Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Review Fact Checking on Israel – Palestine Conflict Raises Concern

On Feb. 23, The Oberlin Review Editorial Board wrote of its editorial process that, “each article is fact-checked rigorously by our production editors.” I can confirm that, in my dealing with the board, it questioned nearly every claim I made, from claims about civilian casualties in Gaza to the claim that the Bible is “one of the world’s oldest written records” (Review Article on Israel-Gaza War Contains Numerous Misrepresentations, The Oberlin Review, Feb. 16, 2024). 

In some cases, the editors’ suggestions made the article stronger and clearer, and I appreciated them. However, the editors made one change to which I did not agree. In fact, when asked, I expressly declined. 

In my initial submission, I wrote that, “in the decade after the 1948 war, when one Arab country after another expelled Jewish populations that had lived among them for centuries — albeit as second-class citizens known as dhimmis — many of those refugees, too, had nowhere to go except Israel. Today, about half of Israel’s Jewish population is descended from those refugees.” I agreed to remove the reference to dhimmis. Over my express objection, however, editors changed the second sentence to, “today, about half of Israel’s Jewish population is descended from Sephardic and Mizrachi diaspora communities — many of whom could have come to Israel as refugees.” 

This is an erasure of the experiences of these Jews of color, who lived as second-class citizens in Arab lands for centuries prior to their eventual expulsion. 

The dhimmi status to which Jews were subjected for over a millennium was a kind of Middle Eastern Jim Crow. As dhimmis, Jews, among other restrictions, as noted in Jewish Virtual Library, “were excluded from public office and armed service … were forbidden to bear arms … not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public … not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices-as that might offend the Muslims. The dhimmi had to show public deference toward Muslims — always yielding them the center of the road.” Jews living as dhimmis in the Middle East and North Africa were periodically subjected to violence with no recourse. For example, in Morocco in 1465, almost all of the inhabitants of the Fez Jewish ghetto were killed. In Iraq in 1941, there was a two-day long outbreak of violence against the Baghdad Jewish community known as the Farhud. Estimates of the numbers of Jews killed in Farhud range from 180 to 1000.

 When these Jews were finally expelled from the lands in which they had lived for millennia, they left behind, by one estimate reported by The Jerusalem Post, $150 billion worth of property. When they arrived in Israel, they endured economic hardship as well as discrimination from the more secular Ashkenazi Jews who had preceded them. 

Between 1948 and 1972, about 586,000 of these refugees from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa settled in Israel — with about another 200,000 going to Europe and North America. In 1947, the entire Jewish population of Israel was about 630,000, mostly Ashkenazi. It’s certainly true that there were Sephardic Jews from Arab countries living in Israel prior to 1948, and as Matti Friedman demonstrated in his book Spies of No Country, they made important contributions to the formation of the state. It would be very difficult, however, to trace many people alive today to Sephardic ancestry exclusively from pre-1948. Therefore, to say that many of their ancestors “could have come” as refugees is an erasure of their experience. 

The Review editors wrote on Feb. 23 that “we never want to change anyone’s words.” However, they changed mine. I hope that it was an oversight and that publication of this letter will set the record straight. 

In the same Feb. 23 article, the Review editors wrote that “writers should not express these facts in a misleading way, as this depletes the integrity of the opinion itself and could potentially misinform readers.” However, this is exactly what they permitted in the March 1 piece, “Understanding Israel-Palestine Conflict Requires Historical Context.” It’s written, “in 1947, when Jews made up one-third of the population and owned six percent of the land in Palestine, the U.N. proposed a partition plan putting 56 percent of Palestinian land under Jewish statehood.” That Jews may have owned six percent of the land — or by other accounts, as demonstrated by my colleague at CAMERA Alex Safian, 8.6 percent— does not mean that Palestinian Arabs owned the other 94 percent, as is implied. At this time, more than 65 percent of the land was state land. That is, it was not under any private ownership at all. Moreover, a cursory look at the partition plan map reveals that a very large portion of the land allocated to a Jewish state under the proposed partition plan was the Negev desert. 

The claim that all 720,000 Palestinians who became refugees did so as a result of “forced displacement” is not accurate, either. It’s true that some were forcibly expelled during the war that other Arab nations started and that Palestinian Arabs participated in. But in Haifa, for example, as Benny Morris has explained, “it was the Arab leadership that called on its population to evacuate.” In Safed, as Mahmoud Abbas has explained, Palestinian Arabs left of their own accord because they “were afraid that the Jews would take revenge for the [Arab] massacre [of Jews] in 1929.”  

Everyone makes mistakes, including, as the editors pointed out, leading publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see the Review editors take their jobs seriously and think hard about these issues.

Karen Bekker, OC ’94

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