Cutting through the bullshit.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The right of casuistry

If, like me, you thought that NY Times article about the right of return had a strange spin, this will really blow your mind.

Jerome M. Segal, who, according to Ynet, ‘directs the Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies’ last week penned what I can only charactarise as appalling casuistry.

Writing of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, he makes five numbered claims. His argument, such as it is, also depends on a sixth. For reference, here is the text of the relevant passage of Article 11,

The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors 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.

First, he points out that ‘…there is no mention in 194 of "a right of return"’. That’s true enough, but surely the framers of the resolution must have meant something when they wrote, ‘should be permitted’. The implication and the intent couldn’t really be very much clearer. This is actually one of the most embarrassingly stupid and puerile points I’ve ever seen anyone commit to print, although the balance of his ‘argument’ certainly comes close.

‘Second, the resolution, which was enacted in 1948, is clearly referring to the 1948 refugees.’ And so it cannot be taken to apply to their descendants –

there is no explicit statement of that sort. Indeed, since it was envisioned that action on the refugees would be taken promptly, there was no intended reference, one way or the other, to third and forth [sic] generations of the 1948 refugees over a half century later.

The ‘international community’ envisaged prompt implementation. Israel defied the ‘international community’, quite deliberately, as Mr. Abu Ghneim pointed out in Hassan Fattah’s article, ‘the Israelis were betting that the elders would die, and the youth would forget’. And so now they are off the hook, because the ‘international community’ didn’t realise in the days before Israel was even recognised as a state that it was destined to be a rogue state and ignore all customary and explicit norms for the behaviour of states.

In must the same vein,

there may have well been many points at which a return would have been practicable in the past, after 60 years of continued conflict and with the vast growth of the refugee populations, no significant return is practicable now or in the future.

Again, his ‘reasoning’ is that Israel should be rewarded for failing to implement 194 at the time. The cynical delaying tactics in the view of the childish mind that ‘directs the Peace Consultancy Project’ relieve Israel of responsibility.

Furthermore, in yet another version of the same pathetic sophism,

the Resolution speaks of a "return to their homes." The resolution is silent about return to anyplace else, whether to lands near their homes, or more generally, to lands within the 1949 Armistice lines. Moreover, given that in almost all cases the refugees' homes no longer exist or have become the homes of successive generations of Israelis, a return to homes is not practicable at all. In short, the return provision is completely empty only compensation is relevant. [sic]

Fifthly, in a slight twist, he wants to reinterpret ‘live at peace with their neighbors’, as a commitment to do so forever. Since there is no predicting how the returnees would react in a war, no refugee can ever meet that criterion and the framers of the resolution were obviously just wasting their time. How could they have known that 59 years down the track, some numbskull would come along and imagine he could undermine their obvious intentions with his wet noodle sharp logic.

Finally, the icing on the cake

Any one of these interpretations might be challenged by Palestinian negotiators. They might argue that each one of them violates the spirit of the resolution, and they might argue that there are yet other facets of international law to back up their claims.

Indeed they might. But since Jerome M. Segal has called their interpretations into question, it is now just a matter of opinion whose should prevail. His five infantile points have rendered the whole issue an arbitrary decision and the logic of the matter, the intentions of the General Assembly, the demands of just redress, solidarity with the oppressed, even elementary bourgeois property rights, have now become mere irrelevancies.

Seriously, though, there’s a troll over on Mitchell Plitnick’s Third way blog trotting out the old long since utterly discredited Joan Peters From time immemorial crap, and another one (or maybe the same one?) on Richard Silverstein’s Tikun Olam site who reckons that because ‘Hajj Amin el Husseini’ allegedly ‘worked for the Nazi Germany as a propagandist for the Arabs and a recruiter of Muslim volunteers for the German armed forces’, the appropriate response is collective punishment of all Palestinians forever.

So I might just take this opportunity to reiterate that it doesn’t matter where the 1948 refugees were born, how long they lived in Palestine (although we know for sure that at least some families had been there hundreds of years), whether anyone encouraged them to leave (although that myth has been put paid to now, as well), whether they left at gunpoint or of their own free will. They are still entitled to return and resume their property.

Another thing that is completely irrelevant to the question of Palestinian refugees’ right of return is the flight, or expulsion, of Jewish Arabs from Iraq and other places in the Middle East. They, too, are in principle entitled to return, regardless of the reasons they left. It doesn’t matter whether the numbers are similar or different. Each individual refugee has their own right of return.

The real problems with 194 are

  • that it doesn’t envisage compensation for displacement per se, as I pointed out the ‘herring’ post this morning,
  • that the most obvious reading is that return and compensation for lost property are posed as alternatives, when in reality, each refugee should be entitled to both, and

· that as a General Assembly resolution, it has no teeth.

Whatever the wording of the resolution and whatever its formal legal force, the bottom line remains, no justice, no peace!


  1. I am especially baffled by the way a liberal - you know, the kind of person who believes very strongly that rights are something that inheres to the individual - can make arguments (there's too many refugees, there are also Jewish refugees from Arab countries, etc.) that are collectivist in nature. Yet certain Harvard Law School professors, for example, have no problem doing just that.

  2. You know, Christian, I’m not that sure I even know what a small-l liberal is anymore. The people I think of as liberals take great pride in their moderation and ability to see things in ‘shades of grey’. They do tend to have strongly held beliefs, with the emphasis on belief, because they’re not generally very well informed or thought out. Indeed, I’m not sure that ‘My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts’ isn’t part of the picture. But that’s no definition. Certainly the people I know who describe themselves as liberals have no difficulty with supporting individual rights and state interventions, like a graduated income tax, for example, at the same time. They cringe at the thought of militarism, and even cognates, like militant, have that effect, yet they support Israel to the hilt. On reflection, maybe it’s liberalism that I was thinking of when I wrote that piece on hypocrisy back in December (

    What I find really surprising is the intellectual calibre of some of these academics. Full professors at prestigious universities making arguments so lame that I couldn’t even justify calling them ‘sophomoric’. People like Stanley Fish (;
    and Ted Honderich ( come to mind, and of course, as you point out, the eminent Harvard Law Professor.

    Of course it’s a long long time ago and my memory was never much good, but way back when I was a student, I seem to recollect that even though I disliked most of them and usually disagreed with them, my teachers at least knew their stuff and had sharp minds. And even now, you read some academics who seem knowledgeable and scholarly and have a good grasp of argument, even if they are not always persuasive. I just read Jacqueline Rose’s The question of Zion, for example, and hope to post, or at least start writing, something about it later today. Now her whole approach doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me or seem to lead anywhere, but she has clearly mastered a large corpus of material and subjected it to some kind of analytical reasoning process. And then in contrast there’s this Segal fellow. What’s it like at your university?