Doing teshuvah for 1948

The policy of Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States toward Arab refugees from the Israeli War of Independence is that the “Right of Return” is too contentious for now, and must be postponed until final-status talks.

But the Arabs displaced in 1948 are getting older. Once numbering more than 700,000, less than a tenth remain alive. The youngest refugees who were adults at the time of what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”) are already in their mid-eighties.

Does anyone really believe the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will end in their lifetimes?

Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews argue that Arab nations should have absorbed the refugees by now, and so Israel is absolved of responsibility. But if one nation blocks the re-entry of some of its residents and another nation refuses to let them settle, isn’t the first nation much more culpable? Perhaps if the refugees faced genocidal persecution, the neighboring countries would have a greater responsibility to absorb them. But Israel’s government does not engage genocidal persecution.

Others say the events of the 1940s were a “population swap” in which Jews from Arab and other Muslim lands were forced to leave for Israel, and Palestinians left for Arab lands. But very few Mizrachi Jews wish to return to their birthplaces – and in any event those governments wouldn’t let them do so. Why should Arab refugees be punished for the anti-Semitic policies of nations with whom they have no connection?

This Rosh Hashanah eve is the perfect time for Israel to begin doing teshuvah (repentance) for its actions regarding the innocent Arab victims of the 1948 war. Now, the subject of enemy populations during wartime is halachically complex, and I’m not taking a stand on whether Israel’s behavior in 1948 was technically a sin. Rather, I’m using the word teshuvah in its more general sense – like the way people say mitzvah to mean “good deed,” and not just “commandment.”

Our nation’s process of repentance for 1948 can begin by offering Palestinians who left during that conflict monetary compensation and, to the extent feasible, a right of return.

I’m not discussing the much more complicated subject of the descendants of refugees; instead I’m addressing what Israel owes people it has directly wronged. To continue to slight 40,000 elderly Arabs who have been exiled from their homes nearly their whole lives would be inexcusable. To blame Israel’s inaction on the stalled peace talks is even worse. Why should an individual Palestinian die without ever receiving any reparations or acknowledgement of his suffering just because his people’s leadership are not serious about a true peace and wish to wipe Israel off the map?

Yes, I know the typical excuses about how the refugees chose to leave; their leaders encouraged them to flee; and it was a war zone. But we would never allow anyone to make such arguments regarding Jews during World War II. After the November pogrom (Kristallnacht), huge numbers of Jews left Germany and Austria “voluntarily.” Could the Reich have legitimately closed its borders after the war to any Jews who wished to return? Some Jewish residents of the Reich were encouraged to leave Europe for Palestine under the Ha’avara Agreement. Did they lose their right ever to come back, even to visit?

Sure, there were understandable reasons for the Israel to keep its borders closed and confiscate Arab property in the late 1940s and early 1950s. An immediate right of return may have overwhelmed the young state’s ability to develop economically and socially. But 66 years later, those excuses no longer apply.

Here is my proposal:

Arabs who can demonstrate they left Israel during the War of Independence will be offered financial compensation based on the value of the property they lost, plus a set amount for their suffering. However, Palestinians who have yearned to use their treasured keys to re-enter the homes they lost will have to give up that fantasy. Still, Israel can make arrangements when possible to house elderly refugees in Arab areas in Palestinian-controlled territories or in Israel proper, depending on their preferences.

This approach would not apply to relatives of refugees. If international family reunification laws require Israel to allow immigration of family members, Israel can either offer financial compensation only, or admit a limited number of relatives.

The issue of the bulk of the descendants of refugees can still wait until final status talks. But for the dwindling number of actual victims of 1948, justice delayed is truly justice denied.

This year, may the piercing blast of the Shofar penetrate our hearts and help us look anew at the State of Israel’s choices. On Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, God expresses His justice and compassion. Can’t we do the same?

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About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at