Let My People Stay

05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem so intractable? Why do we hear the same ideas over and over again, even though they never work?

At her AIPAC speech this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the need to find "a new path" to the two-state solution. But nowhere in her speech did she actually challenge a key tenet of the current path: We can never have Jews living in Palestine.

She's not alone. For decades now, the world's most brilliant political minds have worked with this same unimaginative and racist assumption: To have peace with the Palestinians, we must have ethnic cleansing of the Jews.

As a result, a peace vocabulary has developed that suggests anything but peace: words like "freezing" and "dismantling" rather than "warming" and "creating." The Jews themselves who live in the areas of a future Palestinian state have been globally demonized as the biggest obstacle to peace.

Sure, there may be terrorist entities like Hamas and Hezbollah that are sworn enemies of any peace agreement, but as far as the world is concerned, the soccer moms in Ariel and Efrat are bigger obstacles to peace.

Never mind that when Israel tried to cleanse Gaza of all Jews a few years ago, it got rewarded not with peace and quiet but with a few thousand rockets.

It's gotten so absurd, that the headlines around the world two weeks ago weren't about the terrorist rockets flying into Israel, but about interim zoning permits for apartments in East Jerusalem. Had those apartments been for Buddhists or Hindus or Hare Krishnas, no one would have flinched. But they were for Jews, which makes them obstacles to peace.

The Obama administration's obsession with freezing Jewish settlements -- including Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem -- has further demonized the settlements, made the Palestinians even more intransigent and pretty much frozen the peace process.

But what if the peace processors took a different view of these settlements and saw them not as obstacles to peace but as potential contributors to Palestinian society? What if, instead of forcing Jewish settlers to leave as part of a peace agreement, they were invited to stay?

In all these failed peace meetings over the years, has anyone considered that a Jewish minority in a future Palestine may actually be a good thing? That it would encourage mutual dependency and co-existence and democracy -- and help the Palestinian economy? And that for Israel, it'd be good to have Jewish representatives in a Palestinian parliament -- just like we have supporters in Diaspora communities throughout the world?

I know what you're thinking: How naïve of you, Suissa! How many Jews would want to be part of a Palestinian state? Who would protect them? It'll never work!

To which I reply: Maybe you're right! But nothing else has worked, so why not shake things up and try something new? Let's poll the Jews of the West Bank who'd be most likely to be evacuated and see how many would be interested in staying in a future Palestine, and under what conditions. Dual citizenship? Security guarantees? Equal voting rights? These are great questions for peace talks.

Even if you're a cynic who believes peace with the Palestinians is impossible in our lifetime, pushing for the right of settlers to stay in a future Palestine is a game changer. It disarms critics who claim that settlements are the main obstacle to peace and shines a light on fundamental issues, like whether the Palestinians are willing or even able to deliver peace, and how they would protect a Jewish minority in their midst.

Just like Soviet Jewry was about the Jews' "right to leave," this new cause is about the Jews' "right to stay." And if the world ends up opposing the idea, well, we'll finally have our PR homerun: An international movement fighting for "Human Rights for Palestinian Jews!" Our mantra: The Jews of Palestine deserve the same rights as the Muslims of Israel.

If you're not a cynic but a hopeless romantic who believes in the power of co-existence, you should have been with me the other night at the Levantine Cultural Center, a storefront salon on Pico Boulevard co-founded four years ago by local activist Jordan Elgrably to foster harmony between all peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. The guest speaker was author and journalist Rachel Shabi, who was talking about her new book, "We Look Like the Enemy: the Hidden Story of Israel's Jews From Arab Lands."

Shabi, a Jew of Iraqi descent who grew up in London and now lives in Tel Aviv, has had a lifelong fascination with the story of Jews who come from Arab lands like Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Tunisia.

As she spoke about the long and complicated journey of these Jews of Arabia, she didn't sugarcoat their struggles, but you could feel her passion for the golden moments and possibilities of cultural co-existence.

Stuck between my cynical and romantic sides, and perhaps caught up in the moment, I couldn't help wondering whether there might be, one day, a Palestinian chapter to this Jewish-Arab odyssey -- a chapter that wouldn't be about Jews being kicked out, but about Jews being asked to stay.