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Jewish Journal

Jews, power and the Palestinian refugee crisis

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 11, 2008 | 2:01 pm

At the Hillel Summit in Washington last month, I listened to Ruth R. Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish and author of “Jews and Power,” deliver a passionate 40-minute lecture on why American Jews should stand up for that imperiled sliver of Mediterranean coast we have been fortunate enough, for almost 60 years now, to call Israel.

You can listen to the lecture here.

Wisse’s talk was moving, and I had wanted to read her book, so I picked a copy up on the way out and worked through it on my flight back. (It’s 184 pages and a very quick read.) In “Jews and Power,” Wisse makes a point that she repeated during her speech—that Arab countries, not Israel, are responsible for the Palestinian refugee crisis. From pages 140-141:

Palestinian Arabs are to be pitied with the tens of millions of refugees of the twentieth century. But Palestinians are doubly unfortunate because theirs is the only such displacement that is prolonged for political advantage. Originally, the Palestinians who fled from their homes in 1948 were a relatively small and easily assimilable group, moving often no more than several miles among people who spoke their language and shared their religion and culture. Leaving aside the refugees of the two world wars, as well as Jews driven from Arab lands in numbers equal to the Arabs who fled from Israel, the two massive conflicts that framed Israel’s War of Independence—India’s war over the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the Korean War of 1950-53—produced more than 20 million refugees between them, yet most of those refugees were reabsorbed within a generation. Only in the Arab case did a coalition of rulers, with millions of square miles and great wealth at their disposal, foster and cultivate the state of emergency as a means of sustaining a casus belli.

Look no further for an example of such politicking than the life and times of Yasser Arafat, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and common crook. The consequences, of course, have been significant and seemingly incessant.

Less than a week after I returned, I came across this article, and this image, in the New York Times:

GAZA — In the Katib Wilayat mosque one recent Friday, the imam was discussing the wiliness of the Jew.

“Jews are a people who cannot be trusted,” Imam Yousif al-Zahar of Hamas told the faithful. “They have been traitors to all agreements — go back to history. Their fate is their vanishing. Look what they are doing to us.”

At Al Omari mosque, the imam cursed the Jews and the “Crusaders,” or Christians, and the Danes, for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He referred to Jews as “the brothers of apes and pigs,” while the Hamas television station, Al Aksa, praises suicide bombing and holy war until Palestine is free of Jewish control.

Its videos praise fighters and rocket-launching teams; its broadcasts insult the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, for talking to Israel and the United States; its children’s programs praise “martyrdom,” teach what it calls the perfidy of the Jews and the need to end Israeli occupation over Palestinian land, meaning any part of the state of Israel.

Such incitement against Israel and Jews was supposed to be banned under the 1993 Oslo accords and the 2003 “road map” peace plan. While the Palestinian Authority under Fatah has made significant, if imperfect efforts to end incitement, Hamas, no party to those agreements, feels no such restraint.

Hardly an eye-opener—in fact, a bit surprising in its gee-whiz tone—this article reiterated what we already know. But it made me think of Ruth Wisse, whose latest book, without question controversial with the Jewish left, begins its final chapter (page 173) by discussing the contradictions of Jewish power:

Just as no Jewish initiative could have solved the German problem that culminated in Nazism, no Israeli initiative could correct “what went wrong” in Arab societies. Jews could only hope to enhance their own security through the avoidance of fatal mistakes and nudge the Arab world to greater maturity by making it clear that Israel was in the region to stay.

The second—internal—problem that could not be alleviated by the creation of Israel alone was the relation of Jews to political power. Zionist thinkers had expected sovereignty to result in political normalization without being able to anticipate the role that a tiny Jewish state might play in the international struggle for power. In trying to withstand the Arab assualt, Israelis, Jews, and concerned third parties tripped again and again over the same issue of power that had impeded the development of Jewish political history to begin with. If historians once mistook the absence of sovereignty to mean that Jews stood outside politics, modern students of the problem too often assumed that the resumption of sovereignty guaranteed political parity between Israel and the nations. Jews were said to have reversed their political fortunes once they began governing themselves and an Arab minority in a country of their own. Equating “statehood” with “power,” the new experts confused Zionism’s potential with its achievement, as if the acquired option of Jewish self-defense had erased Arab advantages in numbers, resources, and land.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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