September 23, 2019

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Response to Mariam Barghouti that the Forward “can’t run”

I wrote the following in response to a piece by Mariam Barghouti. The Forward, however, told me they “can’t run it I’m afraid.” Given the recent controversy raised by Hen Mazzig, I post it here.

Dear Mariam Barghouti and your audience:

You recently published a piece in the Forward about Trump’s move against UNRWA. In it you argued that Palestinian identity was intimately wrapped up in refugee status, and its resolution through the right of return as the only just way to resolve the pain and suffering inflicted by the Nakba, an event that lies at the heart of Palestinian consciousness. In articulating your position, you criticized the Trump Administration for “failing to recognize” the nature of what’s at stake here. At the same time, you suggest that an attack on Palestinian refugee rights foreshadows other assaults on victims’ rights the world over.

Allow me if I may, to address a similar appeal to you: maybe there are some aspects of the problem you too fail to recognize. You have a coherent narrative, which you have ably folded into an (in your piece unspoken) intersectional analysis about institutional racism and oppression. I wish to raise here several anomalies in the historical experience, that suggest that you achieved this coherence by ignoring details that both vitiate that coherence and call into question your conclusions.

Anomaly One: The Term Nakbah was a reproach to the Arabs. The first use of the term Nakba blamed the Arab leaders who started the war they lost, creating the refugee catastrophe. At the same time, they recognized that this was also their shame, for running away. As Constantin Zureiq wrote bitterly in 1948:

Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop, impotent before it, and turn on their heels. The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest government forums, warning what the Arab states and peoples will do if this or that decision be enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate. (Zureiq, The Meaning of the Disaster)

Yet today, this has become ‘Look at what Israel did to us!’ 24/7.

Anomaly Two: The creation of an intra-Arab system of apartheid. Your grandparents, who fled into Arab territory from a war their leaders started and lost, were, either formally or informally, refused the chance to make a new home. They were locked up in camps, forbidden in some cases to leave for work. They were forced to live in miserable conditions. In some countries, like Lebanon and Syria, there were formal laws disadvantaging Palestinian refugees, denying them the rights of their fellow Arab citizens. If we have a good example of “systemic injustices” that “punish the victim” and deny them “choice,” then it is this Arab policy of apartheid, of freezing the Palestinian refugee situation, is a particularly disturbing one, since it targets not another race or ethnicity, or even religion, but rather it its own people. (Did you really think all your ancestors preferred to sit as symbols of suffering, concentrated in camps, rather than getting out and getting on with their lives?)

Anomaly Three: The unique place of Palestinians in the history of refugee behaviors, and the prevailing practices in these terrible years after World War II, when literally dozens of millions of refugees fled their home, some to escape vast slaughters. You nicely avoid addressing this, but out of many million refugees that the upheaval of mid 20th century uprooted and scattered around the world, the Palestinians are the only ones still in “refugee camps.” While other refugee populations have integrated in their host society, Palestinians refugees alone were on the one hand denied the right of citizenship, and on the other, put on the records of a refugee roll as a birthright.

What do I make of these anomalies? Let me say at the outset, what follows is just my opinion, but I do think it’s worth paying attention to, especially if we agree that our goal is a “life of dignity and belonging.”

The men who made “right of return” a formal Arab strategy, did so, not for the benefit of the Palestinian refugees (your ancestors), but for the ego of Arab statesmen, furious at their world-wide humiliation, eager to continue a total war against Israel at any cost to their own societies, in which Palestinians were formally designated as sacrificial pawns. Even if we Israelis are guilty for having kicked out every last one of the 700,000 refugees, nothing compares with the long, cruel, steady victimization of your people by your own leaders. Indeed, it is a moral scandal of unique proportions that your own people, fellow Arab Muslims, treated you so badly. Most Westerners assume the Israelis put you in camps, because they can’t imagine why Arabs would do it to their own people.

So when you say,

The status of refugee does not simply cease to exist after a generation; it’s a socio-economic and political context that is passed on from one generation to the next…”

You may be describing not a force of nature or justice, but a deliberate sacrificial strategy, the perpetuation of your victimhood, as part of a narrative that you yourself identify as the “backbone of the Palestinian struggle… one of the major drives behind our constant state of confrontation.” At least the open meaning of this, correct me if I’m wrong, is something like, ‘our inherited claim to being disinherited is a key rallying point for irredentist opposition to Israel….’ Or, in the common lingo, ‘a major obstacle to peace.’

