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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Land and memory II

Galilee Diary #272
February 12, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Arabs and Jews might possibly learn to live and work together in Palestine if they would make a genuine effort to reconcile and combine their national ideals and so build up in time a joint or dual nationality. But this they can­not do. The War and its sequel have inspired all Arabs with the hope of reviving in a free and united Arab world the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews similarly are inspired by their historic past. They mean to show what the Jewish nation can achieve when restored to the land of its birth. National assimilation between Arabs and Jews is thus ruled out….

-Report of the Peel Commission, 1937

After twenty years of escalation of violence, it became clear to the British that Palestine was ungovernable as a single nation-state, and they proposed dividing western Palestine (the area east of the Jordan had already been made into the Kingdom of Jordan) into two states. The Jews, reluctantly, agreed. The Arabs did not, arguing that they were under no moral obligation to share sovereignty over the land they had traditionally inhabited with European immigrants. Ultimately, in 1947, the United Nations accepted a partition plan, and Israel declared independence in the piece allocated for the Jews. The Arabs declared war against this state, and lost. In the course of the war, approximately 700,000 fled Palestine, becoming refugees. However, around 200,000 did not flee, but remained here and became, willy-nilly, Israeli citizens. They and their Israeli-born children and grandchildren are my neighbors in the Galilee today; they are one out of every five Israelis, one million people. Many of those who ended up outside the borders of Israel in 1948 lived in areas conquered by Israel later, in 1967 – the West Bank and Gaza – but they have not ever been (and probably will never be) citizens of Israel.

Of the land area of the state in its 1949 borders, 70% had been classified as state-owned by the British (who had inherited it from the Ottomans) and passed into the ownership of the new state; 12% was owned by the Jewish National Fund, which had purchased it over the years and ultimately placed it under state management; 11% was taken over by the state, it having been owned by Arabs who fled; and 7% was privately owned. Thus, 93% of the land area is essentially state-owned, and may, by law, never be sold, but only leased, through successive 49 year leases. It seems that the underlying reason for preserving this controversial system is an ideological one rooted in the biblical concept that the land can never be sold. In our modern, secularized version, the land belongs not to God, but to the Jewish nation, in perpetuity, and no one has the right to transfer ownership.

Some see this situation as a perfect realization of the Zionist vision, a modern re-creation of a biblical ideal of social justice and national sovereignty. Moreover, it is argued, since land is a scarce commodity here, it is important for the government to maintain maximum control to avoid unjust and/or environmentally disastrous exploitation of land by private owners. On the other hand, others see this structure as an undue and inappropriate intrusion of the government into life, with a history of and a potential for discriminatory distribution of resources, and the basis for a large, expensive, and often user-unfriendly bureaucracy. Moreover, if the system has been in effect all these years – how is it that public beaches shrink year by year at the onslaught of luxury apartment complexes, and kibbutzim become collective millionaires by plowing their orange groves under for shopping mall parking lots – while the courts are busy with lawsuits from Arabs denied home sites communities built on JNF-purchased land, because land bought by the JNF cannot be leased to non-Jews. Are we getting some benefit for the moral price we are paying for this system? Why is it always so hard to translate ideals into bureaucracies?

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