Reuniting for the Right of Return: Longtime Palestine solidarity activists Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel take third photo commemorating UN Resolution 194

By Terri Ginsberg

NEW YORK: 13 Feb 2013, (

Karmi & Siegel 1973
Karmi & Siegel in 1973
Karmi & Siegel 1992
Karmi & Siegel in 1992
Karmi & Siegel 2011
Karmi & Siegel in 2011


December 11, 2012 marks the 64th anniversary of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, the legal basis of the Palestinian right of return to their lands and homes expropriated by Zionists intent on establishing an exclusivist Jewish state in historic Palestine. The month also marks 40 years of friendship between longtime Palestine solidarity activists Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel, pictured below in three successive photographs, each taken nearly 20 years apart--the first two in front of the Israeli Embassy in London in 1973 and 1992, respectively, and the most recent in 2011 at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. During these years, Palestinian right of return has remained unrealized: Siegel, a Jewish American, may readily become an Israeli citizen simply by traveling to the region and declaring her intention to live there, while Karmi, a Palestinian refugee, may visit her familial home in Jerusalem but is not permitted to return there, much less to reside permanently in the Jewish state of Israel.

Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel met through political activism in London during the early 1970s. Both share a belief that right of return and the UN resolution codifying it form the heart and basis of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Although not binding, and often misinterpreted, Res. 194 remains the linchpin of hope for the nearly 4.5-6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in exile. Most of these refugees still want to return to their ancestral lands and homes, from which they were displaced and expelled by Zionist forces during 1947-49. Collective memory of this period, known in Arabic as Al-Nakba ("catastrophe"), shapes Palestinian identity and culture, notwithstanding the Nakba’s persistent denial by Israeli officialdom and much of the Jewish community worldwide. For Siegel, the Nakba is effectively addressed by Res. 194, which she insists must be implemented and not relinquished by Palestinians seeking pragmatic solutions to the conflict. For Karmi, Res. 194 confirms both her natural right to return to her homeland, which she has always felt, and a recognition by the international community of the great injustice committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. For both women, this international ruling can neither be sidestepped nor ignored if a genuine and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to be devised and secured.

In 1948, Ghada Karmi and her family sought temporary refuge with relatives in Syria as Zionist forces engaging in acts of terrorism in her home city of Jerusalem made everyday life there too dangerous. A year later it became clear that the newly established State of Israel was not going to permit her family to return home, whereupon Karmi's father, who found work at the BBC Arabic service, moved his family from Damascus to London. Karmi was raised in a then largely Jewish area of North London, where she eventually assimilated into British culture and society. After studying medicine at Bristol, Karmi became a physician and subsequently earned a doctorate in Islamic medicine. These events are documented eloquently by Karmi in her 2002 autobiography, In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story (Verso).

Karmi found herself increasingly alienated from her British compatriots in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel militarily occupied what was left of Palestine, controlled since 1948 by Egypt and Jordon, and creating an additional 300,000 Palestinian refugees. That sense intensified as the Palestinian resistance became more visible--and controversial--internationally. In 1971 Karmi assembled a field hospital and took it to the Beirut refugee camps, and in 1972 she set up the first British-Palestinian medical charity, Palestinian Medical Aid. By 1973 Karmi had organized a lobbying organization for the Palestinian cause called Palestine Action. It was in that context that she met Ellen Siegel.

Born during the time that Anne Frank went into hiding, Siegel grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, attended Jewish Sunday School and Hebrew School, and became a Bas Mitzvah. She was trained as a nurse at a Jewish hospital, and during the late 1960s she joined the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Following the Six-Day War, Siegel found to her consternation that most progressive Americans involved in these movements preferred to ignore the Palestinian issue. Hence in the early 1970s Siegel traveled to Europe and became interested in learning about the Palestinians, about whom she knew almost nothing. She decided to visit Lebanon and went to a Palestinian refugee camp on the very day of the Munich Olympic tragedy. Within hours, Israel had retaliated, and Siegel saw first-hand the meaning of collective punishment. She proceeded to volunteer with the Lebanese Red Cross to help those wounded in the South, where she witnessed the enormous devastation wrought by Israeli bombs on innocent civilians. "This was not the Israel I had learned about," she said.

