A Stuttering Response to a Palestinian Refugee

A heavy moral shadow was cast over the establishment of Israel, and the Palestinians are entitled to compensation for the injustice

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The artist Tamam al-Akhal in her home in the Amman neighborhood of Al Rabieh, Jordan, January 30, 2018.
The artist Tamam al-Akhal in her home in the Amman neighborhood of Al Rabieh, Jordan, January 30, 2018.Credit: Catrin Ormestad
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

AMMAN – It seemed to me that the man trembled when he asked to speak. He seemed agitated. He just wanted to ask: “How do you feel living in Israel, on our land and in our homes?” A kaffiyeh on his shoulders (the only person in the room wearing one), he’s the owner of a Jordanian PR agency, an older man with graying hair. The organizers had hesitated to invite him. He’s known as the extremist in the group. I was glad he came. He says he’d never met an Israeli in his life. His wife didn’t come; she couldn’t bring herself to.

The spacious living room in the apartment in western Amman’s Al Rabieh neighborhood was filled last Tuesday evening with Palestinian refugees – those who were born on the other side of the Jordan River. They meet once a week, each time in a different home, bourgeois senior citizens growing old in comfort in their exile. Some were expelled or fled their country as children in 1948; others had to do so in 1967. They’ve made a life for themselves since; they’re well-off career people. Some of them read Haaretz in English. Most of them drew a line through the past and moved on.

But none have forgotten, and perhaps none have forgiven either. In Israel, they have never understood the power of these emotions and how deep they run. You can blame the Palestinians for wallowing in the past, you can argue they played a part in deciding their fate – but you can’t ignore their feelings.

There’s no room for historical comparisons: It’s hard to compare the expulsion of natives hundreds of years ago to the expulsion of people who still remember their house where strangers now live. The Jews of Europe and the Arab countries received a new homeland, and some of them were even compensated. It’s not even worth discussing the clumsy comparison with a handful of evacuated settlers.

The question raised in the living room of the late Palestinian “national artist” Ismail Shammout and his widow, the artist Tamam al-Akhal, reverberated between the painting-covered walls. For a moment the most basic question lay there, stripped bare: What’s it like to live in the stolen land of others?

A painful silence fell over the room. Some people felt uncomfortable. It’s not nice to embarrass your guest like this.

It’s doubtful whether there is an answer. You have to acknowledge that. For the Israeli right, the nationalists and racists, for people who believe this land belongs to the Jews because Abraham wandered here and purchased a cave or because God promised, there’s no problem answering. It can also be argued that the Jews always dreamed of the land, but the clear fact is that they never bothered to settle here en masse. It could be said – and rightly – that the Jews had nowhere to escape to in the Holocaust. But these are not answers for the artist Akhal, in whose childhood Jaffa home an Israeli artist lives, a woman who turned her away and didn’t even let her see the house many years later.

The questioner sharpened his query: “I want to understand how you feel living in Israel.” I answered that I have very deep guilt feelings toward his people, and shame too. Not only for 1948, but mainly for what has happened since, which was a direct continuation of the ideological line of the 1948 expulsion, and which never ceased.

Afterward, I told him about my father, who was tossed on the waves in an illegal immigrants’ ship and my mother, who came to Israel through Youth Aliyah. They had nowhere to escape to except for this country, which at the time was not their country. And I have nowhere to leave to because this country is now my country, too. “But you swim every morning in a pool on land that doesn’t belong to you,” the man went on. I fell silent.

What should the answer be? For them, this is their land that was taken from them by force. There’s no denying it. A heavy moral shadow was cast over the establishment of the state, even if it was unavoidable and even justified. We must learn to live with this. And mainly, we must draw the only conclusion that screams from it: The Palestinians are entitled to compensation for the injustice by the opening of a new chapter, which is built entirely on equality in this land.

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