The right of return is the internationally recognized right of a refugee to return to his or her home after the violence that made him or her leave ends. This is a vital right, especially in times of war, as it allows people to flee violence with the knowledge that they will not lose their citizenship upon their return.
In the case of Palestine, the right of return is invoked in reference to the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, the founding act of the modern Israeli state. In the 41 years since this expulsion (commonly known as Al-Nakba or The Catastrophe), the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they were forced to leave during the 1948 war has never been in question by the international community. What has prevented peace has been action on this right. This is because returning refugees to their rightful homes and lands would mean demographically altering Israel such that it might not remain a Jewish super-majority. Israel, created as a state for Jews only, would cease to exist along its primary founding guideline should this right be granted and enough refugees return to their homes to shift the demographic balance.
Today, 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and though Israel has marginalized this population in a variety of ways, it cannot get rid of its Arabs (the Palestinians it failed to expel in 1948), and must continue to expand its Jewish population at a pace equal to Arab growth in order to preserve its current ethnic super-majority. Note that the goal is not to be the largest ethnic group of a plurality, or even to be above 50% of the population. Instead, to remain an ethnically Jewish state as it was founded, Israel must remain overwhelmingly Jewish. Thus, granting the right of return to every refugee who legally deserves it would pose a existential threat to Israel as we currently know it, and might possibly be great enough to turn it into a multi-ethnic state in which Jews cannot overwhelmingly dominate politics, culture, and society. If this were to happen, either the state of Israel would become a state no longer predicated on ethnicity, or it would have to disenfranchise or expel significant parts of its population. This is a doomsday scenario for the Israeli government, but a closer look reveals that the situation is even more complicated:
1. The right of return is not fully enumerated. Who does this right apply to? Only those who themselves were kicked out of Palestine in or after 1948? What about their families? If they are dead, what about their surviving children? It seems inherently fair that the right of return be transferred to children at the very least, as not doing so would only validate the strategy of long-term expulsion as a means to avoid legal responsibility. Depending on the types of people eligible for return, the potential influx of Palestinians back to Israel could either be very small or threateningly large, and this uncertainty is a significant part of the problem.
2. The right of return will not be acted upon by many who deserve it. For many who were kicked out of the homes in 1948, 60 years has been too long to wait for a solution. In this time, they have re-settled in the occupied territories or in other countries. I would not be surprised if many of these people did not act upon their right of return once it was formally granted. I’m sure that much higher percentages of people who are still living in refugee camps would act on this right, and many Palestinians are still stuck in the refugee camps that were created in the wake of the Nakba. So it is obviously very difficult to guage just how many people would act on their right of return, even if we could settle on the number of people eligible for this right. This, then, is a second level of complication.
With these two questions in mind, as well as the existential threat posed to Israel by returning refugees, it is no surprise that many have turned to alternative forms of justice. First among these alternatives is financial compensation. This is also complicated because it entails putting a dollar value on a deeply emotional and long-lasting trauma. Inevitably, the number will be too low for some on the Palestinian side, and too high for some on the Israeli side. And while it would be a meaningful gesture to expelled Palestinians, it would encounter two further problems. First, it would acknowledge that a wrong was done to these people, which then implies that they have always had a right to return, and further acknowledges that the Israeli state was founded on an act of violent expulsion instead of the happy myth of a land without a people for a people without a land. None of these implications are palatable to many in Israeli society, and would present severe roadblocks for the future Israeli government that might be in the position to address these questions. Second, without acknowledging the right of return, financial compensation might be immaterial to many refugees. I could imagine tha many people consider this as a question of ethics rather than compensation, and would refuse compensation without an acknowledgement of responsibility. The Israeli government, speaking for its citizens, must therefore acknowledge that what it did to these people was wrong. Without this, I would guess that many refugees might never accept alternative compensation.
Clearly, this is not a simple question to resolve. Someone who flees violence or is forcibly expelled from his or her home has an internationally recognized right to return to that home. But, 61 years later, measuring who is eligible and who would act upon that right is far more complex. Any form of compensation or apology would acknowledge the deep injustice that marked the foundation of Israel, and would provide extra legal force to refugees insisting on their rights. But if this right were granted and refugees returned, the state of Israel itself might demographically shift to a degree that could jeopardize or erase the ethnic exclusivity that defines it.
While I do not believe in states founded on ethnic, religious, or other bases of exclusivity, I understand that a one-state solution is currently viewed as idealistic and impractical. But when I look at the right of return from the perspective of basic fairness, I don’t see any other solution. The right of return is inescapable: physical return cannot be substitued by other compensation unless the wrongs of the Nakba are acknowleged. Today, this acknowledgement, the foundation of a lasting peace, continues to feel like a distant dream.