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Semitic Semantics
About Those Palestinian Refugees

In response to this morning’s column on the many morasses of the Middle East I got a note from a reader who brings up the recurrent matter of Palestinians as refugees: should the word refugee be put in quote marks? Of course not. The quote marks would be another step toward complicity with Israel’s intent—to make the refugees disappear as such.

The reader wrote: “I get irritated at the misuse of certain words for political purposes, the main examples coming to mind being “partial birth abortion” and “the death tax.” In the case of your column today the offender is “Palestinian refugee camp.” From pictures these places are far beyond the status of camps; and their occupants, poor and downtrodden though they may be, can hardly be considered refugees after fifty plus years. Most of them were born outside of Palestine. Were I more articulate I would doubtless carry on about the desirability of integrating them better into the local societies and of the Arab people helping them to do this.”

The reader is right in so far as refugee camps generally are places where people can expect a degree of care and dignity, whereas Palestinian refugee camps, in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, are places where human beings are treated worse than stray dogs. The reader’s concern is with semantics, but I think it ought to be with decency. I agree about what Arab nations owe Palestinians: they should offer them integration, at least as a choice (leaving it up to Palestinians to take it or to remain in those camps). But they don’t, because that would on one hand be complicity with Israel’s smashing Palestinians out of their lands. On the other, it would be a shock to the political balance of certain Arab nations. In Lebanon for example, 400,000 or 500,000 Palestinians suddenly made citizens or full members of society would be a bloc to contend with, which, Lebanese prejudice being what it is—or rather, Semitic prejudice being what it is, Arabs and Jews having nothing over each other in that department—no group in Lebanon would accept.

It’s easy to look for black and white solutions here. There are none, and it’s nothing so simple or convenient as to say that Palestinians in refugee camps are exclusively Arab nations’ problem. Let’s not forget the source of this hell, and let’s not kid ourselves about it. It’s always been Israel. To say anything different about the refugees is tantamount to (for example) blaming the victim of a rape for what befell her.

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