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
I can tell you the general Jewish response. Most Jews I know think these people are anti-Semites, conscious or unconscious. There’s nothing else that can explain such anomalous, self-destructive behavior; you have to hate someone really bad to cut off your nose to spite their faces. The psycho-logic here seems clear: these people would rather wish the Jews harm than move to protect themselves, and certainly more than move to protect the people about whom they profess so much concern and sympathy, the Palestinians. That would certainly explain several anomalies:
- Why the Palestinians are the most popular liberation movement in the world today, despite the fact that they behave worse than any other (and the record of such movements is not that great anyway),
- Why the global “Left” would support the cause of creating the 23rd Arab Muslim nation, rather than the first Kurdish, or Berber, or Tibetan, or Tamil, or any of the other ethnic and religious groups that languish under the heavy hand of imperialist and nationalist dominion.
- Why the Palestinian people (as opposed to their heroic leaders) languish under even more oppressive conditions under the occupation of their own people, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, without anyone objecting.
- Why, for all its good will, the world of sympathy for Palestinians has never translated into their welfare.
Why not? Because the Palestinian must be the victim of the Jews. How can one justify to oneself hatred of the Jews if they are not harming someone. The Palestinians must suffer on the altar of Jew hatred.
After the Holocaust, this accusation runs, when Jew-hatred was no longer acceptable, even in some drawing rooms, when publications of the Protocols drew reproof (e.g., at Vatican II when the Austrian bishops opposed to exonerating the Jews for the Crucifixion tried to circulate the text through the Spanish contingent), anti-semites strong and mild, could count on their Arab proxies, and their victim people the Palestinians, to carry the torch. They would keep the nascent state under constant threat of destruction. Since every other revolutionary regime which, upon achieving power that comes under threat from surrounding nations and anyone who cares to pay attention knows that when a revolutionary regime takes power, it melts down into totalitarian horror under the threat of overwhelming outside force. What better way for the old virus to survive in a world of victorious liberalism, where everyone, even Jews, were supposed to get a fair chance?
If such an attitude isn’t anti-semitic, it shares a lot of traits and dynamics, including the current outbreaks of public celebrations in Europe at the killing of innocent Jews (marches in praise of suicide-bombers), the outbreak of copy-cat attacks on Jews and Jewish sites, not only in Israel, but around the world. But more forebodingly, the suicidal attitude of the progressives in legitimating Palestinian suicide bombing as somehow “justified,” parallels the repeated results of earlier, “medieval” anti-semitism – they will eventually fall victim to their own violent fantasies and projections of hatred and slaughter, corrupted in their society by this way of dealing with the “other.” The West went through nightmare centuries of persecuting “heretics” and “witches” and every other scapegoat they could find as a result of this approach to the Jews. Why do we want to repeat such self-destructive madness?
Explanation 2: Post-Modern Liberalism
Such accusations, however, fall largely on deaf ears, no matter how much more cogent their reading of history. Somehow liberals – Jews and non-Jews alike – do not like to think badly of people; they want to believe that all this hatred is behind us, that we are in a new world, and that such talk is both paranoid and demonizing. They are quite comfortable with the statement “Just because you criticize Israel doesn’t make you anti-Semitic” somehow believing that the corollary to this holds that therefore “no criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic,” rather than that “Most post-war anti-Semitism expresses itself as anti-Zionism.”
But the issue goes farther. Many of the people who engage in this thinking do not dislike Jews; indeed many of them prize Jews as close friends, and find great delight in conversation with them. Indeed some of them think they are the Jews’ best friend, who wants to comfort the Jewish people in their afflictions. They think the Jews are a great and admirable people, and they thrilled to the early exploits of Zionism. But now they fear for the soul of this great people and brave nation. Now they tremble in anxiety and know not what to say.
Moreover, this argument has an excellent liberal lineage. It founds itself in basic human principles: it wants to be fair, to hear both sides, to think well of people, to alleviate suffering, to support the rights of all people to dignity and freedom. It naturally recoils at stereotyping on both sides, and naturally looks for compromising formulas whether in assessing claims and counter-claims, narratives and counter-narratives, or coming up with equitable solutions. It accepts as axiomatic that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights, that both Israeli and Palestinian states should be democracies. And it rigorously applies the same standards of empathy (really sympathy) to both sides: both people sincerely want peace; both equally value the lives of their own and their children.
