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Accountability and Palestinian Right of Return

Adam Horowitz
Date Published: 
November 1, 2002

On April 15, 2002 an estimated 100,000 American Jews, and their right-wing Christian allies, descended on the U.S. capitol to “stand in solidarity” with Israel in the largest Washington rally in support of Israel in U.S. history.  Five days later, an estimated 100,000 diverse protesters took to the streets of Washington DC to demand an end to the U.S. war on communities of color at home and abroad. The crowd overwhelmingly demanded justice for Palestine from Israel’s brutal occupation in what was the largest demonstration for Palestine in U.S. history.

In the mainstream media it appeared that Jews rallied to support Israel and were absent from the demonstration for peace. Where did this leave the Jews who don’t support the U.S.’s “war on terrorism” or Israel’s occupation of Palestine? Where were the Jews that reject Ariel Sharon’s claim that he is acting in the name of world Jewry?

In reality, April 20 served as a powerful indication of a growing movement as Jewish anti-occupation groups nationwide came together to march in solidarity with pro-Palestine and anti-war allies. These organizations join a long and important history of Jewish organizations that have protested Israel’s policies against the Palestinians and in some cases the Zionist goal of a Jewish state itself.

The political and ideological spectrum that Jewish anti-occupation organizations fill is wide, encompassing liberal government power brokers and radical anti-Zionist, anti-capitalist activists.  As a fledgling movement Jewish organizations play a crucial role in the movement for a free Palestine. Jewish activists challenge the common charge of anti-Semitism that often accompany critiques of Israel as well as provide a powerful reminder that not all Jews support Israel and the war on the Palestinian people.

Jewish organizations and activists have also played an important role in work with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine by providing direct assistance to the Palestinian struggle. Jewish anti-occupation groups help break down the Israeli government’s bogus us-versus-them rationale  to justify military aggression.

Jewish activists also help to combat anti-Semitism within the movement itself. As more and more activists inexperienced in this issue flock to this important cause, some rely on racist anti-Jewish stereotypes to understand and explain Israel’s role in the region. Jewish and Palestinian activists have been the first to renounce any anti-Semitic language in support of Palestine.   

One such group of Jews has organized in New York City since the beginning of the most recent Intifada in September 2000. Jews Against the Occupation (JATO) is a Jewish voice of opposition to Israel’s war on the Palestinians and was started to counter the seemingly monolithic unconditional support of Israel and the occupation within the Jewish community in the United States.

Rare mention

Their activity has focused on educating the Jewish community and the community at large about Israel’s occupation and the US government support that makes it possible. In addition to education, JATO also set out to provide a constant Jewish presence that stands in solidarity with Palestinians fighting for their liberation and self-determination.

JATO was active in the creation of the Palestine Activist Forum of New York (PAFNY), a citywide network of organizations and individuals committed to justice for the people of Palestine. PAFNY has been responsible for organizing pro-Palestinian marches, street theater, education forums as well as a counter-demonstration to the “Salute to Israel” Parade in New York City.

From the very beginning, JATO has seen itself as being accountable to Palestinian activists and organizations, and that framework has in turn led it to adopt its position of supporting the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Although this is a core demand of most Palestinian organizations, it is rarely mentioned by Jewish peace organizations because it is perceived as being anti-Israel.

This is rooted in the current Zionist movement’s reliance on the statistical majority of Jews in Israel. Many supporters of Israel fear an influx of Palestinian refugees would lead to Jews being the minority of the “Jewish” state.  Although this position has alienated JATO from some parts of the Jewish community, it is essential from a human rights perspective and because it honors the demands of Palestinians struggling for their survival.

For many Jewish activists, Palestinian return leads to an apparent dilemma between their allegiance to justice and their connection to the Israeli state. This question cuts to the heart of how Jewish anti-occupation organizations will orient themselves—will they be accountable to a Palestinian vision of justice or will they look to liberal Zionism, which asserts Israel’s Jewish character, for leadership?

Zionist anti-occupation organizing is based on the desire to end the occupation in order to create a thriving Jewish state within the green line. While there are many principled activists working from this perspective, this orientation not only makes collaboration with Palestinian activists unnecessary, it completely excludes the Palestinian voice from the dialogue determining their very future.

As with any growing movement, there are many questions that need to be answered in order to assess Jewish anti-occupation organizations’ role, and usefulness, in the greater pro-Palestine movement. Regardless of where organizations fall on the ideological map, the question of accountability is central, as it is for all activists within the anti-occupation movement. As important as a Jewish voice against the occupation is, it may ultimately prove to be damaging to the cause of Palestinian liberation unless it is rooted in Palestinian reality with the goal of Palestinian self-determination and freedom.

Adam Horowitz is a member of Jews Against the Occupation in New York City. For more information on Jato, check out their website at: