One of the bizarre ironies of Israeli politics is revealed once more in a response by NGO Monitor* to Nicholas Kristof’s recent column on Hebron and the price of occupation.
Kristof wrote of the particular burden imposed on Palestinians – and on Israel itself – by maintaining Jewish settlers inside Hebron:
The security system that Israel is steadily establishing is nowhere more stifling than here in Hebron, the largest city in the southern part of the West Bank. In the heart of a city with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people. To protect them, the Israeli military has established a massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001.
For anyone who has visited Hebron with open eyes, Kristof’s description will appear accurate, even understated. (My own account of a recent trip to that town is here.)
However, NGO Monitor was not happy. NGO Monitor is an Israeli group that claims to promote “critical debate and accountability of Human Rights NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict.” In practice, that means a stream of criticism against B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other such organizations.
On the NGO Monitor website one can find a letter from the group’s executive director, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, to the New York Times attacking Kristof. Ostensibly, Steinberg’s complaint is that Kristof extols B’Tselem and Machsom Watch. But his real complaint appears to be that Kristof failed to give the proper context in describing Hebron, apparently because he gullibly listened to human-rights groups:
Kristof repeats the simplistic statements of these NGOs regarding Hebron – a city of immense religious and historical importance to the Jewish people – without mentioning the impact of the 1929 massacre and expulsion of the entire Jewish community. A limited return to this historic city was only possible after 1967.
Attacking journalists for not giving context is a favored tactic of rightwing groups. A superb American correspondent who was here in the 1990s once explained to me how the attack-dog group CAMERA would really want him to begin every news article: “Fifty years ago, Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. Yesterday in Gaza…” The missing context is always supposed to show that Israel is 100% in the right.
But look at the context Steinberg wants: Jews have a historical tie to Hebron, and the settlers are reviving a Jewish community that existed there before Israeli independence. The refugees have a right to return.
Never mind that the actual settlers in Hebron are not descendants of Jews who left the city, and that many of those descendants actively oppose the settlers’ presence. The mother of dovish ex-Knesset member Avrum Burg was from Hebron, for instance. The settlers who arrived in 1968 were led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who was looking for a way to assert Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank and exploited the fact that Jews had once lived in the town. Previously he’d wanted to join the settlers at Kfar Etzion, who claimed the right to settle at that spot because a kibbutz had stood there until it fell to Arab forces the day before Israel declared independence. (There, at least, the settlers were children of the fallen kibbutz.)
So the long-running status of Kfar Etzion and nearby settlements as “consensus settlements” – accepted by much of the center-left – is also based on the right of return of pre-1948 refugees. People who fled or were driven from their homes in the conflict between Arabs and Jews must be able to go back, and if they can’t return, or their descendants aren’t interested, others should go in their place.
I submit that this is not only sloppy thinking, but dangerous thinking. It is self-destructive for Israelis to validate the idea that everyone who lost homes in 1948 should return, because that means affirming the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper. There lies the end of Israel. Using return as justification for settlement is a strategic assault on the state of Israel.
Of course, Steinberg et al don’t see it that way, because they can’t imagine the comparison. Why should the same right apply to both Jews and Palestinians? Why should moral reasoning be reciprocal?
Just as an experiment, let’s imagine that Kristof or someone else at the Times wrote about, say, a Palestinian from the West Bank stabbing a Jew in Jaffa. Let’s say that in covering this imagined incident, the columnist or reporter included context: “Palestinians feel a deep historical tie to Jaffa, a city known as the ‘Bride of Palestine’ before 1948. Many refugees who left at the time of Israeli independence assert their right to return.”
In that case, what letter would Steinberg write to the editor?
For the Israeli right, the right of return is sacred, and the danger of that position is invisible.
*Corrected text. The original incorrectly said “NGO Watch.”