To take this position is to feel good about oneself, to fly the flag of liberalism. And for Jews, so passionate about the liberalism because so much of it is biblical in origin, taking a courageous stand against Israeli oppression, makes it all the more noble. Self-criticism never had more valiant martyrs than the Jews who suffer the indignant hostility of their fellow Jews who view them as traitors. The package is understandably difficult to resist.
And yet, it is also approves of all of the worst elements that any people could possibly display, setting an extraordinarily low bar for admission to the family of sovereign nations. On one level its extraordinary: the most widely accepted notion today is that the Palestinians should have their own nation as quickly as possible – and this before the southern Sudanese black Africans, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Berbers, etc. And yet the Palestinians show every indicator of producing a fascist, repressive, and violently aggressive, if not genocidal state. Not only do they treat their enemy’s lives with contempt, they treat their own people’s lives with contempt – their daughters for shaming the family, their homosexual sons for being penetrated, their dissidents for treason, their children for the sake of killing Israelis. And instead of reading this as writing on the wall that this “nation” once given sovereignty will abuse it, good people all agree that once they get what they tell us they want, all will be well. This is nice, but it’s suicidally stupid thinking. Why don’t we hear people say, “I fear for the soul of a future Palestinian nation.”
Most people don’t even see it. Some people do and try to explain it. One of the most interesting recently has been the remarks of Mick Hume, a Palestinian sympathizer, no less, in the London Times. According to his analysis,
Israel has become the designated scape-goat of Western society’s loss of nerve. They are indulging a contemporary fantasy that, if only Israel could somehow be made to disappear, everything would be all right, since surely nobody would have reason to hate the West. While Western leaders turn their backs on their old ally, their enemies turn on Israel as a scapegoat for the world’s ills. Israel and the Jews have become the targets of a sort of ersatz anti-imperialism. A global consensus against Israel has taken shape among all those who hate the values of Western society, an unholy alliance of Islamic fundamentalists with fashionable anti-capitalists.
What Hume puts his finger on is the inability of the West to stand firm, to say precisely the opposite of what the outraged Mr. Larsen of the UN said: Some things – suicide mass murders, for example – do justify getting nasty in one’s own self defense. The “loss of nerve” Hume identifies is there, and embedded in a wide range of “liberal dogmas” such as:
- All narratives are equal: who are we to judge what is right and wrong?
- Racism is only bad when it comes from people with power, and understandable when it comes from the oppressed: racism means white supremacy
- Because we are strong, we need to bend over backwards to be nice to people who are hostile, in order to win them over to sympathy with us
- We should not discriminate against other cultures and make generalizations about how they think, socialize, or interact: on the contrary, under superficial (but colorful) cultural differences, we are all the same.
Now all this is good, earnest stuff, and most of the time it works. The problem is that if it is applied in this case we run up against some serious problems:
- the narratives are not equal – the Palestinian narrative is demonizing in the extreme, and has no self-critical dimension, while the Zionist one is remarkably self-critical, and has, especially in recent years, bent over backward to admit errors and accommodate the Palestinian one.
- the racism and hatred is not only openly cultivated by an “oppressed people” (Palestinians) it is also adopted widely by an oppressive people (Arabs and Palestinian elites).
- bending over backwards appears on the opponent’s screen as weakness and invites further attack
- the refusal to identify real cultural differences, and the insistence on projecting our forms of thinking and interacting onto a self-avowed opponent, means we cannot identify an enemy.
This final point should be sobering. Even if the Islamist movement and its extensive sympathizers in the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Palestine, were not our enemies – and they certainly think they are – this approach means we can never identify enemies. Whatever anyone does, we will dismiss it as a call for further concessions. If they strike us, it means we must be guilty of something. 9-11 is a call to address the “conditions of terrorism” and do more to get rid of world poverty.
There is a terrible irony in this reversal of roles. Historically, it is the Jews who turned the other cheek (Lamentation, 3:30), seeing the evil deeds of their enemies as a call to repentance and return to God, as a signal for introspection and non-resistance. Christianity in its triumphalist periods when it held power, on the other hand, has more often taken its self-declared status as “chosen people” as a call to imperial dominion (proselytizing imperative, white man’s burden) and an occasion to destroy those who undermine the faith (crusades, inquisition, deicide charges and pogroms). Now, at a critical moment in the history of mankind, when the entire world is joining a global movement of technological modernization and exploring whatever cultural changes that involves, we decide to turn the cheek (or should I say the Israeli cheek) to the blows of one of the most violent imperialist political cultures and one of the most triumphalist religions in recorded history.
