Controlling the vocabulary is a crucial part of any political debate, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically the 1948 exodus -- or one should really say, the 1948 departure -- of Palestinians from Israel, is no exception. A typical formulation, chock-full of code words, appeared in a recent letter to the Boston Globe: "Generations of families living in squalor in refugee camps still await their right to return under international law to their homeland Palestine."Wilson writes a pretty informative piece, one with whose content everyone should be familiar.
Many, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama, have pointed out how the "right to return" would impose an untenable situation for the Israeli democracy. The 860,000 or so who left in 1948 have grown to 4.8 million "registered refugees" living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Of this number, 1.4 million are "RRCs" -- registered refugees in camps. An influx of this magnitude, added to the 1.2 million Israeli Muslims, would create a Muslim population of 6 million, outnumbering Israel's 5.6 million Jews, potentially turning Israel into a sharia state. In other words, whatever "right to return under international law" may be asserted, as Netanyahu said, "it's never going to happen."
Describing Palestinians as "refugees" living in "refugee camps" is a further example of politicized word choice. The original group of Palestinians in 1948 left their homes in the face of an impending aggression by Arab countries and moved into canvas tents with primitive sanitation. Regardless of arguments about whether Israeli Palestinians "fled" or, as Noam Chomsky would have it, were pushed out by a campaign of ethnic cleansing, this original group can rightly be called refugees. However, to continue to call their descendants refugees sixty-three years later, as Obama did in his Middle East/North Africa speech, distorts the truth of their situation.
Sixty-three years is time enough for three, perhaps four, generations. Imagine the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of Jewish refugees who came to Brooklyn or Brookline after the Holocaust referring to themselves as refugees. My own family includes a number of refugees from the Cambodian killing fields, and my nieces and nephews would never think of claiming refugee status and a right to return to Cambodia.
One cluster of questions that it raised in my mind is one which was implicit in Mr. Netanyahu's sermon to Mr. Obama in their presser: Why is it that the Palestinians are still refugees? There was a roughly equal number of Jews evicted from their homes in Arab countries in 1948 as there were Palestinians who fled from Israel. The Israelis were assimilated into Israel almost immediately, but the Palestinians still live in "camps" segregated from their Arab hosts. Why are the Palestinians still "refugees" but the Israelis are not? Why do not the vast Arab nations assimilate the Palestinians like tiny Israel assimilated Jewish refugees?
Is it that the Arabs really don't care about the Palestinians except insofar as they can be used as a cudgel with which to beat the Israelis over the head?