Nor was Israel the Jewish haven Siegel had come to expect. When she traveled there subsequently to live for a time on a kibbutz, not only did she discover a dearth of synagogues in the so-called "Jewish State," but she found Palestinian citizens of Israel segregated and subject to severe discrimination. "Why [did she] want to go where the dirty Arabs are?" asked one Jewish taxi driver on the way to a Palestinian area. "That was enough for me!" Ellen said. So she returned to London, found a job, and joined a Jewish group that did Palestine solidarity work. That involvement led to her meeting Ghada Karmi.

As their mutual solidarity work ensued, and their friendship deepened, Karmi and Siegel's fellow activist, the late Louis Eaks, came up with an interesting idea: on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the two women should take a photo together while demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy. Karmi would hold a placard reading, "I am a Palestinian Arab. I was born in Jerusalem. Palestine is my homeland but I cannot return there"; Siegel would hold one reading, "I am an American Jew. I was born in the U.S.A. Israel is not my homeland but I can 'return' there." The demonstration was staged in early November 1973, just days after several Jewish activists had written letters to the embassy renouncing their right of "return" aliyah) until all Palestinians were allowed to return to their homes.

Nineteen years later, after many more actions and numerous political developments to inspire them, Karmi and Siegel decided to take a second photo holding the same placards, in the same place, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the 1967 occupation. " Eaks could not have known how iconic the photos would become," says Karmi, as a detailed special report about the action would soon after appear in the widely read Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
When Siegel lived in London, she saw Karmi as "very much a leader. She was (and is) quite charming, smart, and articulate and fun. She became a teacher--educating me about her people, their history, and the injustice done to them. I have learned and continue to learn from her." Thus Karmi and Siegel decided to reunite for a third photo in 2011, according to Karmi, in order "to stress the fact that the right of return remains the basis of the Palestinian cause and cannot be set aside because of current events."

Since 1992 Karmi has remained an activist for Palestine, setting up or joining other organizations, for example the International Campaign for Jerusalem in 1994, during the Oslo negotiations, which like all "peace" agreements before or since has relegated Palestinian right of return to a perpetually deferred "final status issue," largely on account of Israeli intransigence on the core issue that Res. 194 challenges: Zionism. "If [Res. 194] were to be implemented," says Karmi, "the number of returnees might be so great as to cancel Israel's Jewish majority, and therefore the idea of a state for Jews." Karmi welcomes such a change, not only as a Palestinian wanting to return home but as a critic of Zionist exclusivism. For her, a state in which Palestinian Arabs live together and in full equality with Jewish-Israelis would "end the situation of a state based on religious and ethnic lines and which discriminates against others." Karmi argues this point extensively in her 2007 book, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto).

Not surprisingly Karmi is less than sanguine about the current application for UN state membership put forward by the Palestinian leadership. "The danger is that if it were accepted it might go against the right of return. The Palestinians would be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that means rejecting the right of return. In such a case, taking Israel to the International Court of Justice on grounds of non-compliance with the resolution would look weak from a party that had already accepted Israel’s Jewish character."

Siegel, who continues to work as a nurse in the U.S., to which she returned in 1974, and as a Palestine solidarity activist within (and often in disagreement with) the mainstream Jewish community, is particularly concerned about these recent measures in light of the worsening situation for Palestinian refugees, especially in Lebanon, where a third generation of 400,000 lives in over-crowded camps meant in 1948 for only 110,000. These refugees may not build out; they live with poor sanitation, open sewage systems, flooding when it rains, inadequate health care, substandard education, a glass ceiling on professional jobs, and few legal rights. "Palestinians who were driven from Nahr El-Barid camp several years ago and have been displaced to other camps have begged to return to Nahr El-Barid--how sad to hear a refugee say, 'I want to return to my camp.' The refugees live on the good will of international non-governmental organizations. It is awful to depend on others to make it through life."

