The right of return of Palestinian refugees is often presented as a stumbling block to peace, a 'final status issue' that will require a great and painful 'compromise'. But why would the return of refugees to their own country be so objectionable? Israel's opposition sheds light on the core of the conflict, and on some uncomfortable truths about the so-called 'Jewish and democratic' state.
Israeli government spokespersons, as well as lobby groups around the world, claim that the implementation of the Palestinian refugees' right of return would mean the 'destruction of Israel'. For example, meeting with US President Obama in 2011, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that a return of refugees would mean "wiping out Israel's future as a Jewish state". On the other side of the (admittedly limited) spectrum, Americans for Peace Now say the same thing: return would mean "Israel cease[s] to exist as a Jewish state".
One popular website run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise puts it like this: "Israeli acceptance of a 'right of return' would amount to national suicide." If that language sounds familiar, that is because it echoes the rhetoric of Apartheid South Africa's leaders – and was also invoked by Israel's High Court in a ruling that supported the state's restrictions on Israeli citizens living with spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.
But if the return of Palestinian refugees means the 'end' of Israel as a Jewish state, as so many claim, then what does that say about how this Jewish state was created in the first place? The logical conclusion is that it was only through the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – why the refugees exist at all – that a Jewish majority for the State of Israel was established. That it is only through their continued exclusion that such a majority can be maintained.
Three points emerge here. Firstly, the struggle of Palestinian refugees – and the rationale for Israel's refusal to allow a return – is a reminder that the question of Palestine goes back to 1948. This in spite of the best efforts of many to make it about issues arising as a result of the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a framework that has shaped the international community's 'peace process'.
Secondly, we see how basic Palestinian rights are intimately connected to Israel's continued definition as a 'Jewish state', and the discrimination that flows from this ethnocratic identity. It is in order to defend a regime of privilege that Palestinian refugees' right of return is denied.
The third point is that a commitment to defending a 'Jewish majority' unites the Zionist 'left' and 'right' in support of racist politics. Many Zionists, as well as some pro-Palestinian activists, get fixated unhelpfully on whether or not there is a Jewish majority or minority in all of Palestine/Israel (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea). To reach the conclusion that Israel is practising apartheid and/or settler-colonialism does not depend on the majority-minority dynamic: policies and institutionalised discrimination are the point, not population proportions.
Those who want to 'secure' a Jewish majority – a discourse often favoured by so-called liberal Zionists – should be challenged on the implications of their position. Aside from the refugees', what does this say to Palestinian citizens of Israel? It is astonishing for 'progressives' to embrace an ideology whereby some citizens of the state pose a threat should they become too numerous – simply on the basis of their ethnicity.
Put simply, it is not 'Israel' that would be 'destroyed' by the implementation of the Palestinian people's rights (including return), but the Israeli regime of settler-colonial privilege.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.