Roger Cohen and the Modern 3/5th Compromise

By Yousef Munayyer

Usually it is very easy to tell the New York Times’ Roger Cohen apart from similarly named decency-challenged columnist at the Washington Post Richard Cohen. Usually. Sometimes however, Roger’s arguments make that distinction far more difficult to make, especially when they focus on Palestinian rights.

In the past, I’ve written about the morally and historically flawed arguments Cohen makes against Palestinian rights, particularly the Palestinian right of return. WARNING: Such arguments may induce a gag reflex.

This week, Roger is at it again with a broadside attack on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. As he did in the past, he portrays advocates for Palestinian refugee rights as subversives whose real goal is annihilation. But how does one make the jump from advocating for refugee rights and advocating for annihilation?

Here is Roger’s thought process:

I do not trust the B.D.S. movement. Its stated aim is to end the occupation, secure “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel’s future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate.

What Roger is saying is that there is some fraction of human rights that Palestinians should have and others that they shouldn’t. They should have self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, he argues, but Palestinian refugees shouldn’t have the right to repatriation.  Why does he say that Palestinians should have some rights, but not others? Because, in his view, it would equal “the end of Israel as a Jewish state”.

Most writers or intellectuals with integrity would look at this line of thinking and ask the next logical and normative question; Why do Palestinian rights threaten Israel as a Jewish state? What sort of state system is existentially threatened by the exercise of the rights of its native inhabitants? Is that sort of state system really deserving of my support?

Roger, and most liberal Zionists, don’t want to ask these questions because they are uncomfortable with the answers. It is only by avoiding these questions that liberal Zionism can exist. Liberal Zionism necessitates this sort of moral and intellectual cowardice. It is easy, as Roger writes, to merely state “A Jewish national home is needed. History demonstrated that.” Yet it is far more difficult to ask at what cost? at whose expense? and is that justifiable? It easier to just ignore that part all together. It is also wrong and pusillanimous.

Mr. Cohen also writes that “There can, and should be, agreed compensation for the dispossessed, but there cannot be a reversal of history.” No, there absolutely can not be a reversal of history, Roger. Which is exactly why the option to return and compensation are necessary. For the countless refugees that died in camps and in exile dreaming of the day that they would return to their land, there will be no opportunity to even attempt to correct what history has done to them, let alone “reverse” it.

Cohen supports a compromise on the Right of Return. He’s is happy to compromise Palestinian rights on their behalf it seems. Refugees wishing to return can return to the Palestinian state, he’d argue. Never mind the practical nightmare it would be for a fledgling state a quarter of the land area, twice as densely populated, and with an economy 1/30th the size of Israel to absorb refugees Israel is responsible to repatriate. As long as these refugees don’t challenge Jewish majoritarian control in Israel, it really doesn’t seem to matter to Roger Cohen where or how they go where ever they go. Just not in Israel.

The callous willingness to limit rights so as not to challenge a fundamentally unjust system and to appease the powers that be hearkens back to a dark time in American history. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the framers debated how slave populations would factor into population counts for representation in the federal system. Slaves were part of the population and of course the issues of population, taxation and representation were all tied together. If slaves were counted as part of the population for representation purposes, the weight of votes from slaves states would be disproportionate, especially since the slaves themselves could not vote.  Non-slave states in the North opposed this, but the South was powerful and its economic output, fueled by slave labor, made it too costly to alienate. Still, historians will tell you that in the back of everyone’s minds during the framing of the Constitution was the incompatibility of the slave system and American ideals. Sooner or later, this issue would have to be resolved. Indeed, nearly 100 years later, in the 1860s, the United States fought this battle in the American Civil War and 100 years after that, the battle for equality took another step forward with the passage of civil rights legislation. The struggle for a more perfect union continues to this day.

But back in 1787, liberal northerners were not ready to have this fight. Instead they sought to compromise. The number of “whole free persons” would be added to the number of 3/5ths of “all other persons”. Slaves were officially counted as 3/5ths of a free person. To those reading this today, the vile injustice of this pact screams at us as we read the words. To the framers of the Constitution then, this was a pragmatic compromise that avoided unnecessary conflict.

I’m sure Roger Cohen believes he is being a pragmatist as well. All other persons, like Palestinian refugees, probably don’t see him in the same light. Can you blame them?


Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.