Back to the Future

Although the headlines from the “Palestine Papers” may have focused on Palestinian leaders’ willingness to trade away refugees’ “right to return” – a right acknowledged by the UN General Assembly sixty years ago, but never acknowledged by the Israeli state – the truth is that friends who work closely on this issue have suggested for many years that most Palestinians would not actually physically return to the lands lost.  But they want their right to return to be universally recognized. It’s a question of justice.
Yet what I found far more shocking was the US’ unilateral plans to solve the Palestinian refugee crisis through long-distance resettlement. Almost impossible to believe that it could be true, that Condoleeza Rice – acting as Middle East peace broker – could suggest that Palestinians refugees from Israel could be resettled in South America.  Why? Because that’s how the international community tried to deal with the Jewish “refugee problem” in the 1930s, as European and North American states prevented Jewish immigration.  Hardly the League of Nation’s finest hour.
And now history comes full circle. I find it difficult not to see echoes of earlier appeasement policies in the willingness of the US to ignore Israeli violations.  Difficult to not to draw parallels between US refusal to admit the Jewish refugees of the 1930s and its suggestions that Palestinians could settle in South America.  Without making light of the anti-semitism of the 1930s, we need to acknowledge how current populist prejudices have fuelled hostility to asylum-seekers and refugees. Islamaphobia. In other settings, anti-Roma rhetoric. UNHCR High Commissioner’s recent comments that `I do not believe that there is any group of refugees who are as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against as the Somalis’ has a fairly obvious historical precedent.
We are brought up, in the West, to believe that the 1930s were a terrible descent into human evil that we can ward off with our mantra: “never again”.  Yet while there is no doubt that the horrors of that emerged from that decade were unique, I think our own migration politics are closer than we would like to believe  — and closer than it is acceptable to admit — to those that fuelled crisis in the 30s.  The rise of the xenophobic right; a general consensus that there is “too much migration”; economic crisis; increasing impatience with the niceties of asylum… complaints that once again that “the lifeboat is full”.
It is of course bitterly ironic that the foundation of the Israelis state – a nation-state explicitly intended to offer sanctuary to a persecuted people – has in turn resulted in the exile of five million Palestinian refugees.  Nationalism is a dangerous tool – in order to include some, it must always exclude others.  This is surely the first lesson we should learn from studying inter-war politics.  It’s another reason why the Palestinian right of return is so important, and why one state, rather than two, might provide a more genuine basis for “peace” in Palestine — even if it is currently unthinkable for Israeli nationalists.
There’s another irony in the fact that while we won’t let the Palestinians return, we’re desperate to send every other refugee and asylum-seeker “home”, despite their accounts of persecution and oppressions . Here, the 1930s offers us a second lesson. We would do well to remember why we have asylum; why we have international human rights law. These protections were established by a community aghast at what the paralysis of the 1930s had cost in human suffering.   This is why we must defend both the right to return and the right to seek asylum – to make sure that no more history repeats itself.