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Right of Return Conference at Boston University: Realizing Return In Practice

[Image of Noura Erakat at Right of Return Conference at Boston University. Crop of Screencap from Video Below.] [Image of Noura Erakat at Right of Return Conference at Boston University. Crop of Screencap from Video Below.]

On 6-7 April 2013, activists, scholars, and community members converged at Boston University to participate in the Right of Return Conference at Boston University.  The last Right of Return Conference took place in Boston more than a decade ago, and featured the late Edward Said as its keynote speaker. This Conference is especially critical at this juncture as the Oslo Peace Accords turns twenty, and in the direct aftermath of President Barack Obama's first visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory in his two-year term.  

The Oslo Accords sought to establish two ethno-nationally homogenous states as a remedy to Israel's settler-colonial regime. Not only did the Plan fail to deal with the root cause of conflict in the region but it also failed to thwart the ongoing forced displacement of Palestinians both within Israel Proper as well as the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In the shadow of the Peace Process, for example, Israel has accelerated its Judaization campaign of East Jerusalem, where it administratively revoked the residency rights of 4,800 Palestinian Jerusalemites in 2008 alone.  

Oslo excluded refugees from its consideration all together when it relegated the fate of 6.6 million Palestinian refugees to final status negotiations—which remain elusive. Since then, Israeli officials—like Avi Dichter—have made clear that the return of refugees is a red line in any negotiated solution. In response to a PA official’s mention of refugees in 2011, Dichter declared  “The 'right of return' will not be included in the peace process.... Talk about the 'right of return' is meaningless. Everyone understands that there will not be a solution that includes 'return,' no matter who says what.”  

The right to return, however, is not only a political matter. It is a humanitarian one governed by international law and precedent. Those precedents include the return of, restitution to, and compensation of refugees to East Timor, Bosnia, and South Africa. In particular regard to Palestinians, and universal one to all refugees, those laws include: 

  • UN Resolution 194 (passed on 11 December 1948 and reaffirmed every year since 1948):

    “…the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”
  • Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”   
  • Article 5(d)(ii) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: “…State Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination on all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of…[t]he right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to one’s country.”  
  • Article 12 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”

Narrow political discourse in the United States in particular, has made it nearly impossible to discuss the right of return in meaningful ways. Instead, activists, pundits, government officials, and often scholars, invoke the right of return as a banner indicative of a political position rather than a humanitarian consideration. The Conference this weekend is remarkable specifically for transcending this political grandstanding and for grappling with the innards of the right of return and the possibilities of its practical implementation. 

This speaks volumes to the vision of Conference's organizers  who have remained on course despite significant political pressure. In an article published days before the conference on Mondoweiss, two of these organizers, Zena Ozeir and Jamil Sbitan explained:  

As aptly argued by Edward Said 13 years ago, this failure on the part of official channels precipitates the urgency that these matters be taken into the hands of non-governmental actors through independent planning and organizing. This is the framework from which the current upcoming Right of Return Conference at Boston University emerges; from an impetus to plan rather than debate the realization of the Palestinian Right of Return. Through examining the legal, cultural, discursive and spatial dynamics of a political order that facilitates this Right, this conference asserts the applicability of this goal, thus countering those who voice its supposed inapplicability.

The Right of Return must continue to be demanded as a practical means for healing the historical wounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than keeping it an abstract notion. Indeed, a future that allows for the realization of the Right of Return and equal rights for all is a future that will see a possible end to the conflict as we know it. 

The full conference schedule is available below the video. In this video, Liat Rosenberg discusses Zochrot's work among Israeli society and beyond. Noura Erakat, representing Badil, shares some of the findings of Badil's comparative study tours that it has conducted in furtherance of the effort to begin implementing the right of return in practice. 

Conference Schedule 

Saturday, April 6th 9:00


9:15 PANEL: “Discourses of Return and Resistance Among Palestinian Refugees”

ModeratorSa’ed Atshan

Charlotte Kates & Khaled Barakat: Return and Liberation, Liberation and Return: The Palestinian National   Movement and the Implementation of Return

Ziad Abbas: Palestinian Refugee Youth and the Legacy of Right of Return

Sarah Marusek: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Somewhere in between Rights and Resistance

11:00 PANEL: “Identities on Display: Collective Identity and Daily Practice”

ModeratorAmahl Bishara

Joseph Greene: The Palestine Archaeological Museum: Disentangling Cultural Heritage “After the Return”

Riccardo Bocco: Collective Memory and Dreams of Return: A Journey through Documentary Films Portraying Palestinian Refugees


1:30 Keynote Speech: Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta

2:30 PANEL: “Paradigmatic Shifts: Jewish Identity, Theology, and Liberation Post-Return”

ModeratorEve Spangler

Bekah Wolf: Re-Visiting Self-Determination

Cory Faragon: Meusharot, Knafonomics and the Right of Return

Yakir Englander: “Choose Life”: The Imperative of a New Jewish Theology of Return

4:30 PANEL: “Deconstructing Colonial Narratives: Navigating Space, Peoplehood, and Origins”

ModeratorHeike Schotten

Alborz Koosha & Lila Sharif: Land and Peoplehood(s): Countering Zionist Settler Origin Stories for a Post-Return Palestine

Linda Khalil & Sarona Bedwan: Negotiating Space: Deconstructing Palestinian Identities & Illuminating Ways of Being


Sunday, April 7th


9:15 PANEL: “Disappearing and Reappearing: Refugees Between NGOS, Legal Status, and Return”

Moderator:  Susan Akram

Anne Irfan: Handing Back the Keys: UNRWA and the Right of Return

Jinan Bastaki: Disappearing Refugees and the Legal Gaps: The Implications of Third Country Citizenship for Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return

10:45 PANEL: “Imagining Spaces of Return & Mapping Palestinian Liberation”

ModeratorSalim Tamari

Linda Quiquivix: Liberation or Independence: Palestine as Land or Palestine as Territory?

Einat Manoff: Counter-mapping and the Geographical Imagination: Mapping Spatial Scenarios of Return

Thomas Abowd: The Return of Homes and the Restitution of History in Jerusalem


1:45 Keynote Speeches: Noura Erakat (Badil) & Liat Rosenberg (Zochrot)

3:30 PANEL: “Rehabilitating the Body Politic: Palestinian Politics and Models for Return”

ModeratorLeila Farsakh

Sadia Ahsanuddin: Restitution in the Land of Milk and Honey: Implementing the Palestinian Right of Return via Israeli-Palestinian Federalism

Sarah I.: Who Is A Palestinian? Political Representation of the Shatat in the Homeland

5:00 Keynote Speech: Dr. Joseph Massad 


[This introduction was originally published on Noura Erakat's blog]

[Noura's contribution begins at 34:46]

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