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Law of Return Arouses Ire | The Nation

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Law of Return Arouses Ire

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Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine and a past president of the Authors Guild and Americans for...
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Letters submitted by our readers are read and published in the magazine.

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Letty Cottin Pogrebin's "In Defense of the Law of Return" [Dec. 22] drew much impassioned mail from readers--as does any article we print about the State of Israel--in this case, all of it angry. Herewith a sample.    --The Editors

Fort Worth, Tex.

It is sad that Letty Cottin Pogrebin does not recognize Israel's Law of Return for what it is: part of a tissue of laws and regulations that have systematically despoiled the Palestinians of their birthright. She appears unable to see the elemental injustice of encouraging people to come to Israel to occupy lands whose rightful owners live a marginal existence in miserable refugee camps. This process of alienation continues as land confiscations and "settler only" roads cut the West Bank into ever-smaller Palestinian Bantustans. Am I alone in thinking that all this is a long way from an "affirmative-action program"? Affirmative action has sought to assist the weak against the strong, not help the strong dispossess the weak.

JOHN TAYLOR


Bradford, Vt.

While arguing for the right of Jews everywhere to a home in Israel, Letty Cottin Pogrebin shows a clear sensitivity to the Palestinians. Still, I wish she had made clear that room for Israel's new citizens cannot be made in the West Bank. The current practice of whisking new Jewish immigrants from the Tel Aviv airport directly to the settlements violates the spirit of the law she defends. It's hard to be sympathetic to the Law of Return when the land that Israel offers belongs to someone else.

BERT DODSON


Chicago

As one of the "strangers" this Law of Return (Jews Only) has hurt, I, a Palestinian-American woman born in West Jerusalem, beg to differ with Letty Cottin Pogrebin. I have no right of return, even though I have deeds that prove my family's ownership of land in West and East Jerusalem. Pogrebin, a Jewish-American, born elsewhere, has a right to hop on a plane and "return" to land my family used to own.

Instead of wasting her time milking regrettable historical Jewish victimhood, Pogrebin should prevent more resentment against Israelis by organizing against the land-grabbing wall that has recently deprived Palestinians of land and water to make Jews feel secure while making Palestinians feel more insecure and hopeless.

ORAYB NAJJAR


New York City

Letty Cottin Pogrebin argues that Israel's Law of Return, which automatically confers citizenship on any Jew who wants it, is justified as a "compensatory response" for Jewish persecution throughout history, or the "affirmative action program of the Jewish people."

Affirmative action, however, was conceived not as a compensation for past wrongs but as a partial remedy for racial discrimination, historically rooted but still alive and kicking. The idea that Jews are an oppressed minority, on the other hand, does not reflect contemporary reality. There are few places in Europe or America where Jews are now marginalized; hoards of gentiles are not poised to scapegoat them for society's ills. Pogrebin's fears may come from Europe's centuries-long persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. But the notion of the Jew as eternal victim also serves to obscure the causes of present-day anti-Semitism.

Loathing for Jews is indeed on the rise among some Arabs, who are starting to borrow from traditional anti-Semitism. But this is not timeless Jew-hating in a new guise. It is above all a reaction against a state whose racism is embodied not only in Sharon's policies but in its most fundamental laws. The so-called Law of Return states, in effect, that a Brooklyn- or Odessa-born Jew who may never have laid eyes upon what is now Israel, and whose ancestors may not have seen it since biblical times, is more entitled to Israeli citizenship than a Palestinian whose family has lived there continuously for 2,000 years. One way for Jews to combat resurgent anti-Semitism is to stop using their past suffering to rationalize Israel's present racism.

JIM CREEGAN


New York City

Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes: "Were Israel as committed to justice as to Jewishness...the Jewish National Fund would not have the power to deny non-Jews the right to live, work or run a business on 'state lands.'"

The Jewish National Fund's mission is to be caretaker of the land of Israel. It is a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization. Our parks, our forests and the hundreds of thousands of dunams JNF owns are used by all the people of Israel. In fact, we recently won an international award for the rehabilitation of the Alexander River, a project that benefits both Arab and Jewish citizens.

