I just gave a talk at a “Consultation” between Jews and Christians here in Jerusalem, sponsored by the B’nai Brit International and the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. Here is the written version.
Why Do (Some) Westerners Have So Great an Appetite for Palestinian Lethal Narratives About Israel?
Reflections on Moral Schadenfreude and Replacement Theology
Since the outbreak of the Oslo Intifada (October 2000), the world has been flooded with horrifying images and stories about Israel that have entered the information system largely as news, despite the extensive evidence that many of these accusations are manipulated if not actually staged. Nidra Poller has dubbed these stories “lethal narratives“; David Hirsh has called them the “Livingstone Formulation.” They emphasize Israel’s malicious, malevolent intent, its deliberate desire to kill innocent civilians, especially children. As such, I and others consider them the 21st century avatar of blood libels.
Obviously, after the terrifying disasters brought upon mankind the last time such blood libels took hold in a culture – 6 million Jews murdered, but over 60 million people dead! – one would imagine that responsible people (journalists, academics, progressive thinkers) would react strongly to such a wave of hatred. And yet, rather than oppose it, in general liberals tended to fall silent, while the more radical progressives both secular and Christian, actually stood at the forefront of the circulation of these lethal narratives. I would like to explore why this has been the case, by examining why Western progressives, Christian and post-Christian (and even Jewish) would have so powerful an appetite for these tales of Jews behaving badly that they show virtually no interest in the possibility that these stories, like the earlier blood libels, are not true, but rather the product of people who themselves have the malevolent intentions that they project onto the Jews.
In 1892, in an essay discussing the wide circulation of blood libels, Ehad Ha-am wrote that one of the common responses to Jewish denial was an incredulous: “Do you want me to believe that the whole world is wrong and the Jews are right?” In 2002, in response to Israelis denying that they had massacred 500 Palestinians in Jenin, Kofi Anan, then Secretary General of the UN said, “Are you trying to tell me that the whole world is wrong, and the Israelis are right?” What an impoverished world when the answer to those questions is, “no.”
But my intent here is not to explore why it might be true that the world would be so impoverished if its consensus were wrong and the Jews were right, but why we Jews are in the position of so absurd a dichotomy in the first place. How did we get to where we even have to respond to such outrageous accusations, and do so to an “audience” of gentiles who, even as they proclaim themselves masters of the highest moral standards – who are we to judge? war is not the answer! — have no problem heaping opprobrium on the Israelis and urging on the most heinous violence among the Palestinians. As the allegedly pacifist ISM slogan that came out in response to criticism of suicide bombers blowing themselves up along with children and old people, goes: Resistance is not Terrorism.
Muhammad al Durah, Lethal Narratives, and the Lust to Demean
On September 30, 2000, two days after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, that most people still blame for triggering the Intifada, a French Middle East correspondent stationed in Jerusalem reported the killing of a 12-year old boy named Muhammad al Durah at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip.
Charles Enderlin described the father and son as a “target of fire coming from the Israeli position.” The cameraman who filmed it added that the Israelis killed them deliberately, “in cold blood.”
It turns out, that if the boy was hit, it had to be by Palestinian bullets, but that the much greater likelihood was that the entire scene was staged, as even the most cursory examination of the shockingly poor, choppy, out of focus footage suggests. Indeed, offered the footage by Enderlin, every major film outlet could have asked why the French reporter cut the final 10 seconds of the footage where, after he was supposedly dead from a stomach wound, the boy, who was holding his hand over his eye, not his stomach, lifted up his elbow and looked peered out.
And yet no one in the media challenged it.
But let’s even say it was a kid caught in a crossfire and shot either by Israelis or Palestinians, unfortunate “collateral damage,” a “casualty of war.” The death of such a child is undoubtedly a tragedy, but hardly a novel event in the history of warfare, and, given that Enderlin himself admitted that the Palestinians opened fire first with real bullets from behind the child (Segment 11) – itself a strange act of aggression given the conditions of the Oslo Accords, one might imagine they might bear a certain responsibility in the tragedy.
But the loudest voices in the West would have none of this. On the contrary, the loudest, most immediate, and most persistant voice on this event immediately accused the Israelis of the worst: This was proof of Israeli malevolence, proof they want to kill Palestinian children, proof they are like the Nazis.
