Rewriting injustices: A response to Danny Orbach on Palestinian refugees

An in-depth article on Palestinian refugees and their attitudes toward return and peace had some in the liberal Zionist camp up in arms. In a response published last week, Danny Orbach accused Paula Schmitt of doing a disservice to the refugees by nurturing their ‘disastrous, futile fantasies’ and distorting the events of 1948. Now, Schmitt responds to the allegations.

By Paula Schmitt

Debating Zionists or staunchly religious people is like playing a board game where your pieces must move like chess while your opponent’s pieces can move like checkers. Only one side of this battle follows rules and abides by science and facts – the other side is free to produce the usual unicorns. Logic and reasoning are almost irrelevant. The same Zionist who will passionately defend the right of Jews to return to their allegedly ancestral land will deny that very right to a Palestinian who still holds the key to his house.

Danny Orbach, in a rebuttal to my piece on Palestinian refugees, attempts to discredit my work by bundling me in a group he refers to as “pro-Palestinian activists and journalists.” This is one of those situations in which someone catapults an insult and it arrives as a compliment. Yes, I am pro-Palestinian, and how could I not, full as I am of those unrelenting neurons, synapses and dendrites that work even when I sleep? Reason has an awful way of making itself known, and in this particular case mine is adamant about which side is the injured party and which is the perpetrator. I could almost thank Israel for giving some respite to my Escher-like self-doubt, endlessly spiraling in point and counterpoint. But while I accept the epithet of being pro-Palestine, it would be interesting to know if Orbach refers to journalists who condemned Nazi Germany as “activists and journalists against Nazi Germany,” or if he accuses of similar partisanship those who decry the klepto-theocracy in Saudi Arabia, or if he refers to the thousands of mainstream journalists openly against Iran’s nuclear technology as “anti-Iran.”

Before I continue, here is a caveat for those very good at half-comprehension: I don’t want to equate the previous examples to the no-brainer of the occupation. Being in favor of (or against) Iran’s nuclear technology takes reasoning and an understanding of energy policy, knowledge of how the permanent members of the UN Security Council were chosen, the principles of balance of power and the concept of mutually assured destruction. Being against the Israeli occupation is like being against hunger – in an honest world, that position should require no explanation.

Being against the occupation is tantamount to having other “preconceptions” which Orbach can rightly accuse me of: being pro-human rights, pro-justice, pro-decent wage, anti-racist, anti-slavery, anti-corruption, anti-religion-as-government, anti-oppression. The facts of the Israeli illegal occupation are there for all to see, shot in the back on their way to school, gas-canistered in the face while shielding an olive tree, humiliated in the daily drill of being put in one’s place, the place of being inferior, less human, less chosen, all that piling into a mountain of hatred and resentment that, as my interviews conveyed, will keep on growing in geometrical progression and will only get worse.

But just after suggesting that I am a partisan of the Palestinian cause, he says that my interviews contradict my very position. Well, Orbach, ahlan wa sahlan to honest journalism. You’ve just entered an unstable and confusing world where you will read a journalistic piece that is not a well-woven defense or attack of a theory or position. In fact, it may even contain the very particulars that may contradict the author’s general estimation. And this is not only due to the fact that I was reporting, rather than advocating. It is mostly because I don’t defend ideologies, I defend ideas, and ideas don’t give a hoot about what ideology they are supposed to belong to. A real journalist will have opinions, as being human is one of the minimum requirements for the job. But an honest journalist will never let those opinions taint her reporting. She will – like I did – report even on things that may appear to undermine her own outlook.

Orbach says that “mass return [of Palestinians] may herald bloodshed and constant civil war, detrimental to both sides.” I agree with him here. But while that may be a possibility for Israelis, for Palestinians that is already a reality. Israel lives “peacefully” mostly by applying a cruel, two-pronged strategy: on one hand, it subdues the Palestinian people, making them live a half life as half humans, sometimes having them killed while guaranteeing that the killers – both civilians and military – get out of that small unpleasantness intact. This is a fact well verified by Israelis and Zionist organizations – just ask the ex-IDF soldiers of Breaking the Silence or the people of B’Tselem.

