On the day my brother called, the local news reported a bear sighting in a backyard in Richmond Heights, the Missouri suburb where we live. Another round of fighting had broken out between Israelis and Palestinians, exactly seven years after the bloody cycle of 2014, which was the summer my wife and I decided to leave our home in Jerusalem. We were spurred by political despair and a loss of hope for a better future.
“Voluntary exile,” the experts call our decision, although I’m not sure I understand the meaning of exile in this particular case. What exactly are we exiled from—is it Palestine, or rather, the idea of Palestine? Or is it Israel, which has proved to its Palestinian citizens that even people who have never left their homes can be forced into a sense of exile? Or perhaps this “voluntary exile” is mostly the intense guilt that overcame me when my brother called on that morning of bloodshed and hatred in Israel–Palestine. Instead of offering further evidence that we’d made the right decision for ourselves and our children—because now we were not threatened by rockets, bombings, politicians, and angry mobs—what the latest war aroused was a feeling of distress and shame for not being there. I felt guilty about having fled my natural home, as it were: the place where I am supposed to belong.
“You did the right thing,” my brother said, in a pained voice. “At least you don’t have to be scared every time your kids leave the house.” I wanted to tell him about the bear roaming our neighborhood striking fear in local residents, and about how I’d told the kids they couldn’t go out until the bear was caught. I wanted to tell him how guilty I felt for not being there so we could be scared together, so I could be horrified from up close, so I could mourn the dead and the devastation, and mostly so that I could just be there, be present. That, after all, was what my grandmother and father had taught me since birth: never leave home, never leave the homeland, whether it’s called Palestine, Israel, or God knows what.
“Look what happened to the refugees,” I remember my grandmother—whose husband, my grandfather, was killed in front of her eyes in the battle over Tira, in 1948—explaining to her grandchildren, with tears of grief streaming down her cheeks. For her, the worst thing that could happen to anyone was to become a refugee. We remnants of the Palestinian people, those who remained in the villages that became part of Israel after the war, were taught that we were fortunate to still have our land and not be refugees like the half of the nation that had lost their homes and were never allowed back. “At least we stayed at home,” we were taught to recite, whenever anyone cast doubt on our loyalty because we’d become Israeli citizens after the Nakba (Catastrophe). We were the fortunate ones. Fortunate—despite the two decades of martial law, the expropriation of most of our lands, the destroyed houses, the neglect, hatred, racism, discrimination, and persecution. Fortunate—because we weren’t among the stateless Palestinians fenced inside refugee camps in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and the West Bank.
I was taught that there is nothing more contemptible than a man who abandons his plot of land, however small it may be. He who relinquishes his land, my father liked to remind us, relinquishes his dignity—in the Arab idiom, “Ily bitla min daro, yakel makdaro.” We, the ones left behind in what became the state of Israel, were taught that our primary purpose was simply to stay. And this national mission was given a lofty name: Sumud, meaning steadfastness, perseverance. Sumud: despite the Israeli oppression and injustice, you must stay. The big little war you must wage is to remain in your home, even if it is destroyed, in the Palestine that is now Israel. Sumud: to stay on, like a bone lodged in their throats. If you leave, they’ve won. If you show weakness, they’ve won. If you have doubts, you’ve lost. If you willingly abandon your home, you are a traitor.
Al-Awda (Return) has always been and still is the Palestinian dream, the most revered national aspiration. More than half the Palestinians who lived in Mandatory Palestine lost their homes and lands and became refugees as a result of the establishment of the state of Israel. Those few who remained in their villages, which became part of Israel in 1948, were stunned to find themselves cut off from their people, their culture, and their language, their lands subjected to Israeli seizure laws, living as a second-class-citizen minority in a Jewish state. In 1967, Israel achieved full control of the remaining areas of historical Palestine when it occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There, today, some five million Palestinians live under an Israeli occupation that denies their civil rights, restricts their freedom of movement, and continues its policy of land grabs, deportations, and destroying villages in order to build settlements and roads for the exclusive use of the country’s Jewish citizens.
The 700,000 Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes in 1948 have grown into a population of almost six million refugees (roughly half of the estimated worldwide Palestinian population today), scattered among refugee camps in the Middle East and elsewhere. Most of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and in Arab states (with the exception of Jordan, which granted them citizenship) lack passports or a clear legal status in their countries of residence, where they are perceived as unwanted foreign transplants.