Your current moral compass seems to limit your vision to seeing little more than Israel’s guilt for it all, from start to finish, and blinds you especially to the part where fellow Arabs inflict the suffering on Palestinians. You focus exclusively on how the Israelis have refused to solve the refugee problem by not letting them “back in.” You pay no attention to the far more enduring way that Arab elites systematically denied Palestinian refugees from exercising the normal human rights of a citizen: to work, to travel, to resettle, to speak and to vote.

Even Palestinian statehood will not bring a solution to the refugee problem. On the contrary, as one PA ambassador explained, Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon and Syria, could not come to a hypothetical Palestinian state; they can only “return” to Israel. Refugees subject to intra-Arab apartheid, had to remain refugees until they could return to Israel… eventual weapons, meanwhile sacrifices, in a hard, zero-sum, war.

That anomalous detail makes your invocation of what just happened at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria as “another Nakbah” so ironic and poignant. If the PA had pursued the nation-building project you tell us you so treasure, had your leaders accepted one of the half-dozen deals they’ve been offered, and, with their nation, however short of their ideals it might have been, taken in these Syrian Palestinian refugees decades ago, this massacre at the hands of fellow Jihadis would not have occurred. If anything, Yarmouk is a symbol of how Palestinian ruling groups, both political and cultural, have perpetuated the very Nakbah you so bitterly invoke. Weaponized identity, frozen in time, brings never-ending suffering.

And this irony brings out yet another in your argument. You position Palestinian rights at the forefront of rights for all people whose rights are being trampled the world over. “The truth” you assure us at the outset,

is, Trump’s approach towards us Palestinians is not just about us. As devastating as his dismissal of our suffering is, it’s a harbinger of what’s to come for many, many more.

In reality, it’s the opposite: the loud voice of Palestinian suffering and anger has so taken up progressive bandwidth that other, in many cases far more devastating and immediate cases of refugees, victims of war, occur and get far less attention. One scholar spoke of “stealth conflicts” in which places with millions of casualties have a tiny presence in the media, in comparison with the massive attention to thousands of Palestinians killed by Israelis.

Another described how forlorn attendees from the world over, struggling with hate and prejudice and wanting to help its victims, came to Durban in 2000, only to find themselves spectators while activists were literally consumed by the Palestinian cause. Indeed, the extraordinary disparity between funding for you (which you complain at being cut) and the much smaller per-capita resources for non-Palestinian refugees around the world – $250 per Palestinian vs. $60 per other refugee – offer hard data on the degree to which you Palestinian refugees monopolize the victim platform. Would it not show some acknowledgment of priorities on your part, for the millions displaced internally in Syria and throughout neighboring countries now, to get a bit more funding and attention than you third generation Palestinian refugees?

But instead of examining the motives and choices of your own leaders in contributing to your immiseration, you choose to reinforce their very narrative, the one that has your people as living symbols of victimhood. The only track you seem able to go down, targets Israel, with no thought to the people you empower in so doing. Do you think leaders who promise their own victimized people revenge, who expend vastly greater sums on guns rather than butter, who have created what you call a “socio-economic and political context,” in which you and your families are the first, most persistent, and most tragic victims, will bring you dignity, rather than systemize victimhood?

And I say ‘tragic’ because it need not be that way. You don’t have to adopt your men’s patriarchal narrative of honor and revenge; you don’t have to feed the very forces that victimize you. There are many paths open to your people, but one of the preconditions for exercising that freedom to choose alternatives to wars of hatred, is that you lighten up on Israel’s guilt, and start critiquing the Arab political culture that created, and still, 70 years later, prolongs the Nakbah. Do you think this is the way to a culture of “dignity and belonging”? Or to one of pride and dominion? In which (latter case) we know from history, the first victims are Jews, women, commoners, and, in modern times, journalists.

Should there be programs for Palestinian refugees? Of course. But programs that emancipate them, empower them to live productive and fulfilled lives, not programs that cultivate them as (self-) crippled symbols of hatred and resentment at the Nakbah for which Israel must alone atone by suicide. Can you detach yourself from a tragically self-destructive narrative that reifies and prolongs the very suffering you insist is unbearable? Can you renounce the vendetta of Arab leaders from 70 years ago, for the sake of a different and better future for your people?

Or are you just a war propagandist for those who want it all, pushing confrontation everywhere possible, using the language of justice and rights as camouflages for a war of elimination? ‘Palestine from the river to the sea… every grain of sand of sacred soil… bloodied soil for generation upon generation.’ Are you sure you want to be a sacrificial tool of such pitilessly selfish thinking?

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