In addition to telling Palestinians they cannot go home because they have been away too long, Jewish leaders argue that return is impractical. But this too is deeply ironic because, as a refugee rights advocate, Lubnah Shomali, has pointed out, “If any state is an expert in receiving masses and masses of people and settling them in a very small territory, it’s Israel.” At the height of the Soviet exodus in the early 1990s, Israel took in about 500,000 immigrants. If millions of diaspora Jews began moving to Israel tomorrow, Jewish leaders would not say taking them in was logistically impossible. They would help Israel to do what it has done before: build large amounts of housing fast.
When most Jews imagine Palestinian refugees’ return, they probably don’t envision it looking like Israel’s absorption of Soviet Jews. More likely, they predict Palestinians expelling Jews from their homes. But the tragic reality is that not many Jews live in former Palestinian homes, since it is believed that only a few thousand remain intact. Ms. Shomali estimates that more than 70 percent of Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948 remain vacant. And the Palestinian activists and scholars who envision return generally argue that large-scale eviction is neither necessary, nor desirable. Asked in 2000 about Jews living in formerly Palestinian homes, the famed Palestinian literary critic Edward Said declared that he was “averse to the notion of people leaving their homes” and that “some humane and moderate solution should be found where the claims of the present and the claims of the past are addressed.”
None of this means refugee return would be simple or uncontested. Efforts at historical justice rarely are. But there is a reason the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates ends his famous essay on reparations for segregation and slavery with the subprime mortgage crisis that forced many Black Americans into foreclosure in the first decade of the 21st century. The crimes of the past, when left unaddressed, do not remain in the past. That’s also the lesson of the evictions that have set Israel-Palestine aflame. More than seven decades ago, Palestinians were expelled to create a Jewish state. Now they are being expelled to make Jerusalem a Jewish city. By refusing to face the Nakba of 1948, the Israeli government and its American Jewish allies ensure that the Nakba continues.
Perhaps American Jewish leaders fear that facing the crimes committed at Israel’s birth will leave Jews vulnerable. Once the Nakba taboo is lifted, Palestinians will feel emboldened to seek revenge. But more often than not, honestly confronting the past has the opposite effect.
After George Bisharat, a Palestinian-American law professor, wrote about the house in Jerusalem that his grandfather had built and been robbed of, a former Israeli soldier who had lived in it contacted him unexpectedly. “I am sorry, I was blind. What we did was wrong, but I participated in it and I cannot deny it,” the former soldier said when they met, and then added, “I owe your family three months’ rent.” Mr. Bisharat later wrote that he was inspired to match the Israeli’s humanity.