New York Times columnist Roger Cohen this week made an openly racist argument against the Palestinian right of return, declaring his opposition to this goal of the BDS movement on the grounds that it would threaten Israel’s existence as a “Jewish state”.
In his article, Cohen first expresses his support for the two-state solution and position that Israel must end its occupation of Palestinian territory, describing it is a “positive factor” that when foreign companies stop doing business with Israeli companies that have operations in Israel’s illegal settlements, “they send a powerful signal to Israel to get out of the West Bank.”
But then he says that such developments make him “uneasy” because he doesn’t “trust” the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, claiming they have a “hidden agenda”. How so? Well, the movement’s “stated aim is to end the occupation, secure ‘full equality’ for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees.” So what’s wrong with any of that? The problem for Cohen is that for Arab citizens of Israel to be treated equally and for Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from Palestine to return to their homes would mean “the end of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Cohen explicitly rejects the right of Palestinians to return to their homes from which they were ethically cleansed so that Israel could be established as a demographically “Jewish state”. He denies that they have any such right, asserting that this is merely a “claim” and that Palestinian refugees should be compensated instead. It isn’t clear whether Cohen thinks they have a right to be compensated for having been expelled from their homes and having their property confiscated or whether he just thinks it would be a nice thing to do. But the fact is that it is an internationally recognized right of refugees to return to their homes.
U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948 invoked this recognized principle of international law when it resolved that “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”.
Note that Cohen is not saying that Palestinians who choose not to return to their homes should be compensated. He is saying that refugees should be compensated and not allowed to return. In Cohen’s view, this is not the refugees’ choice to make. And he rejects this right of the Palestinians explicitly on the grounds that Israel should remain a “Jewish state”. In other words, he is making a strictly racist argument for rejecting Palestinians’ individual right of return.
By 1948, the right of return of refugees was already recognized as customary international law. The U.S. representative at the U.N. acknowledged that Resolution 194 did not create a new right, but rather “endorsed a generally recognized principle and provides a means for implementing that principle”. Incidentally, Israel’s admission into the U.N. as a member state was conditional upon its implementation of Resolution 194.
The right of refugees to return to their home was recognized in the Hague Regulations annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention Respecting the Laws of War on Land and again in the 1949 Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. The Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions also prohibited forced expulsions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted on December 10, 1948, recognized that “Everyone has a right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights later also affirmed that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”
Cohen closes by touting Israel as “a democracy” and saying that all Israel’s citizens “should enjoy equality” and be “permitted to identify themselves as Israelis if they so wish, rather than as Jews or Arabs or Druze — that is as undifferentiated citizens.” This is, of course, totally incompatible with his rejection of Palestinians’ rights and insistence that Israel must remain a “Jewish state” — an illustration of extreme cognitive dissonance.
What Cohen is in effect saying, when he declares his rejection of the right of return on the racist grounds that it would threaten Israel’s existence as a “Jewish state” is that the ethnic cleansing by which this “Jewish state” came into existence was legitimate. This is, after all, the purpose of Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel explicitly as a “Jewish state”. While expressing opposition to the occupation and spouting rhetoric about democracy and equality, what Roger Cohen is actually doing is siding with Israel in its effort to oppress and coerce the Palestinians into surrendering their internationally recognized rights.
It is highly instructive that such an openly racist rationale for doing so is regarded in the American mainstream media as perfectly acceptable, provoking not the least bit of controversy. As a simple thought experiment, one might imagine what the reaction would be if a columnist argued, say, against the right of Jewish refugees to return to their homes in Germany following World War II on the grounds that it could threaten Germany’s existence as an “Aryan nation”. But Cohen is, after all, merely serving his duty as a high priest for the state religion. In accordance with the mainstream media’s usual role, he is dutifully performing the task of manufacturing consent for U.S. foreign policy, which includes backing Israel’s position and pressuring the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”.
That is to say, the U.S. government has adopted an explicitly racist policy. But you won’t read that in the New York Times or other U.S. mainstream media.