On October 7, 2000, exactly a week after the showing of the footage, demonstrations were held all over Europe to protest. In Paris, a large group gathered at Place de la République where, led by a large contingent of Muslim protesters, they shouted “Death to Jews, Death to Israel, Sharon Murderer” (even though Sharon was not even Prime Minister at the time). This may have been the first time since the Nazi era that shouts of “Death to the Jews” were heard in the streets of a European capital. And those radical “leftists” who participated, either joined in or, at any rate, did not protest so grotesque a battle cry. Indeed Jews passing by the demonstration were aggressed.
Paris, Place de la République, October 7, 2000. The final panel has a picture of the al Durah’s behind the barrel, with the legend, “They also kill children.” Note the crucial equation: Israelis = Nazis = Muhammad al Durah.
One might argue that the banner reflects the opinion of Muslim immigrants at the rally, not the French, whose grasp of recent European history one might expect to be somewhat more substantial and realistic. And yet, eyewitnesses have the slogans shouted by many, and soon thereafter, a major French journalist and news anchor at Europe 1, Catherine Nay, in a comment that reflected a widespread sentiment, proclaimed that this picture “erases, replaces, that of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto.”
Now I consider this statement, which obviously tore at the guts of every Jew in France who heard it, to be an act of moral folly. No morally sound person could ever think that the picture of a death of one child in a crossfire replaces an image that symbolizes the deliberate murder of 6 million civilians, 1 million of them children, unless they desperately needed to believe that the Jews were as bad as the Nazis. Only some deep-seated need, completely independent of sober judgment, could lead to so absurd a moral calculus.
Some explain it as a reaction against to the legacy of the Holocaust: Al Durah offered Europeans a get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free card. And there is surely some truth to that in the responses from the European continent. But this was a more ecumenical phenomenon, with appeal far beyond the lands directly involved in the Holocaust. The British, whose guilt for the extermination of Jews did not compare with that of say, the French, were every bit as excited by the news of Al Durah and similar tales.
As both speakers last night noted, there was a link between virulent Christian anti-Semitism and Nazism. Here, in the post-Holocaust world, it has reemerged in the 21st century, in the wave of accusations against Israel as the new Nazis, reflecting a desire not only to be freed from guilt for the Holocaust – really? this way? – but also to free Christians to reassert those critical supersessionist narratives about the Jews’ deliberate, malicious murder of “our” God. During the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, for example, an Italian newspaper depicted the Palestinians as an infant Jesus saying (not about the terrorists desecrating the church within, but about the Israelis outside).
Baby Jesus: “Surely they don’t want to kill me again?!”
(La Stampa, Italy, April 3, 2002)
This is not only raw supersessionism, feeding the worst instincts of self-aggrandizing self-pity, but it’s also suicidal to be that far out of touch with “reality” when dealing with a real enemy – Jihadi hatred and violence – foe of the Jews and the rest of the world (including the Palestinians).
But the appeal of the Al Durah icon of hatred, this permission slip to abuse the Israelis with the most sadistic moral epithets, most poignantly as Nazis, went far beyond not only the lands of the Holocaust, and of traditional Christian anti-Semitism. It also held a tremendous appeal for what one normally thinks of as the secular (post-Christian) progressive left, a place where one would least expect that kind of hate-mongering and demonization. And yet, if anything, the progressive left represented the group most energized by the al Durah story. Here we have Ramsey Clark’s International ANSWER’s website (Catherine Nay quotation added).
The open marriage of the post-colonial Left and Jihadi imperialists dates to these opening years of the 21st century – presided over at Durban, where al Durah, paraded in effigy, was the “patron saint” of the gathering.
Durban, August 2001. Note Al Durah effigy, below, center carried on a bier. The title “Israel’s Images of Hate should rather read, “Palestinian Images of Hate.”
And one of the wedding guests at this unholy union is a sharing of the identification of Israel as the Antichrist (in Muslim terminology, the Dajjal).
Rally in San Francisco to protest Israel’s operation in Lebanon, Summer, 2006.
