The dreadful and the trivial: A response to Paula Schmitt on Palestinian refugees

In giving voice to Palestinian refugees, journalist Paula Schmitt inadvertently strengthens the Zionist narrative.

By Danny Orbach

A Palestinian refugee looks over the Jaramana Refugee Camp in Damascus, 1948. (Author unknown)
A Palestinian refugee looks over the Jaramana Refugee Camp in Damascus, 1948. (Author unknown)

American author Scott Baker once wrote, “men generally possess no inkling of what their actions portend. This problem is not, as one might suppose, a result of man‘s blindness to the consequences of their actions. Rather it is a result of the mad way in which the dreadful turns on the trivial when the ends of one man cross the ends of another.” This quote came to mind when I read Paula Schmitt’s article about Palestinian refugees, published recently in +972. Like so many other pro-Palestinian activists and journalists, Schmitt appears to have very clear intentions: righting the wrongs done to the Palestinians in the Nakba of 1948, preferably through a combination of full compensation and a “right of return.” She even tries to emphasize the peaceful intentions of the refugees, who, as she writes, are ready to “live together” with the Jews once the crooks are made straight.

However, when reading Schmitt’s article, it was interesting to see how the “dreadful turned on the trivial” at the moment her interviewees were allowed to speak for themselves. Their own opinions, when carefully listened to, rather confirmed the fears of most mainstream Israelis. As Schmitt herself wrote, “more often than not, their answers would include the end of Israel.” Even those who admitted – usually in private – some kind of consent to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors conditioned it with full acceptance of the Palestinian narrative. And as most Israelis think rather differently about history than those Palestinian refugees, the article strengthened the notion that mass return may herald bloodshed and constant civil war, detrimental to both sides.

Schmitt probably had no inkling that her article might strengthen the Zionist narrative – a rather unexpected result. And hers, one has to emphasize, is far from being the only case. A compendium of “right of return” fantasies, published recently by radical-left Israeli organization “Zochrot,” also intended to bring the “right of return” to mind as a tangible political alternative. However, yet again, the dreadful turned on the trivial when many of the Palestinian contributors openly expressed their wish to ethnically cleanse the Jews from Palestine, or at least to undo their self-determination and force them to accept, instead of an equal partnership, full-fledged Arab rule. Only for these reasons, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has to thank both Paula Schmitt and Zochrot.

Schmitt undoubtedly did an important job by “giving a voice” to Palestinian refugees, and yet her piece is hampered by utter absence of a critical perspective. For starters, her description of the events of 1948 is distorted beyond recognition, and is merely a repetition of worn-out Palestinian national myths. Had an alien come from space and read Schmitt’s article, he would have probably thought that some evil empire, alternately called “Israel” or (collectively) “the Zionists,” viciously attacked a peaceful population and dispossessed and exiled it from its homeland without any provocation. But alas, history is never so simple.

Unlike the “innocent victim” legend purported by Schmitt, Israel did what it did in 1948 out of a tangible threat of existential danger. The Palestinian leadership of the time had very clear plans what to do with the Jews had they lost: to ethnically cleanse most of them at the best, and to slaughter them at worst. Such statements were repeatedly made by Palestinian leaders and their allies. In 1943, five years before the war, the Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini declared that all Jews must be expelled not only from Palestine, but also from the Arab world in its entirety, if not exterminated altogether. The Palestinians’ major ally, the secretary-general of the Arab league, openly defined the campaign as “a war of extermination.” At the same time, the Palestinian leadership refused to live together with the Jews in any way. They rejected not only the partition resolution of 1947, as it is often said, but also alternative proposals for a bi-national or federal state, and even a scheme for Jewish autonomy inside an Arab political entity.

Some people may say that the Arabs were right to refuse any compromise with the “Zionist invaders”, but this is surely not the question, as one could not expect the Zionists in 1948 to share that point of view. The Nakba, with its enormous human tragedy, is not a result of Zionist wickedness but a violent, defensive reaction to a tangible threat of dispossession and extermination. And indeed, compared with countries facing similar (and even lesser) threats at the same time, Israel behaved in a surprisingly restrained manner. As Benny Morris shows, the number of civilian causalities in 1948 was significantly smaller than in other, similar conflicts around the world, and Israel did end up with a sizable Palestinian minority inside its borders. In the pre- and post-WWII era, by contrast, ethnic cleansing and population exchange were the usual way to solve ethnic conflicts, civil wars and state partitions. 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.

Even the story of the frozen bank accounts (based on the groundbreaking research by Sreemati Mitter and others) is irrevocably distorted by Schmitt. The money was returned by Israel to the British banks, and it was they – and not the Israeli government – who failed to reimburse some of the refugees. By contrast, almost all other states which faced similar situations at the time did not “freeze” bank accounts but rather confiscated them outright. Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, for example, had all of their property stolen and did not see a penny back. The only country that returned at least some refugee property was, again, Israel. Schmitt, therefore, judges Israel according to theoretical moral standards. Such standards were indeed emerging in international law around 1949 they, but were – and are – hardly implemented. In any case, it is highly questionable to hold Israel more accountable to moral standards than other nations in similar situations of conflict.

Did we say “refugees”? This mythical term, accepted uncritically by Schmitt, has to be deconstructed as well. In the 1950s there were many millions of “refugees” around the world. Almost all of them, Germans, Turks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Poles and Japanese, were resettled in countries which many of them had never seen before. At that moment, they stopped being “refugees” and certainly no one had dreamt to give such status to their children and grandchildren. Those few who turned to legal channels were consistently turned down by European courts. The “hereditary refugee status” is nothing but a cynical, post 1948 manipulation of Arab diplomats, cemented by the establishment of UNRWA, a UN organization which cordoned the problem of the Palestinian refugees and artificially separated them from all other refugees around the world. Israel admittedly contributed to this problem, when it, too, helped fund this questionable organization. Then, most Arab states perpetuated the problem by keeping these Palestinians in squalid camps and under effective apartheid conditions, hammering into their children and grandchildren myths of victimhood, revenge and eternal plight. If the Nakba goes on until today, as many Palestinian spokesmen say, then here it is. Sentenced to life at birth? Maybe – but the jailers are in Beirut and other Arab capitals, not in Jerusalem.

Indeed, just as no true peace can be realized before Israel gives up the folly of the occupation and settlements, effective reconciliation depends on the Palestinians waking up from the fantasy of return. And just like “friends of Israel” in the US undermine its true interests by backing the settlements and the occupation, so Schmitt is doing a great damage to the Palestinian refugees by nurturing their disastrous, futile fantasies.

Danny Orbach is a History PhD student at Harvard, specializing in the history of rebellions, disobedience and illegal orders in Japan, China, Germany, Israel, Egypt and elsewhere. Among his publications: Valkyrie – German Resistance to Hitler (Yedioth Ahronot Press, 2009 – in Hebrew) and Black Flag at a Crossroads: The Kafr-Qasim Political Trial, 1957-8.  More of his articles can be read at his blog, “The Owl,” in English and in Hebrew.  

Sentenced to life at birth: What do Palestinian refugees want?
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