Dealing with Jewish Self-Absorption

It’s most challenging to go where the silence is and say something.

Amy Goodman

I was kidding a couple of Muslim Palestinian-American friends the other day about being barbarians, by the lights of Israeli historian Benny Morris. This was a day or two after this paragon of dispassionate Israeli scholarship had expostulated in an interview published in Ha’aretz on the benefits (if you’re Jewish) of ethnic cleansing, the critical miscalculation of David Ben-Gurion in not having completed the total ethnic cleansing of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River in 1948 when he had a chance, and the barbarity of Arab and Muslim culture. “The Arab world as it is today is barbarian,” Morris declared. Islamic and Arab culture is “a world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West,” in which freedom and democracy are alien, in which there are “no moral inhibitions.” He was speaking in sweeping terms, of entire cultures, of the mass of individuals in the Arab and the Muslim worlds, not merely of governments that are oppressive or undemocratic. Palestinians in particular, Morris believes, are barbaric, “a very sick society,” and should be treated “the way we treat individuals who are serial killers. . . . Something like a cage has to be built for them.”

My friends have a good sense of humor, and so we laughed uproariously at the notion that they and every last Arab and Muslim throughout the world are barbarians. Hilarity is the way you often react when confronted with utter horror. What was so particularly horrifying about Morris’s pronouncements was their resonance, their representativeness, the banality of the evil they reflect. Meir Kahane, the assassinated Israeli-American rabbi and politician who made a career out of propounding racist views, always used to say that his anti-Arab pronouncements and policy positions were simply what other Jews thought in their hearts but did not quite dare to say out loud. Benny Morris — who still considers himself a leftist, still favors establishment of a Palestinian state in part of Palestine, still exposes Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians in his examination of early Israeli history — is one of those people Meir Kahane was describing, and he speaks for large numbers of his fellow Israelis and his fellow Jews throughout the world.

Morris’s blunt soul-bearing has lifted the last barrier of propriety to the open expression of raw Arab hatred. One longs for some gigantic outcry of opposition or disgust over this confession of deep bigotry, but there has been none. Except for a few letters to the editor of Ha’aretz from American Jews, the interview has aroused little attention in the Jewish-American community: no denunciation, no shock, little or no discussion on any but the most progressive Jewish e-mail lists. You have to assume that, however awkward Morris’s blunt language may be, he is speaking for a large segment of American Jews who say they oppose the occupation, say they hate Sharon, say they hate Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, but who do nothing about any of these things and who in the end would not grieve, either for the Palestinians or for the Jewish soul, if Israel wiped the Palestinians off the map.

One of Morris’s fellow revisionist historians, Oxford University professor Avi Shlaim, observed when Morris first came out as an Arabaphobe in leftist clothing a couple of years ago that Morris was wallowing in self-pity. Self-pity over the supposed victimization of Israel and total absorption in a world in which only Jewish interests matter rang out loud and clear in Morris’s interview. Although he lectures about what he sees as Arab and Muslim moral failings, Morris thinks it impractical to demand morality of Jews. “I’m trying to be realistic,” he said. “Preserving my people is more important than universal moral concepts.” This self-absorbed focus on Jews, Jewish interests, Jewish self-preservation is characteristic of a substantial subset of American Jews who I have to assume secretly do not disagree with Morris’s world view.

Take Valerie. Valerie is an actual person (although not her actual name); she is also the perfect representation of a large number of American Jews who seem to approach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from an identical script: they are at pains to tell you they don’t like Ariel Sharon, have “always” opposed the occupation, and support two states in Palestine-Israel, but if anyone else ventures to describe what the occupation is really like on the ground in Palestine or what Palestinians endure at the hands of Israel’s occupation administrators, they react with bristling hostility and respond that they cannot “hear” such Israel-bashing. Jews are suffering in Israel, they tell you, and that is what takes precedence.

