The War of Return

Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf; Eylon Levy (trans.)

  • Review
By – August 13, 2020

What is a refugee? Who decides? What are refugees’ rights? Who deter­mines them?

These and oth­er sharply debat­ed ques­tions under­pin this riv­et­ing new book by two artic­u­late Israelis with a strong set of view­points on the sub­ject. Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Hebrew, The War of Return quick­ly became a best­seller in Israel when it was pub­lished there last year. The Eng­lish trans­la­tion is cer­tain to con­tin­ue to fan the flames of the seem­ing­ly implaca­ble fires that con­tin­ue to rage through­out Mid­dle East­ern soci­ety and influ­ence the polit­i­cal land­scape worldwide.

In a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed argu­ment, the book posits that the one most crit­i­cal issue fuel­ing the con­fla­gra­tion is the Pales­tini­ans’ demand for what is called the right of return. This claim is based on the Law of Return in Israel, a prac­tice that gives Jews of all nations the right to Israeli cit­i­zen­ship. Based on this legal con­cept, the Pales­tini­ans have demand­ed their own right of return to the State of Israel. The authors claim that the prob­lem that has con­tin­u­al­ly stalled the peace process is the insis­tence of the Pales­tini­ans to return to Israel and cre­ate a polit­i­cal major­i­ty there, liv­ing togeth­er with Jews but offer­ing them no right of self-determination.

Ari Schwartz, an inter­na­tion­al­ly known jour­nal­ist, and Einat Wilf, a for­mer Israeli politi­cian and Labor MP, are no strangers to the kind of debate this book is like­ly to spark. Both are open sup­port­ers of the polit­i­cal left and share a deeply held desire for peace through a two-state solu­tion. The authors blame the Unit­ed Nations for legit­imiz­ing what they call the Pales­tini­ans’ non-exis­tent right of return, and method­i­cal­ly argue that the only road to peace begins with the inval­i­da­tion of this rul­ing. The Pales­tin­ian claim to a right of return, they insist, has no basis in inter­na­tion­al law.

Schwartz and Wilf argue that the Pales­tini­ans are not actu­al­ly refugees, but rather cit­i­zens of neigh­bor­ing states in the Mid­dle East, coun­tries in Europe, and the Unit­ed States. Most, they say, were born in Jor­dan and have lived there their entire lives. The UN, how­ev­er, has giv­en them refugee sta­tus, claim­ing that since they are descend­ed from dis­placed Pales­tini­ans, they deserve to be con­sid­ered refugees themselves.

With deft chrono­log­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, Schwartz and Wilf explain how the focus of the refugee camps and cul­ture set up for the dis­placed Pales­tini­ans went from basic needs — such as food, cloth­ing and hous­ing — to one of polit­i­cal estrange­ment. They also show, through well-sourced doc­u­ments, that the Pales­tini­ans’ claim is dif­fer­ent from that of all oth­er refugees else­where in the world. Of the count­less groups of peo­ple who were dis­placed after World War II, none but the Pales­tini­ans are still reg­is­tered as refugees.

This pur­pose­ful book — made com­plete with a bib­li­og­ra­phy, detailed notes, and a com­pre­hen­sive index — is writ­ten in a clear, acces­si­ble style and aimed at ordi­nary cit­i­zens rather than pol­i­cy and law­mak­ers. Its orga­ni­za­tion makes it easy to fol­low the authors’ intel­lec­tu­al, moral, and philo­soph­i­cal argu­ments, which are set out with pas­sion but control.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions