Column

09.17.12

A Hollow Call For "Justice"

Ben Cohen's response to my recent piece systematically proves every point I make about Israel's cynical new campaign to raise the issue of Jewish refugees. In particular he demonstrates that this is not about defending the rights of Jewish refugees, since no substantive demands on their behalf are made, but simply about using them to try to obliterate the claims of Palestinians. It's one of the oddest cries for "justice" I've ever encountered, since it seeks merely to deny the claims of others.

Cohen thinks the source of my "umbrage" is a conference. It's not. It's a much broader campaign, organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to raise the issue globally as part of Israel's political strategy. Israeli diplomats around the world, for example, have been instructed to raise the issue at every possible opportunity. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who makes no secret of his hostility to a peace agreement and support for the occupation, is leading the campaign.

Bona fide efforts by Jews from the Arab world to recuperate their history are legitimate and desirable. There is nothing to be gained by covering over aspects history that I described as "a stain on Arab honor." Cohen suggests I repeat an "oft-heard claim of Arab propagandists that Jews lived in harmony and equality with their Arab and Muslim neighbors until the Zionist movement started meddling." In fact I argued the contrary: that while Israel's government was enthusiastic about the mass migration, growing hostility to Jewish communities in the Arab world after and before the creation of Israel made normal life impossible.

If the issue of Palestinian refugees did not persist and was not a final status issue, the Israeli government would not be launching this campaign. Cohen claims I am "fixated… with the notion of an Israeli plot." It's not a plot. It's a well-publicized, announced campaign, with obvious political and diplomatic intentions.

Cohen's repetition of crude hasbara talking points is demonstrated by his dismissal of "the hoary myth of the 'Nakba,'" in contrast to "the horror of the ethnic cleansing" of Jews from the Arab world. This is the essence of the campaign: to downplay and dismiss the sudden and crushing destruction of Palestinian national society and the displacement of most of its residents in 1948, while describing the far more complex and protracted migration of Jews from Arab states to Israel, under multiple circumstances with many different experiences, in the most reductive and emotionally charged language possible.

Cohen's main point is that, "We'll give up our refugee status… if you give up yours." Or rather that's what he wants Palestinians to say to Jewish Israelis of Arab origin. Like the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Cohen wants Palestinians to drop what both parties agreed would be one of the four major final status issues: the question of the Palestinian refugees. That's the purpose behind the campaign, dovetailing with many other efforts to achieve the same effect.

It's telling that this is the only indication of what "justice" for Jewish refugees, to which Cohen refers many times, might look like. He doesn't ask for their right of return to their countries of origin, because they don't want that. He doesn't raise the issue of their property rights, because that would also beg the question of who owned what in Palestine on the eve of the creation of the Israeli state. It would imply the right of Palestinian owners to all the property seized by Israel's "Absentee Property Law" of 1950 and other actions that expropriated the lands and other possessions belonging to what had been the country's majority inhabitants in 1948: the Palestinians.

So, "justice" for Jewish refugees doesn't mean restoring any of their own rights to property, return and so forth. Instead this is just cynically using their narrative to deny Palestinians the ability negotiate over their own refugee issue. The message is in effect: Drop this issue, even though we agreed to negotiate over it in 1993.

As a question of history, memory and narrative, raising these issues is a perfectly reasonable project, although it doesn't sit very well with the broader Zionist narrative. But as an effort to eliminate a core, long agreed upon, final status issue (the Palestinian refugees) or suddenly introduce a new one (Jewish refugees), the campaign perfectly reflects the politics of its leader, Ayalon. His argument is, in essence, that Jews must have their state—Israel—as a refuge, but Palestinians shouldn't have one of their own. That's the idea of "justice" that informs this campaign.

Ayalon's hostility to Palestinian statehood, and insistence that there is no occupation and that Israel has full national rights in all of the territories under its control, are the obvious subtext. Cohen's response to me confirms, not dispels, that undisguised reality.