The limits of liberal Zionism: ‘NYT’ columnist Roger Cohen misrepresents the Nakba and the right of return

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Nakba A Palestinian refugee in Jaramana Refugee Camp, Damascus, Syria (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent article I wrote about Chuck Hagel on the Zionist nature of the overall discourse around Israel and Palestine in the United States, I cited a Roger Cohen column as an example:

How perverted is such a debate in this frame? Cohen, for example, suggests in his column that Israeli-Palestinian peace would require “painful compromises on both sides” and specifies “Palestinian abandonment” of the right of return and “Israeli abandonment”of Palestinian territory. Only in such Zionist framing could Palestinian abandonment of a human right enshrined in international law be seen as a fair trade with Israeli abandonment of colonization, which is illegal under international law. This, by the way, represents the “left” end of the spectrum. Simply arguing that such an equation is flawed and morally reprehensible, which it most certainly is, makes one a “radical” in today’s discourse.

Cohen, apparently, didn’t take kindly to being called out. He tweeted some criticism and linked my piece that afternoon.

Cohen didn’t bother to reply to my tweet. I know he is a busy man, but he apparently decided to devote his NY Times column to this issue today. He rambles a bit upfront and sets up the entire column with talk about Hamas and a speech by Khaled Meshal, then devotes a paragraph to comments made by now Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about Zionist “bloodsuckers.” He then recalls the theme of blood-libel in the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism.

Readers are then presented with an ahistorical and, suffice it to say, unoriginal Nakba narrative. It is a narrative that says the Arabs invaded, the Arabs started the war with no causus belli, the refugees happened, and therefore Arabs are responsible and the Israelis are not. This is a narrative which, by the way, even the original reporting of Cohen’s own newspaper, the NY Times, contradicts. Does Cohen even know that at least half the Palestinian refugees ultimately created during that period were created before any soldiers from other Arab armies entered into Palestine with what he refers to as “annihilation ambition?”

So, after Cohen sets the reader up with plenty of fear and angst, he seeks to associate with those feelings calls for the right of return, dropping this gem of a paragraph:

Pursuit of all of the land, with its accompanying “right of return,” is a form of perennial victimhood, one that has spawned some 4.7 million Palestinian refugees, several times the number who were driven from their homes in the war of 1948. The right of return would be better named the blight of return. It is a damaging illusion that distracts from an achievable peace in the name of Palestinian children and grandchildren nursed on hope. There is the possibility of compensation, but there is in history no right of return. Ask the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Turks of Greece, the Germans of Danzig and Breslau (today Gdansk and Wroclaw) — and the Jews of the Arab world (emphasis added).

Do you see what Cohen does here? He dodges wrestling with the moral dilemma of the Nakba – the depopulation of a land of its native inhabitants and their prolonged excommunication so that a demographic majority of a particular ethnicity can be maintained – by associating the exercise of refugee rights with annihilationist conquest. It’s preposterous but frankly revealing. Think about it, what is annihilationist about people with an undeniable connection to the land living there?

What makes Palestinian refugee repatriation “threatening” to folks like Cohen is not the refugees themselves (they’d be coming from impoverished refugee camps, not on the top of tanks), but rather what including them in a polity based on an exclusivist majoritarian nationalism like Zionism would mean. There is no morality in an ideology that requires constant obsession over the demographic balance within a state and that is willing to deny the human rights of natives outside the privileged ethnicity to maintain this balance.

And yes, Roger, the right of return IS a human right. See the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 13), a document, by the way, which Israel and the United States adopt (officially at least) as UN Members. Note also, in both clauses in this article there is a differentiation between “states” and “country” and the second clause makes clear that humans have a right to return to the country they are from. The language here deliberately does not say “state.” Why? Because refugees are most often created during war time when the boundaries of states may change, but that does not negate their right to return to their country regardless to what state currently administers the land there. Hence, Palestinians have a human right to return to the towns and villages they are from and not just to some redrawn boundaries of a Palestinian “state” on a fraction of the land.

What’s remarkable is that intelligent and intellectual men like Cohen would rather slam calls for the human right of return as “annihilationist” before asking the rudimentary question of why an ideology that is threatened by the exercise of human rights should even be worth defending.

Also illuminating is the notion he and others put forward that as a matter of strategy, the principle of the right of return should be dropped to reach an “achievable” peace. That which we should strive for, Cohen is telling us, is that which Israel and Zionism would accept. Not only is this morally flawed – for the same reasons King and Mandela didn’t base their ambitions on what the white man would accept – but it is strategically flawed as well because it allows Israel, the dominant and powerful party, to dictate what is acceptable instead of established international law. This line of thinking perpetuates the colonization of the West Bank today because it has encouraged Israel to believe it can constantly leverage its bargaining position and dictate any terms of negotiation whenever – if ever – that time comes.

I respect Mr. Cohen and appreciate much of what he has written on criticizing Israel’s occupation. But like so many “liberal Zionists” Cohen is still wrong on this very significant issue. There’s no defense in the modern world for a state whose very existence is, by self-definition, threatened by demographic shifts. Hannah Arendt came to this conclusion amidst much darker times. It would behoove Mr. Cohen and other “liberal Zionists” to arrive at it today at a time when criticism of such ideologies requires far less bravery.

Perhaps the most absurd part of the paragraph, and the column, is when Cohen argues that “there is in history no right of return.” In history! Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the right of return is actually written into the aforementioned historical document. Cohen goes back in history (to a time when Turkey was still referred to as “Asia Minor”) to show that some ethnic groups did not, in fact, go home. But why go back so far Roger? A much more recent instance exists. Take for example NATO’s position on Kosovo refugees outlined in this far more recent article about the matter from 1999:

NATO has demanded that Mr. Milosevic withdraw his troops from Kosovo, allow several hundred thousand ethnic Albanian refugees to return to the homes from which they have been hounded, and permit the deployment of a military force with NATO at its core. For now, the future political status of Kosovo has been set aside as an issue (emphasis added).

Why would Roger Cohen gloss over this far more recent instance and go back decades prior to defend ethno-majoritarian nationalism by making the bold claim that there’s no such return “in history!?” It’s all very strange if you ask me. Even more so, in fact, when you consider that the author of the above referenced article on Kosovo refugees was none other than Mr. Cohen.

This post originally appeared on the Jerusalem Fund blog Permission to Narrate.

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Refugees obviously have the right to return. However, the problem Palestinians face is that refugee is not a hereditary status under international law. The question of the descendants therefore becomes a political question rather than a legal one.

It’s a good thing that Roger Cohen wasn’t giving advice to Martin Luther King. Advice like: “Rev. King, don’t insist on equal rights for blacks. It’s totally unacceptable to southern whites. Instead, call for ‘painful compromises’, limit your demands to what is realistically achievable”, etc. etc. Cohen omits another issue: property. Palestinians lost land and houses. In nearly all cases, they never received any compensation. Israel simply took it by force. Notice that in Europe… Read more »

Plus even if you acknowledge that, historically, some people have not been allowed to return to their country, does Cohen think that is morally defensible? In what company does that place Israel?

If there’s no right of return, why do Israeli leaders and their 5th column in America always talk about the Jewish right to return to Jerusalem as support for the forging of, and maintenance of Israel, the self-declared Jewish state?

Thank you Phil once again for calling these PEPs and LZs…it sounds like you hit a nerve.