Roger Cohen’s Racist Opposition to the Palestinian Right of Return

Palestinian refugees fleeing Galilee in the fall of 1948 (Fred Csasznik)
Palestinian refugees fleeing Galilee in the fall of 1948 (Fred Csasznik)

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.


Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He blogs at Gain the knowledge you need to become an effective voice for peace in Palestine with his FREE e-book. 

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  • hammersmith46

    Cohen gives new (?) meaning to “the Chosen.”

  • jay

    It seems the official Israeli position has always been one of genocide of the Palestinians. Peace could be made, but obstructionism reigns. They would rather crush all Palestinians than share a shitty chunk of dirt.

    • dubinsky

      it doesn’t at all seem ” the official Israeli position has always been one of genocide ” to sane people, jay….. but you’re special.

    • Don Sagal

      Really Jay??? If anything the Israelis have been extraordinarily restrained. What nation would allow hundreds of rockets to come slamming into their territories without responding immediately? Israel has dropped leaflets, sent out text messages and so on warning people in the Gaza to stay away from Hamas rocket sites way in advance. Would any other country do this? If Israel’s position was genocidal, Gaza would have been completely obliterated long ago…and within hours!

  • dubinsky

    is this idiocy serious?

    Cohen’s argument is poor and shouldn’t be used to reject a claim of a right to return that is obvious nonsense.

    every single Palestinian who fled the area in 1948 and 1949 should be allowed to return if willing to follow the law and live in peace.

    people born elsewhere and generations later have no right of return

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      It is nice to see that you respect the right of those ethnically cleansed in ’48-’49 to return.

      • dubinsky

        they deserve to be allowed back and the wounds that were opened when the Palestinian and their Arab League allies decided to start the wars rather than accept peaceful partition should be allowed to close.

        • Jeremy R. Hammond

          The ethnic cleansing operations began months before neighboring Arab states sent armies to confront the Zionist forces.

          • dubinsky

            the ethnic cleansing operation began with the 1920 Nebi Musa riots when they started lynching Jews.

          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            There have been atrocities by both sides. But it wasn’t 750,000 Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Palestine by Arabs.

          • dubinsky

            had the Palestinians and their allies not fought with such great ineptitude, they would have acted far worse, Jeremy.

            have a care in what you assert.


          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            It was, rather, 750,000 Arabs who were ethnically cleansed from Palestine by Jews.

          • Don Sagal

            Do the 856,000 Arab Jews who were ethnically cleansed at gunpoint out of Arab countries in the late ’40s also get the right of return? There are more of them than the Palestinians and the value of their confiscated properties is more than double. If you don’t agree to this then you are a hypocrite.

          • Don Sagal

            Yes…pretty bad, but not as bad as the 856,000 Arab Jews ethnically cleansed (at least those who weren’t murdered) from Arab countries at the same time. Not only were there more of them than Palestinians, but the value of their confiscated properties is worth more than double that of the Palestinians.
            Do you believe that they also have the right to compensation for their confiscated properties? If you don’t, then you’re a hypocrite.

          • Don Sagal

            I would like to see you write an article about the 856,000 Arab Jews who were ethnically cleansed at gunpoint from Arab countries in the late ’40s and ordered to go to Israel. Why have you not written about them? I guess they don’t fit very conveniently into your tight narrative. Or maybe it’s because they’re Jewish.

          • Don Sagal

            Yeah…almost as bad as the 856,000 Arab Jews who were ethinically cleansed from Arab countries (at least those who weren’t murdered) and were told to get out and go to Israel. I guess you could care less about them since they inconveniently screw up your narrative.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    The right of return is a universal right.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    The right of return is a universal right.

    I’ll take it from your comment that you are not a hypocrite yourself and therefore support the right of Arab refugees ethnically cleansed from Palestine to return to their homeland.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    There have been many crimes committed throughout history. I cannot write on all of them. My focus is US foreign policy. As the US supports Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, that is something I, as an American, focus my attention on.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    In what way do the Jews expelled from Arab countries “screw up” anything I’ve written? You’re welcome to explain.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    It is difficult to see how launching military operations with a policy of deliberate use of disproprtionate force and intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure of Gaza could possibly be described as “restraint”.