Nor is this just a problem of the al Durah tale. The last twelve years have been punctuated by a series of anti-Zionist “lethal narratives” – that is, stories about Israel that attribute the most malevolent motives, that emphasize the deliberate desire to harm gentiles, what David Hirsh called, The Livingstone Formulation. They include reports about Jenin, the construction of the barrier to prevent suicide bombing, Gaza Beach, Kafr Qana in Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead, Mavi Marmara, Gaza the “Open Air Prison,” etc. And for reasons that bear close attention, our media takes these deliberately dishonest and malicious narratives and turns them into news, inciting Muslim hatred of Jews even as they feed this strange appetite that Western audiences seem to have for these stories of wicked Jews behaving badly. The entire BDS movement rests on an edifice of lethal narratives, none of which could stand up to scrutiny, especially in their attribution of malevolence to the Jews. The worst Israeli behavior, on and off the battlefield, compares favorably with any other sovereignty in the history of the world, ancient, medieval and modern. A fortiori to Nazis and Jihadis.
Again, one might say, “Oh, but that desire to bash Jews is just Jew-baiting, and it’s no big deal. Harmless fun, boys will be boys, and bullying is an ineradicable part of human nature.” And it is true that the gratuitous demeaning of Jews, whom you know won’t strike back, is a very old tradition of bullying that goes back centuries if not millennia. But whereas in the past, Jew-baiting was relatively cost free in the short run, today, with an aggressive form of Islamist expansionism waiting eagerly in the wings, it’s nothing short of suicidal. While the French obsessively reran the footage of al Durah on their TVs because it soothed their Holocaust guilt, they were also waving the flag of Jihad in front of their own Arab-Muslim immigrant population to whom they were losing entire territories within the Republic.
Two years later, as Europeans celebrated suicide bombers in demonstrations of support for the Palestinians during the Israeli operation in Jenin (in Italy, fashion models showed up wearing nothing but suicide bomber belts), they had no idea that Jihadis considered them targets as well. Up to that point, the suicide terror had only struck Israel and the USA who surely deserved it. Then in 2004, the Madrid bombing, and in 2005, the London bombing. And when in November of 2005 suburbs erupted all over France, burning cars and trashing neighborhoods, the police stood by helpless to intervene. Why? Because they were terrified that a picture of them hurting or – God forbid! – killing an Muslim youth would set off a wave of suicide terror. As one Frenchwoman admitted to me in hushed tones, “The Arabs act as if they have a knife to our throats, and we act as if they had a knife to our throats.” (Meantime, publicly, she, like her colleagues at the CNRS insisted that these riots, where Allahu Akhbar was the leading cry, had nothing to do with Islam.)
This “thirst” for stories of Jews behaving badly (and the elaborate, almost comic avoidance of any stories of Muslims behaving badly) is at once widespread both geographically (global) and ideologically (crosses the religious-secular divide); and it is dangerous to those who indulge their appetites, very dangerous. It strengthens their foes and weakens their friends. What on earth could explain such bizarrely self-destructive behavior?
The Appeal of Lethal Narratives, Moral Schadenfreude and Supersessionism
The easiest answer is cowardice: Muslims hit back violently when insulted; Jews kvetch. But that only explains the silence about Muslims, not the eagerness to demean Jews.
My answer is twofold: that this behavior consists of a kind of “moral Schadenfreude,” or the pleasure one takes in the moral discomfiture of the Jews, on the one hand, and that this unseemly pleasure reflects supersessionist needs on the other. Put simply, the strength of moral Schadenfreude is a direct measure of the presence of replacement theology, even among people who might deny any such “theological” beliefs.
First let me reframe “replacement theology” not as a theological issue, so much as it is a psychological one. It seems to me that it reflects a form of zero-sum thinking that is focused not on matters of guilt and integrity but shame and honor: we are right because you are wrong; we are good because you are bad; we have honor because you are disgraced. We make ourselves look bigger by making you look smaller.
I’m not breaking any new ground here when I observe that the vexing question of chosenness centers around the agonizing question common among siblings (and the focus of the Bible’s patriarchal narratives): who’s daddy’s favorite. For Christians and Muslims, who come after the Jews and from Jewish spiritual currents (apocalyptic ones initially), the problem is existential; for Jews, who came up with the idea in the first place, it’s less so, a fact that, in itself, is rather galling to those for whom the question has such critical import.
