Unsolicited advice from a Jewish refugee to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators

My family didn’t have two nickels to rub together, couldn’t speak English, and had no immediate relatives to count on when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society resettled us in July 1949 from Germany to a small manufacturing city in upstate New York. Private charities provided us with a temporary host family, the first month’s rent and an apartment, an unskilled job in a leather tanning mill for my father, employment as a piece-worker in a glove factory for my mother, and a slot in a municipal day care center for me.

In addition, each of us was issued a green card.

My father and mother had endured the murder and torture of parents, siblings, nieces and nephews by agents of the Reich and had suffered imprisonment, starvation, subjugation, and slave labor in the Lodz ghetto and a succession of concentration camps. After liberation by Czech partisans and the Red Army, they separately returned to homes that now existed only in memory, met while rolling across Eastern Europe in a traveling kibbutz organized by the Zionist underground and – through a series of coincidences and events that would have been considered fantastic and inexplicable under different circumstances – eventually made their way to Frankfurt’s Zeilshiem Displaced Persons camp where they were married and I was born.

It’s always problematic to attempt to generalize from personal experience because you run the risk of setting up false equivalencies and inexact analogies. But as Israel and Palestine peace talks resume, there may be value in sharing lessons we learned, refugee to refugee, on the chance some might apply in helping to construct a personal context for resolving a dispute otherwise mired in a thicket of mutually exclusive narratives and poisonous recrimination.

1:  Invest in the Future Value of Money 

Every year my mother receives correspondence from Berlin asking her to complete and return via enclosed pre-addressed envelope a “Declaration for Further Collection of Pensions from the Federal Republic of Germany.” The payments for which the German Pension Accounting Office is requesting notarized proof of life consist of her individual pension plus survivor’s benefits for my late father.

One portion is calculated on credits earned through slave labor. Another takes into account physical disability sustained as a result of confinement and maltreatment in the Lodz Ghetto and concentration camps. There is no acknowledgment of the torture and murder of parents and family or accounting for the theft, appropriation, and total loss of homes and all personal and family property.

This “money from Germany” has its origins in the 1952 Luxembourg Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany, the fledgling government of Israel, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which represented the interests of all Jewish survivors of the Shoah individually and as a class. So-called “reparations” were vigorously opposed by  a cross-section of Israeli society, including communists, veteran ghetto fighters, and Knesset Member and future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who denounced payments from Germany as “blood money.”

In the end, negotiators agreed to a formula that included an initial $745 million in subsidies to the Jewish state for refugee absorption, and an additional $100 million in direct payments to individual survivors wherever they resided.

Plausible estimates for making Palestinian refugees whole for property lost in connection with the establishment of the Jewish state range from $5 billion to $40 billion. But in order for such payments to promote an enduring peaceful resolution to the conflict, any program for disbursements should be weighted primarily toward collective nation building – enabling a Palestinian State to establish and maintain a strong physical, social, educational, communications, transportation, public works, health care and security infrastructure – rather than on individual indemnification.

Which is not to say that the losses of individual Palestinians should be discounted or ignored. In addition to national development subsidies for building a strong modern Palestinian state, a second element of a comprehensive financial settlement should include a formula of cash payments to each of the 750,000 first generation refugees (or to their estates) irrespective of where they reside. These payments could take the form of pensions or lump sum awards and could provide the resources and incentive for refugees to leave camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan and build new lives as full citizens of Palestine.

Financing payments in this amount would come at enormous cost to Israel, even if it involved redirecting the estimated $6.3 billion current annual expenditures for enforcing the occupation, and even with the expectation that the international community would pick up a substantial part of the tab. But when these costs are weighed against the prospects of a durable peace, the international good will likely to be earned, and the potential lasting economic benefits of partnering with a strong entrepreneurial commercial neighbor, the choice for Israel is obvious.

Palestinian acceptance of such funding more than likely will require a de facto recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, as well as accommodation to a limited, symbolic, and narrowly defined “right” of return, perhaps balanced by increasingly inclusive and reciprocal unrestricted travel rights between the two nations.

2: Citizenship Counts

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10th 1948 at the 138th Plenary of the United Nations General Assembly, affirms that “Everyone has the right to a nationality.”

My right to nationality was affirmed in a federal judge’s chambers  in Albany, New York on May 20, 1955, when at the age of eight I took an oath that transformed me from a stateless person to a citizen.

From the outset, the purpose of the post-war DP camps was to decrease rather than increase the number of refugees by actively preparing them for permanent homes elsewhere. Far from being compounds of isolation, negativity and gloom, these camps pulsed with activity, optimism, energy and transience.

Zionist agents mobilized refugees for clandestine emigration to what was to become Israel and thereby offered faith in the future even to survivors who ultimately built new lives somewhere else.

The Zeilshiem camp closed after three years. By 1955 not a single camp remained open.

Contrast that with the record of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which has been operating refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza for the past 65 years. The number of Palestinian refugees now counted and served by UNRWA has increased from the original 750,000 to approximately 5 million. Of these, 40% reside in Palestine — 741,000 on the West Bank, and 1.2 million in Gaza, where refugees comprise more than 70% of the population. UNRWA’s biennial budget for running camps and providing refugees with education, health care, relief and social services – and supplying 29,000 Palestinians with employment – comes to approximately $1.3 billion.