    Furthermore, it is Israel that has repeatedly violated its ceasefire agreements with Hamas. It was Israel, for instance, that violated the 2008 ceasefire prior to Operation Cast Lead. It was Israel again that violated the 2012 ceasefire prior to Operation Pillar of Defense.

  • Mayibongwe

    How is Israel supposed to go about distinguishing those who want to leave in peace from those who don’t want to leave in peace with them.Allowing millions of refugees to return to Israel will only lead to an ugly civil war between the Arabs and Jews just like the one in the early 20s and 1947.As desirable as it may be for the refugees to return,it is an unrealistic demand.It will only create a new conflict,many people will die,millions will be displaced and then you will have another refugee crisis.

  • Don Williams

    Israel; does encourage Arabs to migrate to Israel Mayobongwe, Israel offers financial inducement to encourage Arabs to migrate to Israel, so far some 250,000 Arabs have migrated to Israel since 1947.

    They are all Jewish Arabs, from many Arab lands, not all Arab Jews of course many Jewish Arabs have chosen to remain in their own homelands.

    Israel, despite agreeing, as a condition of UN membership, to accept the right of return for displaced Palestinian Arabs, has refused to keep her word, 4.9 million UN registered Palestinian refugees are denied the right of return to their homeland simply because they are Christian or Muslim.

    What is unrealistic, is demanding an exclusive Jewish State in a predominantly Islamic part of the world, indeed the huge majority of the worlds 15 million Jews choose to live in their own respective homelands and not on stolen Palestinian land.

    You are avoiding the use of logic Mayibongwe.

    • Mayibongwe

      First of all,I was referring to the Arabs who left Israel in 1948.You talk about stolen land,78% of historic Palestine is recognized by major organisations and by over 100 UN member states(including the 5 veto holding members of the UN security council) as Israeli sovereign territory.Israel just like any other sovereign can appropriate its land as it wishes with or without compensation.

      If you argue the land was stolen because the boundaries were obtained by force.Well,I live in Zimbabwe.The group that I belong to originally lived in South Africa,Over a hundred years ago they arrived in this area and kicked out the local population and I assume that was also the case in the USA,Canada,Australia,Many of the South American countries and many other countries in the world.I guess we are all squatters living on stolen land Mr Williams.

      About the refugees.The UN recommendation explicitly states ” Those wishing to return to their homes and live at PEACE with their neighbours “.I go back to my question,how is Israel supposed to distinguish from those who want to live in peace and those who do not intend to leave in peace with them?

  • Don Williams

    Actually Don, there are only 250,000 Jewish Arabs who migrated to Israel, between 1947 and today, Israel provided financial grants to those who did so.

    The number of Jewish Arabs that chose to remain in their respective Arab homelands vastly outnumber those who migrated to Israel.

    There are over 30,000 Iranian Jews (and 300,000 Iranian Christians), all protected by the constitution, which guarantees them seats in the Iranian Parliament, I understand Israel would pay each Jewish Iranian $60,000 were they to migrate to Israel (2011 figures).

    I mention Iran simply because that is the country most demonised by Israeli politicians,

    P.S. There is a very nice Jewish restaurant in Terhan!

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    Israel just like any other sovereign can appropriate its land as it wishes with or without compensation.

    Expropriate. Not “appropriate”. The fact it is a state rather than a non-state entity doing the deed does not render it anything less than than the same theft.

    If you argue the land was stolen because the boundaries were obtained by force.

    In 1948, the Jewish community owned less than 7% of the land. The “Jewish state” was established by ethnically cleansing 750,000 Arabs from Palestine. The land was stolen by force. This is not a claim, but a historical fact.

    how is Israel supposed to distinguish from those who want to live in peace and those who do not intend to leave in peace with them?