Even though some will make a legal claim that the land of Israel rightfully belongs to the Jewish people based on historical and biblical facts, we, the Jewish people, did not exercise that rightful claim. Instead, the Jewish National Fund was established 102 years ago and supported by voluntary contributions to purchase land in Israel on behalf of and in trust for the Jewish diaspora. And purchasing the land was not enough. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, we have lovingly developed and cared for the land, evolving to meet whatever new environmental challenges Israel faces.

That's why the Jewish National Fund is for Israel Forever.

RUSSELL F. ROBINSON
Chief Executive Officer, Jewish National Fund


Framingham, Mass.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin's article is a shameful justification of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Pogrebin argues that Israel's Law of Return, which allows any Jew to go to Israel, is a form of affirmative action compensating for anti-Semitism in the world. So while any Jew in America--or any non-Jew who decides to convert--can go to Israel, the indigenous inhabitants, Palestinian refugees, many forced to flee by Israeli state terrorism, are denied their internationally sanctioned "right of return" to their homeland.

Pogrebin says it is "not feasible" to absorb millions of Palestinians, but finds no problem with Israel taking in millions of Jews. She defends a form of "affirmative action" for Jews that has nothing in common with US affirmative action. Rather, it would be as if the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans were justified as "affirmative action" for oppressed White Europeans. When she argues that "history trumps ideology and politics," she really means that Israel's racist ideology trumps international law and the human rights of Palestinians.

EDMUND R. HANAUER


POGREBIN REPLIES

New York City

A great proportion of the letters responding to my article contained hysterical polemics and ad hominem attacks. Several reminded me of the guy who tells a sitting dog to sit. My piece already catalogued the moral and political errors of occupation, settlements, land confiscation, bypass roads, Israel's so-called security fence and its discrimination against its Arab citizens. But more than their obvious and unnecessary reiteration of Israel's "crimes," what troubles me are the writers' misrepresentations and innuendoes.

John Taylor faults me for "encouraging people to come to Israel to occupy lands whose rightful owners live a marginal existence in miserable refugee camps." I was quite clear about my support for (not encouragement of) Jewish immigration inside the Green Line--the 1967 borders of the State of Israel. This is not occupation but residence.

Bert Dodson likewise implies that I want Israel's new citizens to be absorbed into the West Bank, when I specifically said otherwise.

Orayb Najjar, Jim Creegan and Edmund Hanauer feel the need to rephrase the point I made at the outset about the basic unfairness of privileging Jewish immigration. Nonetheless, I maintain that history justifies the Law of Return as a guarantor of future asylum and a remedy for a past when, in the words of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, "the world seemed to be divided into two parts-- those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter."

Najjar's use of the innocuous word "regrettable" to describe "historical Jewish victimhood" communicates a dismissive view of Jewish suffering. I associate "regrettable" with a form letter explaining a bank's accounting error, not a serious discussion of the brutal regimes that have targeted Jews.

Creegan recognizes historical anti-Semitism but minimizes the virulence of current Jew-hating. He blames the Law of Return for the rise in anti-Semitism, when it was in fact a response to anti-Semitism. Because contemporary negative behavior toward Jews does not approach the egregiousness of the Holocaust does not mean the law insuring Jewish sanctuary should be abrogated. Blacks are no longer kept in bondage in the United States, but no one is proposing we rescind the 13th Amendment.

Hanauer ignores my recognition of the symmetrical Palestinian right of return to a Palestinian state. Clearly, it is "not feasible" for that state to absorb millions of Jews, either. For both parties, this is not ethnic cleansing but rational state-building in fulfillment of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which, it is important to emphasize, have been accepted by the PLO. Unfortunately, no international forum existed at the time to balance the rights of Native Americans and oppressed Europeans.

His promotional pitch notwithstanding, Russell Robinson fails to acknowledge that the Jewish National Fund has never sold or leased to non-Jews (i.e., Arabs) the state lands it owns or administers. To quote the Country Studies document on Israel in the Library of Congress, "The Jewish National Fund was the operating and controlling agency of the Land Development Authority and ensured that land once held by Jews--either individually or by the 'sovereign state of the Jewish people'--did not revert to non-Jews. This denied Israel's non-Jewish, mostly Arab population access to about 95 percent of the land."

LETTY COTTIN POGREBIN

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