Over the last few days, a great number of Jewish groups have taken righteous stances against Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigration from seven mostly-Muslim nations and halting the refugee program.
But when it comes to Israel, these same groups support the rejection of Palestinian refugee demands because they would threaten the Jewish nature of the state. The contradiction highlights an uncomfortable truth: the degree to which discriminatory policies of the Jewish state are actually congruent with Trump’s American nationalism.
The liberal Zionist group J Street is circulating a petition against Trump, titled “Stand Up for Refugees.”
Fight for America’s moral standing in the world — keep this nation open to refugees.
J Street has highlighted the plight of Syrian refugees.
— J Street (@jstreetdotorg) January 30, 2017
But when it comes to the Palestinian demand for the return of the 750,000 refugees created by the establishment of Israel in 1948, or their descendants, J Street sounds a lot like the American nationalist Steve Bannon who is at Trump’s elbow. J Street asks, and answers:
Palestinians are constantly invoking the “right of return,” which would flood Israel with refugees and undermine it as a homeland for the Jewish people. How can we reach a peace agreement while they continue to make that demand?
No two-state agreement will include the full return of Palestinian refugees into Israel. Instead, the issue will be resolved by steps outlined in past peace proposals, which have offered Palestinian refugees citizenship in a future state of Palestine. Former negotiators believe it is most likely that Israel will offer monetary compensation and a symbolic acceptance of some refugees into Israel.
Americans for Peace Now has also urged resistance against Trump’s refugee order. But it too has been dismissive of Palestinian refugee claims inside Israel, saying that this would end the Jewish state.
demands that the principle [of refugee return] be implemented inside Israel are tantamount to a demand that Israel cease to exist as a Jewish state. .. [A] solution will have to respect both the sensitivities of the Palestinian refugees and Israel’s sovereign right to determine who may live within its borders. This is the right approach, and it is guided by moral, political, and strategic concerns.
Yesterday, 18 Jewish institutions and groups in Boston came out with a very strong statement against the Trump order. We “reject any effort to shut our nation’s doors on the most vulnerable,” they wrote in a statement titled, “We Must Not Close Our Doors:”
In response to the executive orders this past week on immigration and separately regarding refugees, we, the undersigned Boston Jewish religious, philanthropic, civic and human service organizations come together to say that these actions – which are causing anxiety, pain and anguish throughout immigrant communities and our nation – are unjust. We stand together on the side of empathy and religious tolerance and we urge the administration to open the gates of compassion to those seeking safety, regardless of their faith or country of origin.
But virtually every member of that coalition that is concerned about religious tolerance takes a hard stance against Palestinian refugees because they would threaten the Jewishness of Israel. Many of these groups even deny the existence of the Nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe: Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians to make way for a majority Jewish state. Here, for instance, is the Jewish Community Relations Council hardhearted position. Israel didn’t expel the refugees; they fled; we’re not responsible for their “suffering,” let alone their property.
Israel is not responsible for the creation of the refugee problem, or for perpetuating it. To accept responsibility would have far-reaching implications: 1) It would encourage the arrival of millions of Palestinian refugees in the State of Israel, changing the demographics of the country in such a way as to effectively end the existence of the
independent Jewish state; 2) It would be used as a basis for claims against Israel for compensation for loss of property and for 55 years of suffering…
The American Jewish Committee takes a similar view of the Palestinian refugees, saying they are
used to threaten Israel with destruction through exercise of “the right of return,” whereby the millions of “refugees” would inundate the state and erase its Jewish majority.
But compare that language to the language the AJC signed on to in the Boston statement against Trump:
The approach to addressing these issues that was announced this past week is rooted in a rhetoric of fear and demonization and a policy that treats human beings around the world – including endangered refugees, many of whom are children who are suffering in devastating conditions – as an enforcement problem.
The uncomfortable parallel between Trump’s position on refugees and Israel’s highlights the fact that both serve nationalist movements. It is no wonder that Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are already best friends, with Netanyahu tweeting in favor of the immigration policy. And the news-site Breitbart that employed Steve Bannon and provided a platform for “alt-right” views that lifted Trump was founded by rightwing Zionists out of devotion to Israel.
For liberal and centrist Zionists, the overlap is more touchy. These groups have helped champion many progressive campaigns in the United States, leading to rights and freedoms we hold dear. They like to describe Israel as a “Jewish democracy,” and they have for some years worked against Benjamin Netanyahu. But the fine print on that “Jewish democracy” can prove to be a bit embarrassing, as it is in the case of refugees.
Jeff Klein makes a similar observation, in a letter to the Globe about the letter from 18 Jewish organizations:
The Globe reports today that Jewish communal organizations are opposing President Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigrants. That’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, these same groups are also promoting Massachusetts legislation — SD.922 and HD.779 — that would punish critics of Israel who advocate pressure on that country to live up to its human rights obligations, including on refugees.
Israel itself created a million or more Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967 and never allowed them to return to their own homes. Israel confiscated their property without compensation and maintained a policy of shooting those Palestinians who tried to return as “infiltrators.” Today, millions of Palestinian refugees, including descendants of those originally expelled from Israel, languish in refugee camps or remain stateless
Israel also bars permanent residence to modern refugees (mostly Africans) who seek asylum and denies citizenship to children of foreign workers born in Israel – while offering automatic residence to potential immigrants of the right ethnicity (Jews).
Peace and human rights activists who advocate pressuring Israel on these issues would face sanctions under the legislation promoted by the JCRC and other Israel advocates. How is that consistent with a pro-refugee stance?