Those strains of both Christianity and Islam that have opted for conquest, dominion, and sovereignty, have also opted for an invidious identity formation. Here, driven by a psychological insecurity, some believers prefer the notion that their dominion proves their superiority. Thus, “our” chosenness necessitates that “you” predecessors – for Christians the Jews, for Muslims, the Jews and the Christians – become unchosen. And our ability to lord it over you proves our superiority. One can see how such ways of handling insecurities feeds tendencies to bully, to “Jew-bait” when the supersessionists gain the upper hand.
In the modern democratic world, where Jews are given full citizenship, people lose the ability to “lord it over them.” On the contrary, under “fair” conditions of equality before the law, the Jews rise to positions of prominence. They fill the professions and even public offices. And once they have their own state, they join not only world of equal citizens, but equal nations: they can defend themselves. That’s a lot for a supersessionist to handle. As we saw with the wave of ecumenical Jew-hatred that burned through Europe, East and West, during the Holocaust, modern conditions can exacerbate Jewish relations with non-Jews. Free and independent Jews are frustrating, irritating, even dangerous.
Which brings us to moral Schadenfreude, or the pleasure one gets from seeing another lose the moral “high ground.” Somehow it just comes trippingly off the tongue to turn to Israel and its Jewish supporters and say, “you Jews, 2000 years you suffered at the hands of others and now, no sooner do you get power than you turn around and do it to someone else…” Never mind that Israel labors mightily, and largely successfully, to live up to standards towards enemies who want to destroy them, that no nation, Christian or not, has been able achieve in any age. Is it not enough? For some Jews, most decidedly no; they want Israel to do still better, to avoid even the shadow of a suggestion that they oppress their sworn enemies. But that’s a standard of perfectionism that no outsider has a right to demand from us. To rephrase scripture: “Remove the beam from your eye before you obsess about the speck in ours.”
And yet, rather than engage in such introspection, Westerners, driven by what can only be called a lust to despise us – or as Augustine might have put it had he been a bit more self-critical about Christian attitudes towards Jews, the libido despiciendi – is so great that one’s joy in the moral degradation of Jews drives one, in some cases, to from moral Schadenfreude to moral sadism: “you’re as bad, as Nazis.” To quote Martyn Perry from earlier today, this is an addiction, one that needs an ever higher dose to get the same buzz: “In fact, you worse than Nazis, because you should know better.”
And like most addictions, it’s self-destructive. Europeans, Christians and post-Christian Westerners who eagerly go after the lethal narratives about Israel offered to them by a malevolent Palestinian/Jihadi propaganda machine, are comparable to a fat person with a 350 cholesterol count who can’t stop gobbling down those tasty truffles of Schadenfreude. They just taste toooo good.
In other words, people with supersessionist insecurities get a huge kick out of being able to rejoice in the moral debasement of the Jewish state, whether there really is a moral case to be made or not. Indeed, if there isn’t, they don’t want to hear about it, hence their refusal to listen to Israelis, even Israeli Arabs, defend Israel. Listening to Israelis and Jews attack Israel, on the other hand, nothing sounds sweeter to their ears. Supersessionism is an insecurity complex that needs to view things in zero-sum terms in order to reassure itself; and so the appetite for tales of Jews behaving badly, the moral Schadenfreude one schepps at the Jewish pain at being accused of terrible crimes, of behaving like Nazis, is an indicator of precisely that insecurity and its attendant “replacement” theology.
Let’s state it as a mathematical proposition: the attraction to lethal narratives about Jews is directly proportional to the insecurity of those believing these tales and their consequent need assert a sense of moral superiority by looking down at Jews; and at the same time, that desire to believe the worst of Jews, is inversely proportional to actual moral behavior on the part of the believer.
I don’t think the supersessionist impulse will ever disappear entirely. Like envy, like sibling rivalry, it is part of the DNA of the monotheist family and we have to learn to live with it. There will always be, even within highly spiritual communities, some Christians and Muslims and Jews who feel insecure enough to “need” to put the “others” down, to make themselves feel good by dumping on the other monotheistic groups. And they will always find some evidence of bad behavior among others to justify that need.