Many of those who’d fled in 1948 became refugees for the second or third time in later conflicts: the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the armed conflict known as Black September between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordanian forces in the early 1970s (which resulted in the deportation of PLO activists and other Palestinians from Jordan), the civil war in Lebanon that began in 1975, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that led to further expulsions, this time to Tunisia. The exiles continued during the first Gulf War, when most Palestinians in Kuwait and the Gulf States were forced to leave because of Yasser Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein. In the past decade, Palestinians have once again had to seek refuge following the civil wars in Iraq, Libya, and, worst of all, Syria.
It can be said that the figure of “the wandering Jew” has been replaced by that of “the wandering Palestinian.” The stateless Jewish refugees, whose tragic plight Hannah Arendt depicted so movingly, have been supplanted by the stateless Palestinians, who similarly demonstrate that a person without citizenship is a person without protection or recourse to justice. Except that Palestinian-Israeli history has proved that experiencing the anguish of being a refugee does not guarantee sensitivity to the suffering of other refugees—not even among those who are the primary cause of the suffering. It seems that even those who have themselves been victims cannot be expected to develop any special compassion, nor can those who have suffered persecution be expected to then pursue justice for all.
While every son or daughter of a Jewish mother may immigrate to Israel and become a naturalized Israeli citizen overnight, Palestinian refugees and their descendants are not entitled to return to their homeland—thanks to Israeli laws and regulations that violate international law and repeated UN resolutions. Most Palestinian refugees cannot even visit Palestine as tourists, including those who hold European or American passports, except in exceptional cases. Essentially, the only Palestinians who can exit and enter Israel are citizens of Israel, which I am. And perhaps it is this rare privilege that has enabled my exile—the voluntary exile, one I can choose to end whenever I wish and return to the inner exile in my homeland.
Like the Palestinian refugees and exiles, I, too, would like to return to the pre-Nakba Palestine that is represented in collective Palestinian memory as a lost paradise. I would love to go back to the Palestine my grandmother used to tell me about: the fields, the cattle, the harvests, the grapes and figs, the olive trees, and the lemon tree that—in Palestinian lore—stood outside every house. In this idyllic picture of Palestine, there is no poverty, no drought, no landowners exploiting farmers, no masters lording over the commoners. But this image of Palestine dripping with figs and pomegranates is slowly blurring and fading in the consciousness of Palestinian refugees, and not just because of the Arab villages taken over by millions of Jewish settlers, the settlements’ factory smoke, or the ubiquitous army bases.
The picture has blurred because of the loss of a political vision and the death of a popular struggle for emancipation, a struggle that peaked in 1987, when the First Intifada erupted as an all-out national uprising. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s, which purported to offer an end to the occupation and Palestinian suffering, ironically did more than any other factor to harm the Palestinian dream of al-Awda. It was the PLO leadership, which had for decades represented the Palestinian nation and molded its national consciousness, that ultimately let down the refugees when it agreed to establish limited authority in a small area of the West Bank and Gaza, with jurisdiction primarily over policing and supervising domestic Palestinian affairs.
The PLO leadership claimed to represent all Palestinians around the world, with the refugees first and foremost, but it left them to their own devices in the refugee camps and offered little more than lip service to their rights. The refugees were not partners to the hastily signed agreement designed mainly to bolster the PLO itself as it tried to recover from the mass deportations of its members from Lebanon to Tunisia. Far away from Palestine, the PLO became essentially a bureaucratic organization. Its political and financial nadir came in the early 1990s, a phenomenon related to the Arab world’s more general political decline because of creeping neoliberal values and kowtowing to US policy, while Islamist movements rose to become virtually the sole opposition to the Arab dictatorships that enjoyed Western patronage.
For all that—and even if Palestine is not a paradise frozen in time in 1948, waiting for the refugees to reclaim their homes, villages, and fields—what alternative do they have to the dream of returning? This is especially true when it comes to the refugees living in impoverished, dilapidated, overcrowded camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. “The elderly will die, and the young will forget,” said David Ben-Gurion, who orchestrated the establishment of the Israeli state and the banishment of Palestinians from their land. True, the elderly will die—but the young cannot afford to forget. How can a young refugee forget his homeland if he lives with constant reminders that he is a foreign element, unwanted, even despised?