This time, however, instead of cowering in exile, bemoaning the blows of fate, the Israelis have chosen, after the lessons of the holocaust, to make a stand against people who wish them great evil. And rather than condemn the genocidal imperialists from a barbaric political culture where massacres of civilians – Arab, Muslim, Christian, Jew – is a standard weapon of the fight for dominion, we turn on the Israelis for having the nerve to defend themselves. We cannot tell our friends from our enemies, and not only cannot resist, we weaken ourselves and the values we claim to cherish. We have CISS: Cultural Immuno-Suppressant Syndrome. Hopefully we can find a cure.
Meanwhile, the current consensual approach systematically misreads the evidence, assuming that the losers in the wars are innocent victims and the winners are guilty aggressors. Such a simple-minded reading, which has no room for a category like frustrated aggressor, or restrained victor, must therefore cram all evidence into a simplistic parable of the good weak and evil powerful so limited an approach brings with it: The Israeli Goliath and the Palestinian David. Indeed the approach closely parallels the argument that African-Americans can’t be racist because they don’t have power. Racism, in this crazy misreading, can only exist in white superiority. No wonder the liberal can entertain the oxymoronic and counter-evidential notions that Israelis are racists (the premise of the Durban conference), and that the Arabs can’t be anti-Semites because “they too are Semites.”
There is more than a touch of irrationality here. The more passionate of this school will engage in comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, like the Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago. The saner of this school might reject such comparisons as “too much,” but quite easily accept comparisons between Israel and South African apartheid. And yet, neither school will even entertain the notion that Arab nations – from North Africa through the Middle East – represent some of the most enduring apartheid states in the world (over a millennium of Dhimmi laws disadvantaging infidels and women), and that the Arab (and even more Palestinian) political culture not only closely resembles some of the worst elements of Nazism, but had close links with the Nazis during the war (Yasser Arafat led the cortege at the Mufti Haj al Husseini’s funeral in 1974). Indeed, whereas the Nazis hid their genocidal intentions, Muslim clerics have openly embraced such goals from the birth of Israel to the present. To make such arguments somehow strikes the liberal mind as racist, unfair, unacceptable. Somehow the fatuous argument that the Arabs can’t be anti-semitic because they are semites lives side-by-side with the Palestinian claim that the Israelis are racist. Why the moral asymmetry here? Why accept, even with reservations, arguments that compare Israel to the worst the world has to offer, and yet shield Palestinians from any such comparison? How is this fair?
On one level, I think I have a sense of the answer. To think these thoughts is unthinkable, because to recognize how deeply rooted the problem is to find oneself either at a loss for solutions, or driven to some very illiberal solutions, solutions that lie at the origins of most every nation and people in the world today: war, expulsion, massacre. The very unthinkability of these options is admirable; and it is something that both Israelis and Western liberals are deeply committed to. Look at the outcry when, in the Spring incursion of 2002, Israeli soldiers were writing numbers on prisoners with felt-tip pens – even the faintest echo of the Holocaust (this was neither tattoos, nor for the purpose of extermination), done to someone else, was unacceptable.
But rather than unite liberals and Israelis, this shared commitment actually divides them, because the liberal then, and despite all the evidence available, projects that unthinkability of massacre and genocide onto the Palestinians. One must project this; one cannot consider the possibility that Palestinian and Arab culture accepts murder and massacre as legitimate activities in striving to regain honor.
And of course, the Arabs drive home that point constantly. Confronted with the grotesque hate speech of the Arab press and the moral depravity of suicide bombings, Palestinians accuse their accusers of racism, of dehumanizing the Palestinians – in other words they project aggressively their own faults onto the Western liberal, and call him to task for values they have no commitment to. And the liberal dares not respond.
Why not? Because the obvious answer to such an observation is that such toxic political cultures cannot be tolerated in the modern world, that we cannot live in peace side by side with them. And what does that mean in terms of the current hostilities? That we are at war with an implacable enemy who wishes us immense harm, and that we have to defend ourselves. How would our ancestors have handled this?
If one argues, as I would, that it is a cultural not a racial problem, then that means a process of (re-)education which implies an unacceptable paternalism and condescension. The great modest, post-modern cry comes straight to the lips: “Who are we to judge? Who are we tell them…?” To which I answer, we have managed to generate a culture that values life, and tries to grant people freedom rather than dominate them. That is why, to the great embarrassment of Muslims who demand their rights from Israel and the West, the only place Muslim commoners have civil rights is in non-Muslim countries, and perhaps most prominently in Israel.
