Weaponizing the Palestinian Right of Return

Susan George and Matthew Finkelstein

Though it failed decisively at the November 2019 California Democratic Party (CDP) Convention, hundreds of convention delegates voted for an amendment to the CDP Platform advocating for the influx of approximately five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants into Israel, separate from any final status negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

If we were to ask these delegates whether they support the destruction of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, most would respond, “No, of course not!” Yet, this is exactly what is contained in the amendment that came before the convention floor, “[S]upport the right of all those who were forced from their homes to return to their homelands and receive compensation for their losses.”

Shortly before the vote, the author, David Mandel, passed a group of us lobbying against his amendment, and exclaimed, “More Palestinian babies!” Was this an innocent statement of his love for Palestinian children? Perhaps, but more likely it speaks to a form of population warfare. You see, Mandel is a convention delegate and long-time activist with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an explicitly anti-Israel organization. He is revealing the crux of what a Palestinian right of return would mean for Israel, that the world’s only Jewish state would be replaced with a Palestinian/Arab majority state. Apparently, it means nothing to Mandel that Israel is already surrounded by over 20 Arab majority states. To him, justice means the end of the Jewish state.

Mandel’s personal agenda aside, the question remains, why did between 25 to 35% of the 2500+ delegates in the convention hall support it? We believe the answer is simple. They want justice and equal rights for the Palestinian people. They know that Palestinians are unjustly suffering, while Israelis, comparatively, are free and thriving. If Palestinians are the underdog then Israel is the oppressor, and progressives must side with the oppressed.

Unfortunately, this is where the Mandel/JVP narrative fails delegates. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is anything but a black and white, oppressor-oppressed story. While Mandel/JVP says a right of return is the only fair redress for the Palestinian people, it is conveniently leaving out the concern of many Israelis that a bloody civil war would likely ensue. Mandel/JVP says the right of return is enshrined in international law, while a number of legal scholars and other analysts say that no such precedent exists and any fair resolution for refugees can only be a matter for final status negotiations. Mandel/JVP says the two-state solution is dead and Palestinians need justice now; problem is, this omits the historical record that Palestinian leadership walked away from mulitple offers for their own sovereign state. Mandel/JVP says the Jewish people have no legitimate claim and are living on stolen land, completely ignoring that the Jewish people have had a continuous and traceable history in the land of Israel for over 3,000 years.

It makes no difference to Mandel/JVP that foisting this issue onto the CDP again and again will not bring peace, justice, ease the suffering of the Palestinian people, or help Israelis feel more secure amid regular missile attacks from Gaza. It makes no difference to Mandel/JVP that we have spent more time over the past three years in the CDP resolutions, legislation and platform committees on this conflict than any other matter. It makes no difference that this issue is extremely divisive and takes valuable time away from more pressing concerns to California Democrats.

Mandel/JVP’s “justice” doesn’t include the over 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands–the forgotten refugees–that were forced to flee their ancestral homes of thousands of years, many finding refuge in Israel. Do the delegates know that these refugees are not allowed back to their former homes in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, and others?

Mandel/JVP’s “justice” also doesn’t include any criticism of Palestinian leadership. There is no mention of government crackdown on dissent, lack of press freedoms, and government corruption.

Mandel/JVP’s “justice” never concerns itself with Palestinian wrongdoing, its focus is 100% on Israel.

Those who seek lasting peace and justice understand that this conflict cannot be resolved without addressing the aspirations and needs of both Palestinians and Israelis. Fortunately, a majority of CDP delegates agreed when they voted to soundly reject Mandel/JVP’s one-sided and divisive amendment and to uphold the following Platform Committee language:

Continue to work toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly negotiated by the parties that guarantees equality, security and democracy for all; recognizes Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders; and, provides Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity;

We support efforts among representatives of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank to de-escalate tensions through good-faith negotiations that recognize Israel’s future as a sovereign, secure, and democratic Jewish state and that can lead to security and independence for Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians deserve security, recognition, and a normal life free from terror and incitement. Palestinians and Israelis should be free to govern themselves each in their own viable states in peace and dignity;”

Does Mandel/JVP have any desire to ease up on the flagrantly one-sided and harmful Israel-Palestine narrative they continue to inject into every CDP Convention and Executive Board meeting? That is highly doubtful, and in doing so will only succeed in driving a wedge deeper and deeper between Democrats. Mandel/JVP does not speak for the majority of California Democrats, and most certainly not for the majority of Jewish voices within the party.

We need to bring many more of these voices forward. The time for silence and timidity is over. It is incumbent upon larger numbers of concerned people to speak frankly to the frequent and blatant attempts to use Israel as a destructive wedge in the CDP.

Progressive Zionists of California (PZC) will continue to work with coalition partners to mobilize against this growing threat by building authentic and diverse narratives and a broad-based grassroots and organizational response.

Authors, Susan George and Matthew Finkelstein are founding members of Progressive Zionists of California.

About Progressive Zionists of California:

PZC is a grassroots coalition of Democrats that supports the self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, addresses antisemitism wherever it arises, supports progressive policies in the California Democratic Party, and stands against the undemocratic policies of right-wing Israeli leadership.