Palestine may not be the promised land of our parents’ stories. It may be torn between quarreling factions. But at least a Palestinian state would grant the refugee a passport, the ability to travel, and a homeland where no one would accuse him of being an intruder. At least, in a Palestinian state, there would always be the illusion that things will get better one day.
And as for me? Am I fulfilling Ben-Gurion’s prophecy by having chosen to leave the country? And what about my children, who have little knowledge of what life in a Palestinian refugee camp looks like? Sometimes, I am filled with national shame when I think of how little my children, who left Jerusalem seven years ago, know of Palestinian history. True, my oldest daughter is now active in a Palestinian student organization, and my elder son sometimes claims he refuses to talk with Zionists. But I’m not sure whether they can really understand their history if they’ve never heard about the horrors of the Nakba from those who experienced it, as I heard from my grandmother about losing her husband and most of her land and having little choice but to do menial work for a Jewish immigrant. Do my children even know that their maternal grandparents were forced to abandon their homes in the village of Miska, near Tulkarm, which was razed to the ground in the war and its residents dispersed around Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Germany, and Denmark? And while my two oldest still understand Palestinian Arabic, my youngest son, who was only three when we came to the US, can’t differentiate between Arabic and Hebrew, and can’t tell an Israeli from a Palestinian.
“But I’m American,” he says, and I have to remind him that no, we’re still waiting to hear from the immigration authorities about our residency status; we’re still just visitors, nothing is certain. Sometimes, my wife and I laugh at our little son, who thinks he’s a white American, and wonder if it’s time to tell him he’s actually an Arab Muslim. My little American pities me when I speak in my clumsy English. Occasionally, he makes fun of me, but usually he tries to correct my accent and teach me how to avoid embarrassing myself with mispronunciations. He gives up after a while, shakes his head, and realizes that when it comes to accents, his parents are hopeless—they’re always going to sound like foreigners.
And, on my side, I often wonder why we long to become residents of the United States. Because we are strangers here, too, and we will always be immigrants, and not always welcome ones. I think back to my grandparents’ words: “No one wants refugees.” Every time I open my mouth, whether it’s in a taxi, a restaurant, or when I get my hair cut at Great Clips, I am asked, “Where are you from?” At first, I would answer “Jerusalem,” a sort of generalized name that people surely recognized without having to go into the nuances of West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem, Jews and Palestinians. But I changed my answer pretty quickly. Nowadays, I say I’m from Albania. Unlike the Middle East, very few Americans know anything about Albania; they don’t know if it’s good or bad. It sounds sufficiently European, and almost no one knows how an average Albanian is supposed to look or sound.
Thus, in the US, I’ve adopted Albania as my country of origin—so much so that I’ve started following the Albanian soccer team, and I hung an Albanian flag up in my office. When someone asks what I’m doing here, I tend to explain that I’m just a tourist—absolutely not an immigrant or someone with any aspirations to immigrate. I’m a visitor, a passer-by; I just came over to spend some money and fly back to my beautiful country. I’m not a threat to anyone, I haven’t come here to change the US or steal anything from proud Americans.
But what about my children? Do they have a chance of becoming real Americans? And what would that even mean? Is it a document, a passport? Will that make them feel that they belong and are protected? Or will they forever be in the defensive position of being foreigners, always fearing xenophobes’ fury?
I often think about how, if we were to throw a big party—say, a wedding for one of our children—I wouldn’t have a single American to put on the guest list. I’ve been living in the US for seven years, and I still can’t come up with more than three people I have coffee with more than once a year. So why, then, am I fighting for my right to live in this diaspora?
Perhaps it’s the same heartache and political despair that took over during the 2014 Gaza war. Or perhaps, illogically, it’s the power of the American dream, hazy though it may be. Or it might be that, for a Palestinian citizen of Israel who writes in Hebrew, it’s better to be clearly foreign, to be exiled, voluntarily or otherwise, rather than live under a forced exile in the heart of one’s homeland. And perhaps it’s that I don’t want to witness the destruction of my homeland, because I want to hold onto my grandma’s stories of Palestine, the one with the sweet grapes and succulent melons, the one I would like to return to one day, along with all the other refugees.