It is obviously politically dangerous to talk about any group of Jews who seem to think or act alike. One is immediately attacked for labeling all Jews as identical, for stereotyping, and of course the notion that one is anti-Semitic always hangs over the discussion, either explicitly or implicitly. These days it is almost impossible even to discuss “Israel” and its actions and policies without being criticized for generalizing and failing to take account of those Israelis and American Jews who oppose the Israeli government’s policies. I want to make it clear that I am very well aware that Jews come in all varieties — all political inclinations, all degrees of dedication to Israel, all degrees of religiosity and of ethnic self-identification. I am not by any means declaring that all Jews are like Valerie, or like Benny Morris, simply that Valerie represents a line of thinking about Israel that I have found quite common among many American Jews.

Valerie and those who think like her on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are somewhere in the middle along the Jewish political spectrum. They are well to the left of the conservatives who oppose any peace process and any Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, even somewhat to the left of the mainstream Jewish-American organizations that refuse to criticize any Israeli policy, but very much to the right of those Jews whose self-identity is not intimately linked to Israel. There are a great many Jews of this progressive stripe who are very proudly Jewish without feeling a particular need to protect Israel and its flaws, who can look at Israel with the same emotional distance and honest appraisal that they apply to any other country in the world.

Valerie and all the figurative “Valeries” are incapable of distance where Israel is concerned. I find Valerie and those like her to be so very emotional about Israel and so inwardly focused on their own Jewishness that it is impossible to argue with them, impossible to persuade them of any viewpoint not their own, impossible to talk reasonably with them about Israeli actions that are obstructing a stable peace settlement. An Israeli commentator recently referred to people like this as “self-righteous centrists.” Benny Morris was once a self-righteous centrist, but self-righteousness finally got the better of him and he dropped the centrism, falling squarely into the arms of the right wing. You might call him an Israeli neo-con. Valerie and her friends seem to be moving in that direction.

I no longer try to address the Valeries directly, but I find that they are always in my face about what I say and write to others. The point here is not that I am being criticized; my feelings are not that fragile, and the attacks are not unique to me. Nor are the attacks anything like the personal threats and the vile hate mail that many critics of Israel, particularly Jewish critics, receive. But therein lies the point. The point is precisely the apparent moderation of the attackers, and the pervasiveness of their attacks — the fact that they and their particular line of argumentation are so seemingly reasonable and now so widespread, so typical of a significant portion of public opinion on Palestinian-Israeli issues. These people, and those to their right, hold a corner on public discourse.

Because the Valeries appear to be so “reasonable” in their enthusiasm for a two-state solution in Palestine-Israel and in their implicit (although almost never explicit or specific) opposition to the occupation, I find their particular political approach to the conflict to be very dangerous. They will say they support independence for the Palestinians, but they never do anything meaningful about it; in particular they never oppose the Israeli policies and actions that prevent it. More significantly, they will not permit honest criticism of Israel’s actions, and they undermine the Palestinian position at every turn. They often tend, in fact, when they talk about Palestinians, to exhibit an anti-Palestinian bigotry only a bit less elaborate than Benny Morris’s.

The real Valerie lives in my community; she is very active in the local Tikkun organization; she writes letters to the president, to congressmen, and to the local newspaper whenever a peace plan is afoot, enthusiastically urging support for it; she attends national conventions of Tikkun and other pro-peace Jewish-American organizations that discuss the need for a Palestinian state. But whenever the local Tikkun group invites a speaker who actually knows something about the reality of occupation, Valerie turns to stone. In the last several months, Tikkun in Santa Fe has shown videos of Israeli house demolitions, shown film clips of Israeli peace activists like Jeff Halper describing the occupation, hosted International Solidarity Movement volunteers with vivid stories of life under occupation, and sponsored the appearance of an Israeli Refusenik. Valerie calls this Israel-bashing and thinks these events are an unbalanced presentation of only one perspective on the conflict. Although the majority of the local organization’s leadership has persisted in its determination to sponsor speakers who honestly discuss the realities of occupation, there are others prominent in the leadership who are like Valerie in their reluctance to listen to the facts and to criticism of Israeli policies.