This is not, I think, a problem that can be solved by changing the “theology.” It is a psychological one that cannot be “solved,” it can only be successfully resisted, resisted by encouraging a critical mass of faithful to achieve the kind of spiritual and psychological confidence that does not need to either convert, demean, or subject the “other” in order to feel good, and that has the good sense and integrity to publicly oppose the supersessionist impulse when it inevitably reappears.
The need to feel morally superior to the Jews inheres in the need to replace them. So when we see Christians, even as they misbehave according to their own values, the very values that define their greatness, the unstinting love, even of their enemies, eagerly seeking evidence of Jews behaving badly, or, on a larger scale, a Jewish nation behaving badly, then we can surmise that we are in the presence of a zero-sum need to seek one’s moral stature, not in the integrity of the act itself, but in the submission and denigration of the “other.”
If this thesis that the appeal of lethal narratives about Israel is a symptom of a supersessionist mentality is correct, then we should look at the great attraction of the “progressive left” for these anti-Zionist lethal narratives as an indicator of a covert replacement “theology”/psychology among these secular believers. Could the “progressive left” have a secular form of replacement theology? Certainly the first representatives of the “left,” the more zealous of the French Revolutionaries, demanded that Jews become citizens in the place of being Jews, a world view in which the revolutionaries replace the Jews as the moral “cutting edge” of humanity, in which the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man” replace the ten commandments.
French Revolutionary depiction of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, engraved on the two tablets of the Decalogue, 1791.
From this perspective, Israel represents a rival, a rival who must be put in its place, down, in order to raise up the new moral cutting edge of humanity, the revolutionary left.
In the conflict between Israel and her neighbors, there’s no question who holds the moral high ground. No matter what people passionately proclaim to be their beliefs, only the most outsized “underdogmatists” can seriously argue that the Palestinians hold the “high moral ground” in this conflict. Only underdogmatists believe that the side they identify as the “little guy,” the David, can do no wrong: they gets to do anything to resist oppression – preach genocidal hatred, concoct lethal libels, target civilians, sacrifice their own children on the altar of their lost “honor.” As for the side they designate as the “big guy,” the Goliath, they can do no right: they do not have the right to defend themselves from the “resistance” to them, and anything they do places them alongside the great oppressors of mankind: they’re racists, (slow-motion) genociders who deliberately kill their victims’ children.
Given the absurd lengths to which this inversion of moral values can go (Queers for Palestine), one might argue that the attraction of the “left” to underdogmatism derives from their insecurity at recognizing competing moral ideologies, one, for example that argues that moral judgment should neither favor the powerful nor the weak, but judge according to the same standards (Leviticus, 19:15).
This analysis accords with what one might expect from those sufficiently insecure enough to need supersessionism: envy and seek to demean your competition; condescend and stoop to help those so morally base they do not threaten your moral identity. Imagine if you will, the “progressive left,” let’s say, embodied in a Judith Butler, looking into the mirror and saying, “Mirror mirror on the wall, whose the most moral left-wing egalitarian movement of us all.” Lest the mirror answer, “Israel, which in almost 65 years of struggling with enemies who wish to destroy her, has not gone near the kind of totalitarianism that, within mere years of taking power, consumed every other left wing egalitarian revolution so threatened,” she covers up her ears, yells “lalalala! I can’t hear you” and accuses Israel of “right-wing colonial imperialism, racism and genocide.” It may soothe her troubled soul, but it hardly accords with anything remotely resembling either reality or a sane moral universe.
The Way Out: Positive-Sum Chosenness and the Dignity of Difference
Let me conclude on an optimistic, indeed genuinely comforting note. The error that the supersessionist Left (both secular and religious) makes, is to imagine that the ultimate enemy of peace and understanding is the very notion of us-them. This serves as the basis of Edward Saïd’s critique in Orientalism: us and them “always get[s] involved either in self-congratulation or hostility and aggression.” Such an essentialist assumption lies at the heart of Saïd’s tendentious critique of the entire corpus of Western scholarship about the Arab world: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” “[W]ho could deny that [the general group of ideas in Orientalism] were shot through with doctrines of European superiority, various kinds of racism, imperialism and the like, dogmatic views of “the Oriental” as a kind of ideal and unchanging abstraction?”
