Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
My son and I have this little game we play every few months. We open up Google Maps and look at a tract of land on the west bank of a large pond. Oral history carried within my extended family points to this plot as our “ancestral home”, currently local Head Post Office. Let me reiterate that this is only folklore, nobody carried a certificate of ownership when they escaped murderous mobs during the partition of India, and, I seriously doubt any such parchment ever existed for ownership that simply passed from one generation to the next. Still, there is enough institutional memory to vindicate that my father’s family lived reasonably well within stone’s throw of an area now known as Maijdee, loosely the “downtown” of the town of Noakhali, Bangladesh.
When we started this game, my son was about six years old. He would ask I ever wanted to get it back, even relocate there. I personally have no desire, even if we may have a right of return under UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Over the years we discussed three main concerns. First, there is no precise “ownership certificate”, even if we clearly were denizens. Second, we have not been caretakers of the land and everything that comes with it for over seventy years, people who “reside” today had nothing do with the land grab and forced displacement. Third, even if dispossessed, we became better off as beneficiaries in another country where equal opportunity ruled.
4000 miles away between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the Right of Return would pit two groups of historical refugees against each other. Bloods lost, atrocities committed, nightmares and eternal enmities started. Interestingly enough, each side has been at the receiving end over each of the above three questions.
Jewish desire to return to the ancestral land is at the heart of the state of Israel. Their journey into the wilderness away from homeland started two thousand five hundred – more? – years back and continued through centuries and in lands far away. Generations pined for return to the land of their beginning, to their glorious temples, as they survived amidst stifling antisemitism under dynasties and religions. Even before Holocaust that killed six million European Jews, Jewish people suffered through endless pogroms, exiles and humiliations only to hold on to the Big Book and hope for a return.
The story on the Palestinian side is much more recent. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians were displaced in 1948 to make way for the founding of the state of Israel. The Law for the Property of Absentees passed shortly afterward effectively transferred land ownership from erstwhile owners. In 1967 another 1 million more were displaced. Add to that around 350,000 Palestinians who are Israeli citizens but were displaced in 1948 and never allowed to return. All in, UN Relief and Works Agency counts 6 million people, including descendants, as displaced through 2014.
When it comes to the Right of Return, I find the two competing claims to be similar, especially as we consider the three concerns. I doubt if either had, historically, “land deeds”; considering circumstances oral history should be good enough. Each group was the caretaker of the land when the other was away and did pretty reasonable job of it. On the third point, both were on the losing side. Centuries of institutionalized apathy, even downright antisemitism at all levels, built an ethos of resilience, internal retrospection and a vibrant people that thrived every time they had an opening. Displaced Palestinians, no matter where they went, were second-class residents at best. Squalor, chronic shortages, indiscriminate military and police incursions, discrimination and inhuman scrutiny at every step truly makes them feel like they’re living in an open-air prison. You’ll find gems of entrepreneurship and survival stories; a far shadow of the richness of cultural and intellectual life they once had.
Jewish right to return is a reality, blessed are you, the King of the World. Palestinian right to return is just a mirage. Can the two claims coexist in harmony? Can Israel still be a Jewish state?
Israel is a successful and democratic state with everything working for it. As Dan Senor elaborates in “Startup Nation”, Israel is a land of extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit, strive, high competency in technology and science, a keen desire to experiment, innovate and improve. No wonder, per capita GDP is over USD 40K, its national health system is a treasure, it has a defense force that is envy of the region with over 100 nuclear weapons at the ready, and a clandestine / intelligence capacity that inspires awe anywhere in the world. She has consistently proven itself capable to absorb large number of immigrants, including over half a million from East Block countries after the fall of the iron curtain in extremely short order, or about 10% of its population then. So yes, my answer is yes, She can absorb millions, over time.
Experiments in coexistence have been promising even during the troubled times. “Since Israelis and Palestinians often meet on the killing and battle front, we strongly believe it is important that they meet on the health and education front,” commented Amitai Ziv, Founder of Center for Medical Simulation, in an article in The Times of Israel. The Center, a super-specialized facility that teaches medical professionals on the latest techniques, has hundreds of Palestinian students, including from Gaza. His is not the only one, 42% of nurses in Israeli hospitals are Palestinians as are 38% of medical and pharmacy students. But it is not all peaches and roses. There is a strong move to make Jerusalem, and Israel, look “like in Biblical times”, at the cost of Palestinians who lived through all the turmoil, e.g. Bringing in new Arab residents to the already settled communities may need some out of the box thinking. Right of return may not necessarily have to mean the exact same home, many of them are already in ruins. It may mean brand new housing stock in the neighborhood, some mixed. None of these is insurmountable with the right leadership and desire.
Peter Beinart, in a recent piece in Jewish Currents, explains how the Jewish nature of the State is not in danger. There are 6.9 million Jews in Israel today and under 1.9 million are Arab citizens (of whom a fifth are non-Muslims). About 2.5 million Palestinians live in West Bank and about 1.6 million in Gaza. All in, total non-Jewish population is still over 1 million lower than Jewish population. Besides, Palestinians who are not already citizens might be granted an equivalent of US Permanent Residency – they need to wait for a few years before granted a right to vote. A path to citizenship may be immediately blocked for breaches of security of the Jewish State. We can play with checks and balances as much as we want, the idea is to recognize the disruptions each side has gone through, and is going through, to make this possible. Israel does not have to be beholden to the current crop of leaders on the other side – half of whom maybe corrupt for their own good, and the other half want destruction of the State of Israel – she can take the message directly to the Arab Street, nullifying naysayers, by granting them what they dreamed of to start with.
It is reasonable to expect that the State of Israel would have difficulty in accepting Nakba as its original sin, or accepting that the Palestinian right of return weighs as much as Jewish right of return. But She must realize for a lasting solution, this is the only way. Talking about Jewish “long memory”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once commented, “We are what we remember. As with an individual suffering from dementia, so with a culture as a whole: the loss of memory is experienced as a loss of identity”. In parallel, expecting Palestinians to forget that they are displaced is sheer lunacy. As Peter Beinart observes “In our bones, Jews know that when you tell a people to forget the past you are not proposing peace. You are proposing extinction”. Israel has tried that for over seventy years, and all can agree that it did not turn out well. It is not a two-state solution, but a two-state without real sovereignty was DOA to begin with. The State of Israel has a right to exist, and Palestinians, just like Jews, have a right to return.
The west bank of “Court Dighi” [pond inside the Courthouse Complex] in Noakhali, Bangladesh gave rise to crystallized memories and longing in dozens. Passions I saw taught me to ignore dreams of self-determination at my own peril. 4000 miles away on the western banks of Jordan River and Dead Sea two legitimate dreams of destiny collide these days. They do not have to. A better solution, the one solution that has not been tried yet as everything else is failing, is to merge the two – and chart a shared journey, together.
That will be a true Abrahamic Miracle. Amen.