If we’re going to do a Right of Return, I think we should be methodical. Those who had first dibs on the land currently known as Israel get first dibs today. Let’s work our way down the list:
The first known occupiers were probably the Canaanites. As far as I know, there are no Canaanites still demanding a Right of Return.
The second known occupiers were the Jews, per the Old Testament. They have pursued a Right of Return through purchase, diplomatic means and war. The Jews have occupied the land continuously since the time of Abraham, although some of them left temporarily for destinations such as Egypt, Babylon, and Europe.
The third known occupiers were the Philistines, who gave their name to Palestine, although they are not to be confused with the modern Palestinian Arabs. The Philistines were probably Cypriots. As far as I know, there are no Philistines still demanding a Right of Return. The Jews, incidentally, were in residence during Philistine times.
The fourth known occupiers were the Ancient Greeks. Again, no ancient or modern Greeks have laid claim to a Right of Return. The Jews lived on the land during Greek times.
Then there were the Romans, who are a distinct culture from modern-day Italy. No ancient Romans have resurrected themselves or their claims to the land. The Jews were there during Roman times.
The Romans gave way to Christians — by which I mean Christians who originated in the Holy Land itself or who arrived there during the Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages from European lands. These people pre-dated the Crusades. Although many modern-day Christians, especially Evangelicals. are deeply supportive of the State of Israel, no one is claiming a Right of Return based upon the post-Roman Christian occupation. The Jews lived in the Holy Land at this time.
The Christians were driven out by the Muslims — driven out quite brutally. They tried to fight back with the Crusades, but the effort didn’t work, in large part, I suspect, because the Muslims were on the spot, while the Christians had to engage in endless medieval journeys. Their hearts may have been in the Holy Land, but their homes were in Europe. In a way, the Medieval Christians were claiming a Right of Return, but I do believe that modern day Christians have abandoned that claim. Did I mention that the Jews lived in the Holy Land at this time?
The Muslims turned into the Ottoman Turks, who no longer exist. There’s still a Turkey, and there are still Muslims, but Ottoman Turks are not demanding a Right of Return. Throughout Ottoman control of the Holy Land, Jews lived there, and were treated extremely badly.
It’s worth pointing out that, by the end of the Ottoman Turk era, the land we now know as Israel was a completely desolate land, inhabited by a few Jews — the direct descendents of the Jews who first displaced the Canaanites — and by an even smaller number of fellahins. The latter didn’t own the land, they just lived on it, while their landlords swanned about in European Capitals, Istanbul or Alexandria.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the British took over. Meanwhile, Jews — claiming the Right of Return — actually started returning, beginning in about the 1880s. They bought the land from those rich Ottoman landowners. Much of the land was either useless desert or swamp that even the fellahin wouldn’t inhabit. The Balfour Declaration, which predated the realization that the Arabs sat on the oil, affirmed the Jewish Right of Return. (The thinking was (a) God gave the land to the Jews and (b) it’s such awful land, why would anyone else want it?)
The Jews did something interesting once they settled in the Holy Land: applying brute force labor and modern scientific methods, they started turning this scraggly, hot land, a land that alternated between killing swamps and equally killing deserts, into a land of Milk and Honey. The Arabs were not slow to follow. By the 1930s, piggy-backing on the Jews’ surprisingly productive Right of Return, Arabs were pouring into the land now known as Israel.
These Arabs were not claiming a Right of Return. They were just following the money. The British, with an eye to oil production, allowed the in-flow of Arabs, even as they did everything in their power to keep the Jews out, not because they denied the Right of Return (as noted, the Balfour Declaration affirmed the Jewish Right of Return), but because they did not want to offend those who sat on top of oil wells.
When the going got tough, the British walked away from Israel. The British are not demanding a Right of Return.
In 1948, the Arab leaders told the Arab population in the newly created state of Israel to get out of the way of the path of the oncoming Arab armies, with the promise that, when the Jews were all dead, the Arabs could return and take over the Jewish wealth and harvest the Jewish fields. Things didn’t work out as planned. The departing Arabs, the majority of whom had arrived after the Jews, left and lost their chance to come back. It is these people who demand their “right of return.”
Well, I’m sorry. First come, first serve. Jews had it first, a core group of them never left it, and the Jews are the first people who took it back. That’s the real Right of Return.
And speaking of history, if we’re talking pre-1967 borders, here are some pre-1967 borders to talk about.