The Culture of Massacre and the Problem of Even-Handedness
Like many Zionists – that is, people who believe that the Jews have a right to their own country – the attitude of my liberal friends and colleagues, Jews and non-Jews, confuses me. They strive, in their own words, to be “even-handed.” They want to be fair, empathic, and give each side an equal hearing. And I share their desires and their goals. What troubles me, however, relates not to the aims of all of those who would like to see the world transformed into a place where people resolve disputes through words and not violence, where neighbors strengthen each other with their interactions, rather than drag each other, like crabs, back into a basket of authoritarian regimes and terrorized commoners, where people who love peace can speak their hearts publicly without fear of getting massacred. I’m all for that.
But according to my investigation of the Western past, achieving that kind of world is not easy, and takes a great deal of cultural effort, of education. And they seem to think that this so-called “democratic society” is something you just take off the shelf and pass out like any other product. On the contrary, the Greek political philosophers, almost to a man, argued against democracy because if you empower the commoners they will, from lack of any self-control take the polity on a descending spiral from demagogic tyranny to chaos. While the democratic polities of the modern world have challenged such aristocratic claims, they have done so by educating their commoners in the disciplines necessary to sustain the difficult commitments to equality before the law and all the human and civil rights such commitments entail. The fact that there are 22½ Arab Muslim nations and not one of them is a democracy should alert us to a cultural problem and not merely a political detail. Islamic culture, despite some important egalitarian ideals in the Quran, has, over the 1400 years of its existence, tended to produce authoritarian societies in which a small, powerful and wealthy elite dominated a subject commoner population.
Especially in the Arab world, this culture has flourished within the context of a powerful “honor culture,” that is, a culture in which a man has the right to regain his honor by shedding the blood of those who have shamed him. The most horrific aspect of such a culture must be the notion of “honor-killings” in which a father or brother kills the woman whose behavior has “shamed” the family. In some cases this can be as trivial as flirting with the wrong person, or as unintentional as getting raped.
It is nothing short of stupidity to fail to realize that such a culture puts a different value on human life, even the lives of one’s children, than does modern liberal culture. Nevertheless, when Golda Meir said that “peace will come when the Arabs love their own children more than they hate us,” she was reviled as a racist by good liberals who would hear nothing of the sort about Arabs. Such an attitude cuts out one of the more accurate ways of understanding the intractability of the conflict: that the very existence of the state of Israel shames the Arab nations, and offers an image of a society in which gender relations are not based on a latent terrorism. And if they will kill their own children (mostly daughters) for shaming the family, a fortiori, what would they do to enemies who shame and them and undermine their culture?
To understand the role of massacre of civilians in Arab culture one must understand the role of the Dhimmi in Islamic honor culture. Dhimmis are the subject adherents to other religions, against whom Muslim law systematically discrimates. They pay more taxes and have fewer rights; they cannot take a Muslim to court nor bear witness against a Muslim in court; they cannot buy and sell property freely, nor can they build and repair their houses of worship as and when they wish. (This is a particularly telling detail: Christians and Jews cannot have taller houses of worship than mosques because that would dishonor Islam. This issue stands at the heart of the fight in Nazareth over the mosque that Muslims wish to build higher than the basilica there.) Dhimmis are subject people; Dhimmi law has its closest parallels in Jim Crow and Apartheid laws.
And like those discriminatory laws, deeply embedded in a culture of dominance where the Muslim commoners take refuge from their subjection to their own elites in their ability to bully the Dhimmi, any attempt to abolish such laws and move to legal equality leads to violent reactions from those, no matter how wretched their estate, who stand to lose their one consolation. Civilian massacres characterize Arab “politics” throughout the twentieth century: from the massacres of Jews in Palestine of 1929 and 1936, to the multiple massacres of the Lebanese civil war (1975-82). Some of them are “state sponsored”, like Saddam Hussein’s gassing of his Kurdish population, and Assad’s leveling of the town of Hama and annihilating its 10,000 inhabitants to sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But these kinds of pogroms actually have a significant earlier history. During the 19th century, under the pressure from the European powers, the Ottomans were pressured to eliminate their Dhimmi laws, and just as such a move in the US led to the Ku Klux Klan, so did these earlier ones lead to systematic Muslim violence – massacre, looting, rape – against the Christian and Jewish minorities lest they misinterpret this legal change to mean they actually were free. As the known Arabic pogram chant goes: “today the Saturday people, tomorrow the Sunday people.” It is the furious crucible of the combined passions of western egalitarianism, Christian imperialism, and Muslim sense of loss of control, that we should understand the importation of the Jewish Blood libel to Damascus in 1840.