    I fail to perceive any difficulty here. Israel has a legal and moral obligation to respect the right of those refugees who wish to return to their homeland to do so. Period.

    • Mayibongwe

      You are missing my point Mr Hammond.I’m talking about the pre-1967 land,not the settlements.It is RECOGNIZED by the international community,the UN,over a hundred UN member states including the five permanent members of the security council as Israeli sovereign territory.In simple terms it means the land belongs to the State of Israel.It all comes down to recognition.

      Many countries in the world were born out of the displacement or genocide of the local inhabitants.I’m not disputing your facts.I’m just saying in warfare,these kinds of things happen.Israel is a legitimate state,It’s RECOGNIZED by the international community,I keep coming back to that word.

      UN Resolution 194 recommends a conditional right not an absolute, ” live at PEACE”,the devil is in the details .That was to make sure Israel did not have to accept a hostile population that would not endanger it’s security.Israel does not have to accept them if it genuinely believes they will endanger its security.That’s why resolution UNSC 242 never mentioned the Palestinians or them having to return to Israel.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    Yes, Israel is recognized as a state by the international community. So what? That does not legitimize the means by which it was established or its theft of Palestinian land.

    The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their home is most certainly not conditioned upon Israel’s opinion, genuine or otherwise, of whether or not they might “endanger its security”. UNGA Resolution 194 does not place this condition on the right of return. The phrase you are referring to simply meant that CIVILIANS — as opposed to COMBATANTS — must be allowed to return.

    • Mayibongwe

      Every legal sovereign in the world has the right to LEGALLY take over land without the consent of the owner,with or without payment as long as that action is in accordance with its domestic law and the area is under its formal sovereignty.The State of Israel has been the legal sovereign in that area since 1948.

      Yes it does.Every country in the world ultimately decides whom it allows or denies entry into its sovereign territory.Even if Israel does acknowledge the right of return,it does not mean it has to allow them to return simple because the UNGA has no power to impose consequences for non-compliance or use military force to enforce its resolutions(Which are legally non-binding) and from the fact that UNSC 242 never compelled Israel to recognize that right or allow the refugees to return.

      • Jeremy R. Hammond

        The fact a state may claim such authority and makes it “legal” to engage in theft does not make it a “right”. There is no such “right” of governments. That is nonsense.

        It does not follow from the fact that UNGA resolutions are non-binding that therefore Israel is not obligated to allow the refugees to return. The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes was not conferred upon them by the UN. It is an inherent right recognized as customary international law which Resolution 194 merely recognized. Israel is morally and legally obligated to allow the refugees to return.

        • Mayibongwe

          The question is weather it was illegal or not.If I’m right,the legal definition of theft is the unlawful taking of another person’s property.My argument is,Since Israel was the legal sovereign in that area.If taking possession of the land was done in accordance with its own laws,It means it was legal and therefore disqualifying it from being classified as theft.My understanding is that a government ultimately determines what is legal or not inside of its sovereign territory.That is why something that is illegal in one country may be perfectly legal in another country.

          The right of freedom of movement is so vague that you can literally come up with an infinite number of interpretations.Is it referring to an individual leaving his country or mass displacement of people during wars like in Bosnia,Rwanda or Europe during WW2? Can the 7 million Palestinians refugees(95% born outside Israel) claim to be Israeli nationals? Is a national’s right absolute?Even after all that we still have to ask ourselves,Is it practical to return people back to a place were there was a conflict that was based on ethnic lines without provoking another one.

          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            No, the Zionist ethnic cleansing and theft of Palestinian land was most certainly not legal. How ludicrous to suggest otherwise.

            No, the right of return is not “vague” at all. People made refugees by war have a right to return to their homes and their rightful property.

            The question of the practicality of Palestinian refugees actually doing so is an entirely separate one.

          • Mayibongwe

            I guess we have to agree to disagree.

            We can’t turn back the clock.I would support creating a fund to compensate the refugees in which Israel and the Arab states that took part in the war equally contribute.I believe the Palestinian refugees should be treated like all other refugees.It means they should be transferred to UNHCR and be resettled in other countries.