What I’d like to suggest to you is that the enemy is not “us-them” per se, but zero-sum, us-them, thinking. Instead of needing to abolish the boundaries between various identities – gender, ethnicity, religion – and create a kind of entropic, homogenized “global humanity,” I think we should consider identities based on a sense of difference, of “us and them” as not only necessary to mental health, but a precious resource that should be encouraged, rather than abolished. What we need is not a destruction of identity – here, religious identity – but positive sum relations between different entities. Not the invidious form of zero-sum identity formation of “I’m better cause you’re worse,” but the positive-sum of my freedom necessitates my granting you the same freedoms, that “I derive my self-respect from treating you with respect.” (This then opens the fascinating and urgent door: how does one act with some “other” that does not reciprocate?)
In this sense, I think we can understand two aspects of God’s promise to Abraham. Above all, the promise begins with the promise of the land with the ultimate goal of “through you all the nations of the world will be blessed.” This is a most extraordinary formula: you will be successful in your mission when everyone else is blessed. In terms of modern sum game theory, God chose the Jews to play positive-sum games so that, in their interactions with others, everyone wins. This is chosenness not as privilege (unless you view being told to play positive-sum games among a bunch of zero-sum game players a privilege), but chosenness as responsibility, as heavy burden.
Nor does God guarantee success: “those who bless you I will bless, those who curse you I will curse.” Play positive sum games with the Jews and everyone wins: a productive society in which the wealth and freedom spread broadly; play zero-sum games with the Jews and everyone but the most powerful loses: an impoverished society ruled over by a small elite. In the former one acquires wealth by making, in the latter, by taking.
If the divine response were more or less immediate, this might have an effect. But historically, the “return” on cursing the Jews has not come soon enough to register as related to Jew-hatred. It probably did not occur to most medieval Christians who attacked their Jewish neighbors during Easter at the prompting of their preachers, that there was a connection between those attacks, and the strengthening of the inquisitorial church, that within years of the execution of Jews for the first time (1009), began the first execution of Christian “heretics” (1022). Neither the Spanish in the 16th century, watching the gold they brought from the New World wash through their land like water down treeless slopes, nor the Arabs of the latter 20th century, watching their petrodollars feed a grotesquely wealthy elite who spent it in the West, put their condition in the context of having just kicked out the Jews.
Jews are, historically, never the last targets of Jew-hatred.
The political implications of these issues for monotheism go deep. The political formula that corresponds to the zero-sum (honor-shame) interpretation of chosenness reads: One God, one king, one religion. Anyone refusing to align with such a clean, simple, formula either dies or gets subjected and humiliated. Our honor as the “true” chosen people stands on your humiliation.
The political formula that corresponds to the positive-sum (integrity-guilt) interpretation of chosenness reads: No king but God, and God is too great for any one religion. In this sense the universal gift of the Jews has been the dignity of difference, the expression of a peculiar form of worship that does not claim a monopoly on salvation, that even as it asserts its own way, leaves room for other ways, that makes it possible for the “us-them” relationship to benefit “both sides.”
Those who resent Jews for thinking they’re “chosen,” actually tend to project their own zero-sum notions of chosenness – privilege, dominion – onto the Jews, rather than the far more problematic notion of responsibility and burden.
I’d like to conclude with a remark that I think, upon reflection, many Jews might agree with: We may be the first chosen people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the only chosen. It’s not a question of denomination; it’s a question of moral behavior between people and their neighbors. God is too great for any one religion, and any one style of piety. If the early Christians and Muslims had been slightly less Oedipal about their relationship to the Jews, and had said, “we’re onto something that those earthbound Jews are not, we are chosen with a mission to the gentiles, but that in no way invalidates Jewish understanding of their chosenness and mission, I don’t think that Jews would have scorned their efforts; indeed some might have encouraged and admired them.
When and where Christians and Muslims discover the world of chosenness as a responsibility from which all benefit, and renounce that zero-sum version of privilege and dominion for them, they will find willing partners among the Jews in making the world a better place. As an insightful observer once put it, Jews are not so much a “chosen people” as a “choosing people.” To be chosen means to choose. Choose life, not the slow death of lethal narratives that feed your worst instincts.
 p. 204. Note the “essentialism” of the formulation – Saïd is “othering” the West.