The second prong of Israel’s approach may be even more insidious: Israel scares its own citizens to death, makes them fearful (and thus hateful) of Palestinians in a relentless campaign which includes that almost risible sign at the entrance to many Palestinian villages warning Israelis that going any further “is dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.” I can testify that I entered those areas several times with Israelis Jews for their first visit and half of them seemed quite relieved they were not eaten by a Palestinian.

When referring to the Nakba, Orbach has the type of argument that is so absurd it precludes an intelligent retort. He had this to say:

And indeed, compared with countries facing similar (and even lesser) threats at the same time, Israel behaved in a surprisingly restrained manner.[…]Think about the Turks and the Greeks, the Germans, the Japanese, the Indians and Pakistanis, Jews in the Arab world and countless other examples. Israel, therefore, was a positive outlier.

Orbach should go tell that to Palestinian refugees.

He also accuses me of describing the events of 1948 in a way that is “distorted beyond recognition” and a repetition of “Palestinian national myths.” Alas, it appears my detractor hasn’t read some respected Jewish Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine) and Shlomo Sand (The Invention of the Jewish People). Pappe’s work is particular relevant to this discussion because he reveals documents pertaining to Plan Dalet, which presented “a detailed description of the methods to be used to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties, and goods; expelling residents; demolishing homes; and, finally, planting mines in the rubble to prevent the expelled inhabitants from returning.”

I personally find the discussion about “who started what” rather inane, akin to the dialectical equivalent of “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” Orbach spends most of his piece producing little bits of scattered history, favoring one over another, making use of Mufti Amin Al-Husseini to justify his position while discarding the same mufti whenever he isn’t useful to the argument. Basically, Orbach does what he accuses me of actually not doing: he only picks and chooses the pieces he likes, building his theory on a wobbly platform that he feigns to believe is solid and irrefutable, while probably quite aware it lies on loose debris from history and religious scripture.

History books, like scriptures, often serve to validate what one already believes. They are repeatedly used to justify anything, the imperfect act of exegesis allowing the exegete to draw any theory from them and feel duly footnoted. That’s why the history written by the vanquishers is the source of choice for many Zionists. When trying to make sense of the difference between what happened in the Nabka and how it is now remembered, professor Pappe bemoans what he calls the “deep chasm between reality and the representation. This is most bewildering, and it is difficult to understand how events perpetrated in modern times and witnessed by foreign reporters and UN observers could be systematically denied, not even recognized as historical fact, let alone acknowledged as a crime that needs to be confronted, politically as well as morally.”

Orbach would beg to differ, of course. He says the Nakba “is not the result of Zionist wickedness but a violent defensive reaction [sic] to a tangible threat of dispossession and extermination.” Yet he never considers that such reaction could have been a reaction to yet another reaction, this one to a crime committed thousands of miles away by a people who had absolutely no relation whatsoever with the Palestinians, not in religion, not in ideology and not in race (an important factor for Zionists).

And that is why I think the over-used maxim of “remembering history so history won’t repeat itself” is an awful and often dangerous cliché. It is at the root of Israeli victimization, and at the root of its victimizing, as it will probably be at the root of future tragedies. To quote the main character in my novel Eudemonia, “The saying ‘Let’s remember history so history won’t repeat itself is about the most oxymoronic sophism I’ve ever heard. If anything, it’s the obsessive remembrance of historical tragedies what makes people hate each other for centuries, it turns that hatred into something almost genetic, it transforms revenge into a goal to be pursued generations after the original insult, like an endless reincarnation of bad blood.”

Humanity has been caught for centuries living an endless cycle of historical rectification. But it is easy to manipulate the past, rearrange facts through emphasis and expunction. The present, though, is harder to mold. And it is to the present that we are indebted. A son has no blame or merit for what his father and forefathers have done, and thus should not gloat nor be ashamed. But that son does have responsibility for what he instills in his own children, and those that come after him. We all know what is going on now inside and behind those walls. The rewriting of that injustice is on us.

Read more:
The dreadful and the trivial: A response to Paula Schmitt on Palestinian refugees
Sentenced to life at birth: What do Palestinian refugees want?

Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.