            Returning to Israel is unrealistic and impractical.Clinging to this idea of returning to Israel will only secure their future as refugees for centuries to come.

  • Javed Mir

    –rejection of the right of return–

    only for the Palestinians — although UNO resolution 194 confirms the recognized principle of international law “that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted”. But the problem is that USA the sponsor of Israel, is above every law. As such UNO resolutions are generally ignored and dumped.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    It is not a matter of opinion. To argue that Israel’s ethnic cleansing and theft of Palestinian land was “legal” is absurd.

    As for the right of return, I defer to my previous comment.

    • Mayibonwe

      I disagree with the notion of ethnic cleansing.The Israelis say they left on their own will or under Arab orders while the Palestinians say they were forcibly expelled.The truth is,some were forced out and some left on their own will but it is impossible to definitively prove to which one accounted for the vast majority of refugees.I personally think they left on their own will.Just like Syrians leaving Syria or Afghans leaving Afghanistan,civilians generally don’t like being in combat zones.The fact that many left their homes intact and left behind money and valuables would suggest these were people who were planning to return in a few weeks(I read the Arabs had promised to overrun the Jews in 3 days).

      With the issue of land,My argument is still the same.It was done within the context of the law.I don’t know how things are done in your country but in my country,something done in within the law is perfectly LEGAL.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, too, is not a matter of opinion, but historical fact.

    Again, to argue that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and theft of Arabs’ land was “done within the context of the law” and “perfectly LEGAL” is perfectly asinine.

    Again, it is an internationally recognized right of refugees of war that they are entitled to return to their homeland.

    • Mayibongwe

      There was forced displacement.I never disputed that.You can’t take the Arab narrative that 750 000 people were forcibly expelled and decide its a fact.People will always be displaced in war,intentionally or unintentionally.Anyone who suggests that they know with certainty how 750 000 Palestinians became refugees is lying.

      You can keep repeating “theft of Arab Land” again and again but it won’t change a thing.Does the fact that a government forcibly takes away a chunk of people’s hard earned money make it theft or extortion?No,They are mandated by the State to take that action.It’s done within the context of the law,that’s my argument.

      There is no such thing as an absolute right,i’m sure you know this.Under international law,countries also have absolute discretion on whom they may grant Citizenship to.

      • Asgharshoe

        I’m guessing that he banned you once he started to lose the argument ?

        So predictable….

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    That 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from Palestine is not “the Arab narrative”. It is a well-documented historical fact. See, for example, ISRAELI historian Ilan Pappe’s book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”.

    Yes, the fact a government uses force to expropriate private wealth and property makes it theft — same as if individuals did the like.

    You say “It’s done within the context of the law,that’s my argument.” But you don’t have an argument. What law are you referring to? There is no law that rendered the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and theft of Arab land “legal”. What stupid nonsense!

    It is an elementary principle of customary international law that the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible. Hence UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. It is also an elementary principle of customary international law that refugees have a right to return to their homes. Hence UN General Assembly Resolution 194 supporting the right of Palestinian refugees to do so.

  • davidben

    Racism? Look the way Arabs are treating Arab refugees that is racism. Racism ? Look the ethic cleansing of Jews in Arab lands. Racism ? One has to look in the mirror before daring to throw a stone…

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      The expulsion of Jews from Arab states was racism, therefore the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine by Jews was not?

      You seem to struggle greatly with logic. But, indeed, you ought to look in the mirror and recognize your own racism, manifest in your stupid denial that what is described in the article is racism.

  • Johnny Red

    In my view, a nation has the right to be racist, if that’s what the majority of the people in that nation want. If Japan wanted their country to be only for Japanese, they have the right to expel (not kill) any non-Japanese, and to deny any non-Japanese immigration. After all, the Japanese are indigenous to that land. However, with Israel, it was created out of a land where Arabs were indigenous, and they were forcibly expelled, and many were killed. A very different scenario.

    • Javed Mir

      Very true.