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