10 takeaways from the Boston University Right of Return conference

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This is not a comprehensive account, but, rather, scattered insights, takeaways and powerful points made by the speakers and presenters at the Right of Return conference held April 6 & 7 2013 at Boston University Law School. I have left out the debates about international law and UNRWA, which were discussed extensively. The following takeaways are personal and speak to me as a citizen of Israel and a Jewish woman.

Refugees vs. the Palestinian State

The right of return used to be the core and the symbol of the struggle for Palestine liberation. Return and liberation were synonymous. Since statehood became the main goal of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, refugees have become a mere “issue,” an item on a menu of Palestinian bargaining chips to negotiate over. Salam Fayyad and his entourage are part of an economic elite driven by capitalist interests, and they will reap their profit by state building projects. Capitalists everywhere rely on state infrastructure to make profit and the West Bank canton is no exception. Abu-Mazen has exemplified his solidarity with Palestinian refugees by ‘giving up’ the right to return to Safed. Nowadays, refugee’s interests are diametrically opposed to the interest of the Palestinian Authority. However, mass refugee mobilization as seen in 2011 on all Israeli frontiers are a testament that Palestinians in the diaspora have not given up.

Personal Stories

Personal stories and lived experiences of refugees and their descents are the flame of the struggle for return. While scholarship provides the frameworks to understand their individual experiences, stories sound the loudest alarm of urgency and plight. Nearly all of the presenters began with a personal story: a refugee from the village of Zakariya, now Zechariya who learned English in Israeli prison, a descendant who found her Palestinian uncle in Cuba and stories of the vibrant Palestinian diaspora in the US and the pain of accumulated exile. The Nakba generation is coming to its end and now more then ever it is crucial to document the stories and keep them alive.

The Nakba is Ongoing

While the number of 1948 Nakba survivors are dwindling the Nakba is ongoing. Is in ongoing in Palestine for sure, but it seeps into life in exile, and takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. Its cumulative affects impact every refugee’s family. Constantly waiting, witnessing your community from afar displaced for the second or third time in East Jerusalem, Gaza or Syria is part of the ongoing Catastrophe.

Birthright Palestine

Although “Birthright Palestine”  has not been founded yet, individual refugees with third country citizenship can embark upon journeys home as  one way to use their citizenship in a subversive way. However, accounts and stories of Palestinian disapora going back to visit, illustrated clearly that citizenship does not shelter one from ‘refugeeness’. To name a few examples, facing racial profiling in an American airport, needing to account for the reason of your visit at Ben Gurion Airport, then attempting to get a glimpse of your families home and hoping the Jewish tenant in Ba’aka will let you in and finally the fear of speaking about Palestine on your American campus when you return.

Creative Solutions

All refugees in the world have the right to return to their homes. This is a granted right that all Palestinians have. It cannot be given or taken. However, Return does not necessarily mean turning back the clock to the eve of 1948. The vast majority of villages no longer exist; others have new towns built on the land while Jewish families occupy whatever houses remain in tact. In some instances the villages can be re-built, in others residents can join existing municipalities and in other cases people might choose to live in different cities than those they came from. The right to choose one’s place of residence is as important as the right to return home. Local mapping and planning done by organizations such as Badil and Zochrot can help further exploring and realizing return in creative ways.

Palestine as Land and Palestine as Territory

The double-edged sword of mapping was discussed extensively in the conference–mapping as a tool for community empowerment vs. mapping as colonial practice of control. Napoleon’s cartographers produced the first measured triangulation, on-the-ground maps of Palestine; their map outlined the conquest plan for the region. Control from above, literally and metaphorically, marks the relationships of mappers and those being mapped as one of domination. Similarly, the efforts of the Palestinian Authority and various negotiators to produce a Palestinian territory on a map (a state) are pitted against deeply held conceptions of land. Community led counter mapping as facilitated by Badil and Zochrot can be a powerful toll of reclaiming space and eventually reclaiming the land. Local mapping of ruins opens up possibilities for planning the present and the future. These activities pose an apparent threat to Israel (especially when done inside of Israel) as made evident by the Nakba Law and by the harassment of Zochrot by the Israeli police.