In this framework, then, Israel represents the first Dhimmi people to first free themselves from the imperialist yoke of the Arab Muslims in the heart of Dar al Islam (the Greeks and the Serbs in the Balkans were actually the first, but that was part of very late conquests by the Turks; Palestine was one of the first conquests of Arab Islam, decades after the death of Muhammed). And in this framework, one in which Islam has been shamed by losing a core piece of Dar al Islam, and the Arabs have been shamed by having a subject people – since Islam’s inception Jews had always been subject – rebel against them successfully.
What have we learned from Jenin? Not that war is brutal and people die, especially when such wars are fought out in terrain with civilians. That anyone but the most naïve fool knows is true. So what is with Mr. Larson, whose declared that “Nothing justifies this,” as if dozens dead, in a small area of the refugee camp, mostly militants, were an outrageous response to a suicide campaign that had killed over a thousand civilians. Such moral outrage represents some of the most aggressively naïve notions about the history not only of his own European culture, but also Arab culture.
Indeed one need not be a historian to remember that in September, 1970, that Arab moderate, king Hussein sent his soldiers to drive the Palestinian power structure out of his kingdom and in one month killed 20,000 Palestinian men, women, and children, more Palestinians than Israel has killed in 53 years of war. Nor was Hussein provoked by suicide bombers blowing themselves up among Jordanians. Nor were Palestinian preachers calling for the extermination of Hussein and his Bedouins. But he did have Palestinian militias attacking his soldiers when they passed through a Palestinian area of his kingdom. And his response was so savage an attack that the PLO actually preferred to swim the Jordan to Israel, than remain at the tender mercies of their fellow Arabs.
What we have learned from Jenin is how badly the Palestinians want a massacre of civilians, so that they can complain to the world. First suicide mass murders – no more unbearable provocations imaginable – then hiding among your civilian population making it impossible for your enemy to retaliate without harming civilians. Not only will Palestinians kill Israeli civilians in to get Israel to kill theirs, but they immediately exaggerate every injury that comes their way, claiming genocidal massacres when there are none. The asymmetry seems quite striking. The Israelis, under far more intolerable provocation, sacrifice the lives of their soldiers to minimize enemy civilian deaths, while the Palestinians scream in rage at imagined massacres by Israelis while forgetting the massacres visited upon them and other Arab dissidents by their own ruling elites (Assad leveled the entire city of Hama – 10,000 people – without losing a single soldier by bombing it to bits.)
How does the press handle the issue? By focusing on every Israeli violation of human rights they can uncover. By quoting indignant UN representatives who feed their righteous indignation by turning a blind eye to the provocation – “Nothing (i.e., not even suicide mass murders) can justify…” – and a narrow search beam that ignores the “normal” behavior of Arabs when dealing with these “nothing” provocations – “this devastation.” Such outrage, such sympathy for a civilian population that supports in overwhelming numbers the use of suicide bombing, followed by the dark warnings that this will just lead to more violence, all follow the patterns of enablers who encourage the addictions of their partners.
In this case the addiction is to hatred and vengeance. How strange that Christians should preach to the Israelis that they not take vengeance, but somehow sympathize and feed the rage for vengeance that so prominently motivates so much of Palestinian culture. And again, one might understand such an attitude if the Israelis had treated the Palestinians worse than their brethren, had tormented them with particularly violent oppression. But the Israelis have treated Arabs under their sovereignty, both citizens and captured populations, better than any other Arab country.
We may all wish that Israel had done even better – and many Israelis feel precisely that way – but we cannot possibly be fair to them if we do not take into account the larger cultural situation. Democracy is not an easy formula. Elites need to grant powers and commoners need to be sufficiently disciplined so that they do not choose demagogues and run amuck. To assume that democracy is what every culture wants and will enact if given a chance (i.e., that the Palestinians just want a chance to [democratic] self-determination), deeply underestimates what we, in the West, have accomplished, and foolishly assumes that those who use democratic language to advance an imperialist agenda do so in good faith. Blind, self-destructive optimism.