Monday, June 10, 2013

"Why don't you go back where you came from?"

That's what a thirteenth-generation Yankee finally said after a long altercation I had with him this morning near Leverett Pond, part of the Olmstead-designed Emerald Necklace, one of Boston's amazing green spaces. It began with me walking my dog off leash and allowing her to chase the resident Canadian geese across the ball park, as she does every morning. One of the geese was flight-impaired, easy prey. As my dog pounced and I called her off, this gentleman started yelling at me, as people sometimes do when they have a chance to berate an obvious "outlaw," which is how the altercation started. I tried to ignore him, focusing on my dog instead who, well-trained and obedient animal that she is, was beginning to back off the goose. As the man continued yelling at me for being a bad person and calling my dog a murderer, the goose saw its chance, lifted its limpid body off the ground and took off toward the water. At that point I was doing everything I could to prevent my dog from taking off after her while fending off the continued verbal abuse. So, I admit, I called the elderly gentleman stupid. After all, if he wanted the goose to get away, he should have left me to do my job. Instead he distracted me by calling me names.  In turn, I asked him to stop talking to me and, yes, I called him a stupid man. That wasn't nice. It wasn't effective either. And after some more back and forth it climaxed in the said suggestion that I should return to whatever foreign country I had come from.

I was perplexed. Ludicrous. Really? The best repartee I could think of at that point was to ask him how long he had been in the country, which is when he lopped back his Yankee pedigree. Not easy to top that. All I could say as I walked off was that we all come from somewhere. Not brilliant, but still true.

I've heard it before. It's the sentence of last resort. Why don't you go back where you came from? The obvious implication being that we have a choice. The other implication is that you're here on the suffering of others who have better, longer claims. And it is they who lay down the law. And if you don't like it, you can always go home again. Except if you can't.

Back in the day, Europeans were eager to send Jews back where they had come from, namely, Palestine, even though Jews had settled along the Rhine before most Germanic tribes became sedentary. Palestinian Arabs in turn have argued that Jews should go back where they came from, by which they mean Europe. Setting aside that Jews were not welcome in Europe even after the horror of the death camps was revealed, not all Jews are from Europe. In the late forties and early fifties, half a million Jews were expelled from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world in retaliation for the Arab flight from Israel and Israel's refusal to let them return. Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin cannot go back either. Millennial communities were destroyed in a few years by expulsion and genocide and there is no way for them to be rebuilt. The Jews cannot go back because there's no "there" to go back to. Sorry. Palestinian refugees, though deserving of compensation, cannot be repatriated either. For that, too, we are sorry.

What about the other implication of the sentence of last resort? We've been here longer; we have the better claim. We make the laws--or have divine law on our side--and you better live by our laws, or else you will need to leave or be punished. This was the status of the Jews of the Holy Land under Muslim rule for many centuries. Banished from Jerusalem by Hadrian in 135 CE, a limited number of Jewish families were readmitted to Jerusalem by the early Muslims of the seventh century CE. As one of several protected people (ahl al-dhimma) they were exempt from the spoils of war and subjected to burdensome poll taxes (burdensome because they were not based on productivity and wealth but on heads of household). But they (or a token few of them) were allowed to return and welcomed back.

And now? With the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, following the 1967 conquest, Jerusalem's populations are under Israeli civilian jurisdiction. But the annexation of East Jerusalem remains contested. Though Israel's parliament has declared Jerusalem (i.e, the extended municipality, an area of 126 km squared) the eternally undivided capital of Israel, this claim is contested and not internationally recognized. It is a unilateral declaration that bumps up against international law, the Geneva Convention, various resolutions of the UN General Assembly, the right of the Palestinian Arabs to self-determination, and the claims of the Arab and Muslim world to sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its Muslim holy places.

Because the legal status and the future of Jerusalem are contested, history and archaeology are contested as well. The better claims always seem to be rooted in who was here first: a competition between the nativists. We've been here first! According to Arafat, the late chairman of the PLO and first president of the PNA, the Arabs of Jerusalem are descendants of the ancient Jebusites, a biblical fantasy people. In contrast, traditional Arab and Muslim sources never doubted the ancient Jewish claim to the city but made it dependent on divine providence. To prove Jewish antiquity we need neither archaeological forgery nor window dressing. Even though the Torah itself vitiates against all nativism, Jews once emerged from this city and they are back. From a purely historical perspective, let alone theology, no one has a better right to be attached to this city. But does this give us the right to eclipse the Arab and Muslim history of this city? Does it give us the right to impose our law on those who have been here and ruled the city for over a thousand years? It was the Muslims who readmitted the Jews to their holy city. Have we no sense of gratitude? Can the legal status of Jerusalem, its land use and the rights of its communities, be single-handedly determined by a Jewish state that acquired this land by force, an acquisition and annexation not recognized by international law? Perhaps it can, for those are the laws of the jungle. Might is right. But should Israeli administration seek to undermine and delegitimize the Arabs of Jerusalem? Is it a good idea? Even a Jewish idea? Even if we can, does this mean we ought?

The gentleman who called me an outlaw and my dog a murderer was wrong on both counts. A misdemeanor makes no outlaw, and the goose got away. But I should not have called him a stupid man. He acted stupidly, but did that give me the right to call him stupid? I have a foreign accent. Does that give him the right to send me packing? Perhaps we should stay away from calling one another names. Better call one another on our behavior. Tell me what I do wrong. Don't extrapolate from my actions to my character. Don't call me names. I won't call you names either. We may not be friends, but perhaps we can be neighbors, not just in Boston but even in Jerusalem. Does it really matter who was here first?

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