In my post on Baka Lefties, I challenged the progessives who live in Baka (myself included) to recognize the morally problematic nature of living one's life in a house whose owners were expelled, and who will never receive compensation, at least not in our lifetimes. That post generated a certain amount of comment, although I must say that the only "Baka Lefty" I know of who responded was Deborah Greniman, and she raised some good points, which I will address below.
In my post I suggested that it would be a good idea to have the owners who have moral qualms about living in areas where the Palestinian owners were expelled to try to organize and to reach out to the original Palestinian owners, or more probably, their heirs, or, for that matter, the Palestinian people as a whole, and try to arrange some sort of interim settlement, symbolic or otherwise. I realize that there are many problems with the suggestion. But I wanted to open a discussion of what can be done.
I was misunderstood on several fronts, so here are some clarifications. But first, a story:
I have a friend who has become "green". But he drives every day to work, and that makes him feel guilty. He could take the subway but it would take him twenty minutes longer to get to work, and, frankly, it is not as convenient. He recently sold his SUV (his green consciousness is pretty recent) and got a Toyota Prius hybrid. But he still drives.
Now some people would say that my friend is hypocritical: if helping the environment were that important to him, he would not drive to work at all, they say. In fact, there are probably many things that he could do to reduce his carbon footprint. I mean, some people will die because of the environment, and he will be, in effect, helping to kill them and crying about it later.
I feel sorry for people who use that sort of argument against my friend. They don't realize – at least not when they are engaged in polemics -- that morality covers an enormous amount of grey area, that for most of that area there is no simple moral calculus to determine what is right and wrong, and that there can be areas of moral agreement and disagreement. There is a large area covered by "moral qualms," or "moral unease", which is weaker than "moral disapprobation," and over which there will be a lot of disagreement.
I used to drive on Highway 443, a highway that connects Jerusalem to Modi'in which was built on Palestinian land, and which is effectively closed to Palestinians, causing them enormous inconvenience. After thinking about the road, I decided that given the way I feel, I shouldn't use it. At first, I avoided the road unless there was a traffic jam on Highway 1, in which case I went back to 443. After all, does my use of the road make a single bit of difference to the Palestinians who can't drive on it, or to the other Israelis who can? I asked myself. Lately, however, I have been sitting in traffic jams at Sakharov rather than take the alternative route. (Serves me right for reading Gideon Levy.) But I may go back to the road, some day. Hypocritical? Yes, I suppose. But only if I feel that not using that road under any but emergency circumstances is a clear-cut moral imperative. Only if I criticized others for using it and then proceeded to use it myself.
Now, I am sure that there are people who won't buy houses in Baka because their Palestinian owners were never compensated. I salute such people, just as my friend who bought the Prius salutes those who don't drive to work at all. But there are many reasons why we do the things we do, and there are lots of factors that we weigh, when we choose neighborhoods or cars.
It is clear to me that the responsibility – legal and moral -- for compensation to the Arab refugees who left abandoned property devolves on Israel as a whole, not on the individuals living in Arab houses or on Arab lands throughout the country. Just how that compensation is to be paid and to whom is a matter for a whole different post. If you don't think the question is complicated, then you haven't been following the question of Holocaust reparations, or for that matter, the case of the Native Americans against the US government for misusing their trust funds , which is an even more egregious crime than appropriating people's houses.
I don't criticize others for not sharing my moral qualms. But I would still argue that accepting the status quo and not trying to do something about it is morally insufficient. Or, to be more modest, I still don't see how it is morally sufficient.
Let's look at this another way. Suppose there is a young Pole who learns that the house he bought, from another Pole, who bought it from still another Pole, was originally the property of a Jew, who never got compensated for it. And suppose that this young Pole feels some moral qualms about it. And suppose, finally, that he attempts to locate the owners, or that he makes a documentary film about the house, or something of this sort. Would we Jews be so quick to dismiss this guy as hypocritical or as acting from impure motives or even as acting inappropriately? When we invited him to show his film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, would we argue that the idea of making a film was wrong, that what he really should have done was to influence the Polish government to recognize its collective responsibilities?
Or would we have said that this is a good Pole. He didn't have to do what he did, to be sure, but we admire him for doing it.
Now, to Deborah's comments:
- "The responsibility isn't individual; it is collective." On that I agree. But I believe that there is a greater obligation – or if that is too strong, greater cause for moral unease -- on the part of those who benefit more from the expulsion than those who don't, especially if they view it as expulsion. The way that this unease is expressed need not, of course, be in reaching out to the original owners or to their representatives. But why not make this a person-to-person initiative, especially if the people on the other side are receptive? As I wrote, I know of somebody who came to an agreement with the owners. Is what he did wrong-headed?
- "Living in Baka makes me feel a little less self-righteous with respect to the settlers. Like them, I too, live on contested land." The fact that the settlers and we Baka lefties are in some respects in the same boat should make me more critical of myself, and not less critical of them. My Prius–driving friend doesn't criticize his SUV-driving friends less because he didn't give up his car. Being self-righteous is never a good thing. But cutting someone too much slack in order to salve your conscience isn't great either.
- "It makes more sense to focus energies on better ways of making life liveable for Palestinian Jerusalemites." Amen to that. I am sure that there are lots of things more pressing than reaching out to people who abandoned their property sixty years ago. I wasn't offering my proposal as "drop-everything-let's-do-this". All I wished to do was to get people to start thinking about how we can help raise the consciousness of folks on this issue, beginning with ourselves. Zokhrot is one answer, but not the only answer.
There is every reason in the world to prefer addressing present injustices than to deal with past injustices. But if we Baka Lefties deny or rationalize the past injustices, for which we are not responsible, but from which we indirectly benefit (and all of us humans indirectly benefit from injustices, no matter how hard we try), then aren't we missing an opportunity here?