, awash in the alienation of diaspora, dream of an ancestral home so idealized that it may well never have existed.

The insecurity of the refugee stalks all of us. It is in our blood. We all suffer from it, Jew and Palestinian, even as we deny the right of our enemy to suffer, even as we blame our enemy for his own suffering.

For the Jews, the insecurity manifests itself as fear, fear of being annihilated, fear of being cast out of here by force.

For the Palestinians, the insecurity finds expression in humiliation, a profound loss of honor that stretches over the decades that the state of Israel has existed.

Our fear is such that the very steps we take to protect ourselves - at checkpoints, in airport searches, in wall-building, in military raids - only deepen the humiliation of the Palestinians.

Their humiliation is such that the very steps they take to redeem themselves - suicide bombings, drive-by killings, Qassam salvos, masked paramilitary posturing - only serve to deepen our fear.

Then there is the refugee's ultimate weapon, one that figures in the arsenals of both sides. It is the wily stubbornness that is the child of the union of memory and rage. In the Jewish refugee it is as old as Joseph in Egypt. It is called the trait of a stiff-necked people, a people who will even stand up and defy God if they so choose, and the trait has been ours since the Exodus.

In the Palestinians it is called sumud, or steadfastness. It is a trait that makes Palestinians defiant, rather than compliant, as we throw shell after shell at them.

It is this trait that makes victory impossible here. We will literally die to deny our enemy a victory, and our enemy is certainly prepared to return the favor.

So it is, that more than half a century of conflict has done little to change the lot of refugees, except to create more and more of them.

It was perhaps more inevitable than ironic, that the creation of the state of Israel, born in large part to solve the refugee catastrophe in the wake of the Holocaust, gave rise to new refugee catastrophes.

The wars in 1948 and 1967 sparked the Palestinian refugee problem, and also spurred the exile of masses of Jewish refugees from Muslim lands.

It might be said that all members of a people are refugees, until all of their refugee brethren are able to come home. No peoples on this earth have more experience with the status of refugees than do the residents of the Holy Land. And no two peoples on this earth have a greater problem with finding a way to solve their refugee problems.

Over the past year, we in Israel ceded the Palestinians an amount of territory which, in the space of six days, gave them rule over an additional 50 percent of the total territory they comtrolled in the Gaza Strip.

In the process, we created another 8,000 refugees. We expelled the Jews of Gush Katif, northern Gaza and northern Samaria from their homes, and then we failed them. We have yet to be able to see to their needs. This alone may delay for years and years the plan to create 70,000 more Jewish refugees in the West Bank.

The war in the territories continues to create Palestinian refugees as well, people, whose houses we demolished for various reasons and in various ways.

It's a matter of time, and the extent to which all of us can stand to continue to be refugees.

We are, all of us here, Jew and Arab, victims of our refugee mentality, the one we cannot shake, the one that makes us into villain and victim both.

We are, all of us, still dor hamidbar, the Generation of the Wilderness, still adrift in our dreams, still holding on, still holding out for dear life, unwilling to part with the refugee's fervent illusions about how this eventual state of ours should look. Of how it must look, in order to somehow justify and give meaning to our decades and decades of suffering.

For many on the Palestinian side, it is preferable by far to hold out and hold on to the illusion that all will return to former homes, than to have an independent Palestine that confirms the compromise, and thus, the defeat.

For many on the Israeli side, it is preferable by far to hold out and hold on to the illusion that we can keep all of our bibically deeded land, Shilo and Shechem and Beit El and Hebron, than to live within the real, internationally recognized, final borders that define an independent state.

In the process, though, we are disheartened. We are ground down by the burden of being permanent refugees. We are ground down by living in this place of colossal disappointment. We are ground down by the ways our brethren disappoint us, either because they do not share our vision for the eventual state, or because their actions make the vision in our heads that much more unreal, that much more distant.

We know the price of living together, what it would cost to part our peoples. The price is still too high for us, Arab and Jew. The price is nothing less than the death of our incompatible dreams, at root, the idea that one of our peoples can have all of this all to itself, river to the sea, Jerusalem and its sacred heart.

We will all of us here, Jew and Arab, be refugees until we can bring ourselves to accept that the other has rights, legitimate grievances, and valid claims.

We cannot have a truly independent, viable, Jewish state until our borders and our capital are recognized by the world community. With the Palestinian issue unsolved, we cannot even convince our closest ally to recognize our capital city.

We are not yet independent. As long as we are in a state without borders, we remain stateless ourselves, internal refugees, in limbo at home.

Our enemies the Palestinians have a similar problem. They will not be free of the curse of the refugee soul until they can relinquish the idea that respect can only be gained through the barrel of a gun. If the Palestinians can someday put aside their honor issues long enough to stop firing rockets and exalting holy resistance as a sacrament, Israel will withdraw in the West Bank, and a state will arise.

Sooner or later, there will be two states. Even the extremists know this. If they didn't, they wouldn't have to work so hard to prevent it. It's a matter of time. It could take another 20 years and terrible trauma, but it will happen.

Until then, we'll all continue to be adrift. Mired with one another, and with ourselves. Refugees, right here at home.


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