I have recently stumbled on some old essays I wrote in the formative first years of the aughts (’00s), before I had a blog (2005). Since they explore themes that have become central to my thinking, I post them here for readers and reference. The following one , written at the same time as my extensive essay on “Judeophobia: medieval, modern and post-modern,” came in response to the global response to the suicide terror campaign of 2001-2, and to the Israel effort to stop it (Mivtza Homat Magen) in the Spring of 2002 (especially the story of Jenin).
This essay was written in part as a response to a colleague who, even before Jenin, had responded to my concern about the acceleration of suicide bombings with the remark, “what choice do they have?” At the time, it felt like the same kick in the stomach I felt when another friend and colleague told me that Jews should stop whining about the Holocaust. After all, the logic of such an observation is: “If they raise their kids to want to kill themselves in order to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible, then Israel must have done some awful stuff to them.”
But I realized that this was not a malicious act, not an intentionally hostile act. On the contrary, it came from a really committed and open individual, not a hostile zealot. It forced me to imagine how he could arrive at a place where “what choice do they have” seemed like an adequate answer to a complaint about something as awful and morally depraved as suicide terror.
In that sense I think this essay also addresses what Larry Summers referred to later that fall as “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intention.” As such, this essay predates, and belongs in, the larger discussion between him and Judith Butler.
[See also, Rebecca Siegel, “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism: A Response to Judith Butler,” Bad Subjects, 70, 10/2004; Jack Furness (editor of BS), “Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism: Reflections on Palestine and What I’ve Learned About Being an Editor, a Jew, and a Leftist,” Bad Subjects, 77, 10/2007 (response to Siegel).]
I have changed only matters of style and clarity. Perhaps now, more than a decade later, such reflections will find more attentive audiences.
We are witness to an extraordinary spectacle. The Palestinians – apparently secular and religious alike – have brought suicide mass murder to the level of a military tactic, and many people, well-intentioned and honest, think that such actions, no matter how reprehensible, somehow represent a legitimate expression of despair. As one friend put it to me, “what choice do they have?” Reminded of the offer at Camp David, he granted the existence of an alternative, but the implications of Arafat’s rejection did not play any role in his subsequent expression of confidence that if the Palestinians just got (what he thought they wanted as) their land back, the conflict would be over. Bring up issues of virulent anti-Jewish Arab press, an even-handed person will either raise the question of anti-Arab sentiment in Israel, or, confronted with the pervasiveness and creativity of the worst of anti-semitism, the blood libels and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, she will seek to quiet your paranoid fears. Told that in the Middle East violence is an important means of communication that does not necessarily correspond to that in modern civil political culture, he bemoans the cycle of violence and darkly prophecies that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. People have given up on trying to understand the Middle East.
What frightens me about this attitude, which effortlessly goes from condemning suicide mass murder against Americans – 9/11 – and, I presume, by extension Europeans, maybe even everyone else in the world, to excepting Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, is not the inherent anti-Semitism that so many Jews feel it flagrantly reveals. It certainly represents a staggering set of unexamined assumptions, one of which holds that if the Palestinians hate the Israelis so, the Israelis must have done terrible things to them to deserve that (rational) hate and desire for revenge. Why else would Palestinians have an 80% approval rate for suicide bombings!? As a medieval historian who looks at what the French call the “longue durée,” I am not as surprised by the resurgence of traits that are longstanding among the Western Left, namely the “socialism of fools.” What I find more disturbing and surprising – if that were possible only two generations from the Holocaust – are two rather new elements of that inveterate pattern.
1) The virtually suicidal nature of this distinction: We neophyte denizens of the 21st century stand on the edge of becoming a global community. Such occasions have rarely come in the history of mankind; and in the past they have always led to violence and social stratification. We are attempting this process under terribly promising and terribly worrying conditions. We have ideologies of egalitarianism and cooperation that drive prominent dimensions of this globalization and technologies that promise human ease and happiness. But these technologies also empower violence and the ideologies of hatred. With a world under threat from so many sources, not the least, our own messiness, what madness to mass murder of civilians as a legitimate expression of frustrated desires.
What kind of mad process can we possibly imagine we create with such a move! What blighted encounters between cultures can we possibly hope for under conditions which accept the validity of this kind of vicious behavior and its accompanying victim narratives. The idea that, just as we begin to see the contours of a global civilization that has never before existed, we should affirm the legitimacy of blowing yourself up in order to kill as many of the men, women and children of the people you believe are your enemy as you can – as an act of “resistance”! – strikes me as a terrible precedent. Why on earth do people who make this facile distinction think that they will somehow be spared from future groups who, convinced that they cannot get what they want – sometimes what we want is not possible – they have a right to resort to this unbelievably depraved action?
From the perspective of globalization, the current direction of Arab political culture is catastrophic. And no one seems ready to hold these cultures to account, to tell them in no uncertain terms that such behavior cannot be tolerated. On the contrary, in their sympathy for the Palestinians, their moral outrage at the suffering Israel inflicts on them, they serve as enablers, who feed the rage and sense of victimization of these people. Look at how Jimmy Carter squeezes in a moral condemnation as an aside to his vigorous denunciation of Israeli settlements and “provocations.” This is, given the stakes of our nuclear world, suicidal.
2) The bizarre location of this attitude among liberals: Of all the groups to espouse such “exceptions,” liberals seem like the last group one would expect to hear it from. Normally such a discourse comes from the far right (as it does, in the interesting combinations of Muslim and neo-Nazi racist hate groups now occurring). It makes sense to legitimate behavior you yourself, your chosen moment arrived, wish to use as well. Those who abhor violence, want an end to conflicts, who desire ardently to treat all people equally, who strive to make the world a better place… why would they legitimate such actions? Why would they somehow exempt Israel from the umbrella of nations deserving of protection from such staggering violence? Why would they give the Palestinians a stern look of disapproval and then turn to Israel, as had the UN representative and say, “nothing can justify such devastation.”
No doubt we can and should be indignant at the sight of human suffering. But are we that innocent of history that we operate on such an inverted scale? Do we not know the history of our own continents? Do we not know the history of the Arab people? One can understand a cynic choosing to ignore how Palestinian violence renders both its own people and the Israelis wretched, but someone who abhors violence so completely? Why would someone whose culture is also vulnerable to the resentful hatreds of the Muslim world, nourish such mad hatreds as long as they are directed at Israel. What is going on?
Explanation 1: Antisemitism