Collective Narratives

The physical and political fragmentation of Palestinian society denies them the ability to share a collective narrative and dialectic. The separation has been so internatized that even Palestinian news is dissected along the cantonization and separation lines drawn by Israel. The way people consume news shapes the way they understand their own community, affinities and needs. For example, Palestinians in Lebanon and in the Galilee are neighbors; their territories touch, they share a history and a Palestinian identity. However, they have little in common and vastly different daily practices. Palestinian news in the West Bank is classified according to the Israeli citizenship ranks: Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians of the PA, Jerusalem residents, Gazans, Palestinians in area C and diaspora. This fragmentation has significant implications on the way people and communities prioritize and perceive their struggles. Palestinians can no longer say the same thing and mean the same thing despite being in the same place (Palestine). For example The often-chanted slogan “end Palestinian division and reunite” means ending the split between Fatah/Hammas when chanted in Bethlehem while, when chanted in the Naqab, it means an end to the division between Palestinians inside of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Arab Jews

The Arab-Jews are the only Jewish group in Israel with the potential to tear down the Zionist status quo. The inter-Jewish apartheid between European Jews and Arab-Jews has lasted as long as the Palestinian refugees have been in exile. The Jewish population in Israel today comprises a majority of non-Ashkenazi Jews. The Arab-Jewish binary in Israel and the divide and conquer policies of the Zionist state have denied Mizrahi Jews of speaking Arabic and expressing their cultural identity. Regardless, a long tradition of Mizrahi resistance in Israelexists, and if and when it will translate to a wide scale resistance, it is very likely to contribute to Palestinian liberation and cross-Arab solidarity. Mizrahi resistance to the state is the extension of the brass keys held by refugees in exile.

The Birth of Taglit-Birthright

Non-orthodox Jews in America have placed Israel at the center of their theology. There is little in common between cultural/secular Jewish practice in America and non-orthodox Jews in Israel. Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish sector in America, mirrors a minority of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel who might be religiously aligned but are politically more liberal. The vast majority of non-orthodox Jews in Israel don’t subscribe to reform nor Orthodox Judaism, they self-identify as ‘Masorti’ (מסורתי) Jews, a traditional Judaism that is closer to the Sephardic tradition. Mizrahi Jews are much more observant politically and religiously and they comprise the majority of Israeli Jews. Since there is little in common religiously between Judaism in Israel and Judaism in the US, Jewishness in itself is not enough to sustain the umbilical cord between the two countries. To compensate for this schism (and for various other reasons) American Jews invented Birthright to ensure that the glue that holds Jewish communities together in the US is their engagement with, on and about Israel. This is sad for Judaism and devastating for Palestine. The famous picture of the American Jewish immigrant who can move to Israel and become a citizen contrasted with the Palestinian refugee who cannot even visit depicts this tragedy.

Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel, 1973 (Photo:
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Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel, 2011 (Photo:

A Crisis of the Imagination

The crisis of the imagination amongst Israeli citizens and Jews in the world is an added tragedy on top of occupation and apartheid. Zionists and their supporters are not able to conjure up an image of a society in which all citizens are equal and in which liberties and freedoms are shared. Israeli society can neither imagine that the return of Palestinian refugees can liberate them as well–liberation from the shackles of a Masada mentality, from white supremacy and from fear.

I want to thank the scholars and activists who shared their inspirational and refreshing ideas in the conference, which I have merely re-articulated here. Sa’ed Atshan, Charlotte Kates, Khaled Barakat , Ziad Abbas, Sarah Marusek, Amahl Bishara, Joseph Greene, Riccardo Bocco, Salman Abu Sitta, Eve Spangler, Bekah Wolf, Cory Faragan, Yakir Englander, Heike Schotten, Alborz Koosha, Lila Sharif, Linda Kh, Sarona B, Susan Akram, Anne Irfan, Jinan Bastaki, Salim Tamari, Linda Quiquivix, Einat Manoff , Thomas Abowd, Noura Erakat, Liat Rosenberg, Leila Farsakh, Sadia Ahsanuddin, Sarah I and Joseph Massad.

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I love that old photo. That issue got absolutely zero traction in 1973– I wonder how much many more like Ghada and Ellen it would have taken.

Abu-Mazen has exemplified his solidarity with Palestinian refugees by ‘giving up’ the right to return to Safed. He sort of has a legal obligation to do that as a foreign head State. Other Palestinians can nonetheless be considered refugees owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, so long as they are outside the country of their nationality and are… Read more »

The Nakba is Ongoing

Of course. The Zionists are claiming the on-going-right to commit acts that were considered war crimes and crimes against humanity when committed by other groups, i.e. invasions, blockades, revocation of citizenship, deportations, implantation of settler communities, extensive expropriation of private and state properties, restrictions of freedom of movement and choice of residence, rationing of resources based on nationality, & etc.


“Since there is little in common religiously between Judaism in Israel and Judaism in the US, Jewishness in itself is not enough to sustain the umbilical cord between the two countries. To compensate for this schism (and for various other reasons) American Jews invented Birthright to ensure that the glue that holds Jewish communities together in the US is their engagement with, on and about Israel.” (Elisha Baskin) Zionism has replaced Judaism as the unifier… Read more »