The Jewish right of return

European states should welcome and facilitate the return of surviving European Jews and their descendents.

Some 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were deported to Nazi concentration camps in 1943 [Reuters]

While on a visit to Thessaloniki in northern Greece, I was taken to the old Jewish quarter in the south of the city by the waterfront. This sad, deserted place had once been the centre of a thriving Jewish community which had lived there until 1942. It had been composed of mainly Sephardic Jews who had fled Christian persecution in Spain. 

In Thessaloniki they became extremely successful, established as many as 33 synagogues and many religious schools to which Jews from all over Europe flocked. They controlled all trade in Thessaloniki, especially wool which was a major industry, and created great wealth. The run-down, empty shops I saw, some still bearing the names of their previous Jewish owners, are all that is left today of that once prosperous merchant class.

The absence of the people who used to live here was palpable and moving, and, it seemed to me, all wrong. It made me think that Jews as well as Palestinians had the right of return to what were their homes.

This sentiment is especially relevant in a week that marks the 66th anniversary of UN Resolution 194 passed on December 11, 1948. The resolution called on the newly formed Israeli state to repatriate the three-quarters of Palestine’s population who were displaced in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Israel never complied with the resolution, reiterated many times since, and no refugee was ever allowed back. But the right of return, cherished by generation of Palestinians, has remained on the statute books and still awaits implementation.

The right of return to Europe

That prospect looks bleak in the charged anti-Arab atmosphere of today’s Israel. Israelis never accepted that they had been the cause of the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and hence saw no reason to repatriate any of those who left at the time.

These feelings are so acute today that the very idea of a refugee’s return would provoke hysteria. This Israeli anti-Arab racism was on display during the Gaza war last summer when the majority of the Israeli Jewish population approved of the assault on an unarmed civilian population. The killing of over 2,000 Gazans, more than 500 children among them, left most Israelis unmoved. On the contrary, they cheered from the hills above, as they watched their army’s bombs hail down on Gaza.

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Anti-Arab slogans and graffiti are widespread in Israel, and Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, estimates that there are more than 50 Israeli discriminatory laws against Arabs. A new law making Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” that clearly discriminates against Arab citizens has already been passed by Israel’s cabinet. Dozens of Knesset members also support it. 

This violent and irrational Israeli hatred and maltreatment of Arabs needs an explanation. In my view, it derives largely from the destruction of European Jewry during World War II. For example, the 60,000 Jews of Thessaloniki were virtually exterminated after the Nazis deported most of them in 1943 to perish in concentration camps. Only 1,200 were spared.

Jewish communities in many European countries met a similar fate. To atone for this crime Europe encouraged the settlement of Holocaust survivors and other persecuted Jews in a faraway Middle Eastern country they did not know and whose people and culture were alien to them.

It was not the answer. In Palestine, the Jews were forced to acclimatise to an unfamiliar place and required to accept a new identity as “Israelis”. A Zionist history was created for them with the bible as a reference point. Their own past, despised by Zionism as assimilationist or passive in the face of Christian persecution, was to be discarded, and their mother tongues had to give way to a new language, Hebrew. Above all, they had to learn to be a majority when they had always been a minority. And all this in a short period of time as Israel was being rapidly established to defend against a hostile Arab environment that rejected it. That hostility was another challenge the Jewish immigrants had to face and that made all their other difficulties worse.

Inevitably, a dichotomy of identity at all levels developed. The internal conflict it created, coupled with the insecurity of displacement, was traumatic and frightening. It is no surprise that this unnatural mixture of emotion and contradictory messages boils over and vents itself on those unable to defend themselves, the Arab victims of Israel’s creation. Anti-Arab racism was manifest in Israel right from the start, when the Palestinians who stayed after 1948 were kept under military rule until 1963, and that racism has only increased over time. After 66 years of Israel’s existence many of its people are no more at peace with themselves than when they were new immigrants.

The solution to this tortured situation lies in what may be called the Jewish right of return. Under this right, Europe would welcome back its previous Jewish citizens, at least those still alive, and their descendants, offer them compensation, fund their resettlement and provide jobs and housing. These costs could be defrayed against the EU’s current massive bilateral trade with Israel worth $36bn (with many trade agreements favouring the latter) and its generous grants to its scientists.

Germany is the model for this Jewish return. After reunification in 1990, it welcomed Jews to its towns and cities, with the result that an estimated 15,000 Israelis are now living in Berlin alone, which is experiencing a Jewish renaissance, and many more are applying for German citizenship. Other European states should follow suit, as should Arab countries with Jewish communities who had resettled in Israel.

Not every Jew in Israel will wish to emigrate, nor would every Palestinian wish to return. But they must have the choice, and if both sides could go home, then Palestinians will have found justice and Europe will have truly atoned for its crimes.

hada Karmi is the author of Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine.