I was wearing a pro-Palestinian t-shirt; he was wearing a yarmulke. As we sat at the airport waiting for the same flight, he glanced at my shirt and asked me to turn so he could read the message: "Palestine -- 50 years of dispossession, 1948-1998" a shirt produced during Israel's 50th anniversary.
He scowled, and we began talking.
I tried to make sure that two fundamental facts were not lost in the discussion: The ethnic cleansing of about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, driven from their homes by the Israelis during of the birth of that nation in 1948; and Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, captured during the 1967 war. He said Arabs want to destroy Israel, and therefore Israel's attacks on Palestinians are justified. We challenged each other's facts and interpretations. He invoked God; I cited international law. It was tense, but civil.
Then he suggested that one solution would be for all the Palestinians to leave and settle in other Arab lands -- the "let them go live with their own kind" answer. Often called "transfer" or the "Sharon plan," it was once considered absurd by all but the most reactionary forces in Israel; now it's increasingly being taken seriously in Israel and the United States.
On the surface, it seems simple to many: The Gaza Strip and West Bank are relatively small parcels of land -- why fight over them? Why can't Palestinians just resettle in other Arab nations? If their Arab brothers and sisters truly cared, wouldn't they take them in?
I offered the man in the airport an analogy. I'm originally from North Dakota, I explained. Let's say that the Canadians swept down into North Dakota after a border dispute and captured territory during a war. After occupying the land for decades and settling Canadians in the most desirable spots and taking most of the water, let's imagine the Canadians were to suggest that a solution would be for North Dakotans -- those still living in North Dakota under Canadian military occupation and those in exile or refugees -- to relocate to South Dakota.
After all, North Dakota and South Dakota are sparsely populated; there's plenty of room for all of "them" in one state. The two places share a common language and a dominant religious tradition. The people are ethnically similar, coming predominantly from Scandinavian and northern European stock (putting aside the issue of indigenous people dispossessed and almost exterminated by the Europeans), and there are no significant cultural differences. They are pretty much the same people.
So, let the North Dakotans go live with their own kind in South Dakota.
But, of course, that would not solve the problem, because it is not simply about finding space for people to live. It's about the forced removal of people from their homes, from land they own and feel connected to, and the loss of livelihoods. It's about the humiliation of living under military occupation and having no rights in the face of arrogant soldiers and "settlers," a polite term for people brought in illegally to live on someone else's land. It's about resisting arbitrary authority and force. It's about dignity.
I no longer live in North Dakota, but I can say with confidence that the people there would not pack their bags and accept such a "solution." They would resist, as people anywhere would. Some would choose non-violent strategies, but I suspect a fair number would take up arms. If you repressed the people long enough, brutally enough, it is not hard to imagine that the people of North Dakota -- my people -- might even begin attacking and killing Canadian civilians as a strategy for raising the costs of occupation.
North Dakotans, in other words, might well become terrorists. I would not support that, but I would understand why it happened.
The man in the airport glared at me and said, "You're a racist."
I don't know what took him from my analogy to that accusation, but it's easy to speculate he was projecting his own racism; his contempt for Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, was palpable. This is hardly surprising; just as some Palestinians and their supporters are anti-Jewish, some Israelis and their supporters are anti-Arab racists. To acknowledge that doesn't mean all Israelis are inherently racist or all Arabs are inherently anti-Jewish.
But whatever his individual views, talk of "transfer" -- the suggestion that Palestinians should abandon their homes and histories -- is racist. The proposal assumes either that Arabs can pack up and leave without feeling any loss, or that they feel these things but it doesn't matter. Either way, it is to treat Arabs as less than fully human.
Using a hypothetical in which one white group displaces another not only makes the injustice painfully obvious but also shows how some people avoid acknowledging that injustice by implicitly assuming a lesser status for Palestinians and Arabs. International law and basic fairness are easily derailed by racism.
Our discussion ended with the man's declaration that I was racist, and we boarded the plane. I got on first, and a minute later he passed by me on the way to his seat, looked down, shot me a mocking grin, and walked by.
I sank into my seat feeling defeated -- not because I thought his arguments were better than mine, but because the argument I had made about the humanity of the Palestinians didn't seem to matter to him. My sense of defeat was not about an argument lost, but about the consequences.
Those consequences are clear: So long as Americans ignore these basic issues about justice, U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support for Israel will continue. And as long as the United States supports Israeli expansion and aggression, there is no hope for an end to the violence.
As I sat there, I could not escape the knowledge that the burdens of our failures in the United States are borne not by us but by the Palestinians.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. His pamphlet, "Citizens of the Empire," is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/freelance.htm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org