Siegel's feelings for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon run deep. Having returned to the refugee camps in 1980, she witnessed the ongoing bombardment of the camps by Israel each time the PLO directed a rocket into Israel. Notwithstanding this disproportionate retaliation against them, "the Palestinians continued to express their right to return to their homes in Palestine," she said. During Israel’s 1982 attack on Lebanon, Siegel helped form Washington Area Jews for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace. "Many Jewish people came to protest what Israel was doing--'Not in Our Name' became a slogan." Perhaps most indelible, however, was Siegel's subsequent volunteer nursing assignment at Gaza Hospital in Sabra refugee camp, where she was present during the infamous Sabra/Shatila massacre in September 1982 and went afterwards to testify before the Kahan Commission of Inquiry in Jerusalem. There she helped supply evidence of Israel's key role in the massacre, in which nearly 3,000 refugees were murdered in cold blood by Lebanese Phalangists as the Israel Defense Forces, under the command of Ariel Sharon, stood by. Siegel's testimony led many of her fellow Jews to cast her "as an outcast, a traitor. But as the years have passed, as others have learned about and understood more about the situation, I now get 'thank you for your work.'" Indeed while noting that the topic of the just cause of the Palestinians remains verboten in most synagogues, among the Jewish leadership, and in affiliated mainstream Jewish organizations, Siegel understands her involvement in Palestine solidarity work as central to her Jewish identity. "Speaking out against atrocities, against wrongs is something we do from a Judaic standpoint. To stand by and do nothing in the face of something immoral is not what we were taught."

Karmi, who is now a member and active participant in the British academic boycott of Israel campaign (BRICUP), sees the issue of the refugees’ right of return overshadowed by the dramatic events of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the rift between Fatah and Hamas. "Post-9/11, the U.S. and other Western states became obsessed with 'the war on terror,' in which Israel has placed the Palestinians. This is not a good situation for stressing fundamental Palestinian rights." In addition to this precarious positioning, Karmi notes, "vigorous attempts have been made on the part of Western states to find other solutions for the refugees, such as persuading host states to patriate them or offering them compensation or visas to live abroad." Under these conditions, Siegel observes, "recently there have emerged 'gangs' within the camps, foreigners moving in and taking over certain areas of the camps, and factions within the Lebanese community pushing the refugees who have been in the camps for years into smaller areas of the camps, forcing them out of their dwellings. The close-knit and open social structure within the camps is deteriorating."

According to Siegel, international support for the refugees has been uneven. "Most sympathizers focus on the West Bank and Gaza, not Lebanon. Interest among the international community comes mainly from Europeans and Asians, not from Americans." Yet there is reason to be hopeful. "There are organizations such as Beit Atfal Assumud that provide many services. BAS provides financial support from a sponsorship program for families so that they will be able to raise their children in a responsible manner. They provide cultural, recreational, educational, and health services to children and families (with an emphasis on youth and women) through their centers located in the camps. And they preserve Palestinian culture, heritage, and identity by passing the art of embroidery to new generations." Siegel herself returns yearly to Beirut to commemorate the Sabra/Shatila massacre, and serves on the Medical Committee of American Near East Refugee Aid.

Karmi muses that the third photo with Siegel "struck us as wonderful that we're both still around and neither has forgotten the enterprise to seek justice for the Palestinians." Res. 194 is international law, not an idiosyncratic opinion, as many Zionists would prefer to think. Surely its continued renewal is an indication that Palestinian right of return is no pie in the sky; in fact, the persistence of activists like Ghada Karmi and Ellen Siegel proves otherwise--and gives us something to celebrate. Perhaps twenty years from now, these two longtime friends will reconvene holding placards containing a very different message, one announcing the establishment of one democratic state in Palestine/Israel for all of its citizens.

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About Dr. Terri Ginsberg

Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. She is co-author of Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), author of Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), and co-editor of A Companion to German Cinema (2012). She is active in New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership, coordinates the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, and is a Board member of the International Council for Middle East Studies.

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