UNRWA’s nearly seven decades of stewardship, however, have created unintended consequences for Palestinian society, including reinforcing a status quo of victimhood and dependency while fueling divisiveness and resentment within the larger Palestinian non-refugee population. Indeed, to qualify for UNRWA free educational, health care, food and housing services, individuals must be registered as original refugees or their direct descendents, which by now includes great, great grandchildren.  Yet 60% of all Palestinians – 2.5 million – don’t qualify for UNRWA benefits. It may be time to consider whether UNRAW has outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced by some agency more focused on collective nation building rather than collective dependency.

In an autonomous, sovereign and significantly resourced Palestine, the state – not international agencies – would be responsible for the administration of health, education and social policies and services for all its citizens. An independent Palestine, with dependable outside financial help, over time, could set about promoting an ingathering of refugees and new citizens from the Palestinian Diaspora in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and from around the world. The focus of this ingathering would be to build a national homeland with all the reciprocal rights, responsibilities and protections of citizenship within boundaries under the uncontested and exclusive control of a Palestinian state.

Israel would be smart to welcome such a development, and would be smart to step forward as the first nation to recognize the Palestinian nation’s sovereignty.

Such a declaration, furthermore, should not have to wait until the completion of final status negotiations, even if that means allowing for some measure of temporary ambiguity in the establishment of permanent borders.

3: There’s More Than One Way to Tell a Different Story

In 1951, representatives of Israel and the survivor Diaspora demanded, as a condition for entering into negotiations, an official public apology from the German government for that nation’s crimes against humanity during the Shoah. What they got was a Bundestag speech by Konrad Adenauer acknowledging the German people’s awareness of Jewish suffering “during the time of National Socialism,” and an affirmation that crimes committed in the name of the German people warranted “moral and material indemnity” for Jewish victims.

Adenauer’s choice of respectful but obtuse vocabulary was purposeful and precise. He sought to frame the compensation negotiations in terms consistent with the new Germany’s developing narrative as a good citizen among nations, rather than a penitential outlaw satisfying conditions of probation.

The demand for an apology arose from an aggrieved people’s perceived entitlement to a claim for absolute justice – but in the name of building a secure communal and individual future, Jewish negotiators settled for the soft approximation of an apology plus hard cash. For my mother there’s no getting hung up on the terminology. It doesn’t matter what others call these payments so long as they arrive regularly and on time. There’s a reason she gets this “money from Germany,” and both my mother and those who send out the checks know why.

Neutralizing the past as an obstacle to the future is as necessary for reconciling Palestine and Israel as it was for establishing an accommodation between my family and Germany.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence – celebrating the restoration of the Jewish homeland after two millennia in exile – coincides chronologically with what has become for Palestinians the annual commemoration of El-nakba, the catastrophe, when Arab residents were impelled to flee their ancestral homes. The two national narratives are by definition mutually exclusive, and no amount of arguing, moralizing or factual justification is likely to convince one of the other’s legitimacy.

So let’s stop trying.

Just as the image of occupier cannot remain the symbol of a Jewish state true to its biblical covenant and socialist egalitarian founding, neither can the iron keys for unlocking homes that no longer exist present victimhood as the dominant public emblem of Palestinian national aspirations.

Brutal as it sounds, peace in a final status agreement means starting with what is, not with what once was. For Israelis and Diaspora Jews with a belief in the biblical and ancient historic roots of Zionism, realizing a secure and peaceful future means abandoning the exile’s dream of restoring the entirety of Jehovah’s promise, the ancient Jewish kingdom of Canaan, Judea, Samaria, the tombs of Hebron, and an undivided Jerusalem. For the original Arab refugees from what is now Israel the approximation of justice will mean joining as citizens with fellow Palestinians to realize the vision of a new autonomous and sovereign homeland, recognizing the reality that very few if any of the original refugees or their descendants will ever return permanently to their ancestral homes.

If negotiations are to succeed, Israelis and Palestinians need to begin talking more about the future and much less about the past.

But negotiations between refugees and an occupying state aren’t negotiations at all. An immediate declaration of an autonomous Palestine and its simultaneous recognition by Israel would serve the Jewish state as much as it would the Palestinians. This is true even if some specified boundaries remain temporary pending a time certain resolution of outstanding issues. The important thing is for Palestine and Israel to face one another as autonomous sovereign equals, each responsible for and responsive to their respective citizens, and to their neighboring states for keeping the peace. A Palestine that cannot act with the authority of a sovereign state from the outset is unlikely to command the internal legitimacy required for concluding and enforcing international agreements and keeping the peace.

Absolute justice is not the likely outcome of these negotiations for either party, nor should it be the goal. The courage Israeli and Palestinian leaders must demonstrate now is not how tough each can be with the other, but how resolute, persuasive and effective they are willing to be in bringing along, co-opting, clamping down on or otherwise neutralizing the most obstructionist and zealous elements of their respective constituencies. Achieving an enduring settlement that assures secure and peaceful borders between two free autonomous states is going to require the strength of will of both negotiating partners to assert authorship of their respective national narratives, not to continue to be driven by them.

About the Author
Louis Nayman, a labor union organizer for more than 30 years, has conducted education and training programs for trade unionists in Poland, Russia, Romania, Palestine and Lebanon. His writing has appeared in Tablet Magazine and In These Times.
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