But Do You Love Israel?

Although they call for balanced presentations, condemning Palestinian terrorism is not enough for them; they appear to appreciate only speakers who will also express their love for Israel and their deep understanding for Israel as victim. One of Valerie’s colleagues in the local Tikkun leadership, a thoughtful man named Daniel who has been agonizing for the last two years over how to call Israel to some account for its occupation policies and actions without seeming to criticize too harshly (after having been totally uninterested in Israel’s oppressive rule for the previous 30-plus years of the occupation), wrote in a recent e-mail circulated to the group, “What I have missed of late in Tikkun is the love” — which he specified as love of Judaism, love of Israel, criticism of Israel only from a perspective within Judaism. “Who among us loves us [i.e., Jews] enough to say what needs to be said with a heart that will open rather than close ours?” he wondered rhetorically. His answer: “Only the prophetic call working from within Judaism itself, only Jews themselves doing the hard work of returning to themselves.”

The reference to opening the hearts of Jews, like the notion that Jews can “hear” criticism of Israel only if it is put forth from a position of love and empathy for Jewish suffering, is a constant refrain with Daniel. He has been urging me in e-mail correspondence for years to speak so that he can “hear” me. Perhaps he no longer cares about hearing me, now that he has decided he will listen only to Jews. Although I used to take his plea to say something he could “hear” as a sincere appeal for honest dialogue, in fact when it is repeated again and again, no matter what I say, no matter what the reality I am describing, it becomes an arrogant assertion of his refusal to listen to anything that he does not like the sound of. It becomes total denial of any reality but the reality of Jewish suffering. Ultimately, it becomes a license to Jews, because they have suffered and need love, to do whatever they wish to the Palestinians and their land.

Although Daniel is at least gentle if unbending in his approach, the real Valerie is always aggressively after me, and others of their colleagues have gotten their licks in as well. Until recently, I have always either refrained from answering their missives, particularly when these are barbed, or tried reasoned argumentation, emphasizing my empathy for Jewish suffering and my feeling that the only possible way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to approach the issue from a position of understanding for the sufferings and the aspirations of both Palestinians and Jews. Neither of my responses has done any good. Valerie continues to attack gratuitously; Daniel continues to tell me sweetly that he cannot hear me because I don’t understand Jewish pain; others have given up talking to me at all and simply complain to others about my “bias.” I’ve come to the conclusion that, if you criticize Israel in any way, there is no possible way to love Israel and love Jews enough to satisfy these people.

I have now grown weary of this. It is time to stop walking on eggshells with such people. One can in fact still have great empathy for what Jews have endured through the ages without allowing this feeling to paralyze discourse or blind us to the inhumane policies pursued by the Israeli government. Philosopher and CounterPunch contributor Michael Neumann recently demonstrated a clear sense of proportion on this issue when he wrote that he would “feel a bit embarrassed saying to a homeless person on the streets of Toronto, much less to the inhabitants of a Philippine garbage dump: ‘Oh yeah? You think you know suffering? My grandmother died in a concentration camp!’”

Without meaning to enlist Neumann without his consent on my side in this particular argument — and without denying the significance of the Jews’ long history of persecution or the vividness of the suffering Israelis currently endure from suicide bombings — I would like to be able to throw Neumann’s statement up to Valerie and Daniel and those many others like them, and ask if they could say this to a West Bank or Gaza Palestinian with a straight face: “Oh yeah? You think you know suffering? My grandmother died in a concentration camp!” This is exactly what Valerie and Daniel et al. are saying when they demand love for Israel in its role as oppressor, and I would like to think they could be brought to a better understanding of their own absurdity with a down-to-earth reality check like Neumann’s.

But I think my hope is forlorn, and so I have decided to counterattack, not in order to persuade Valerie and Daniel and their friends, but in the hope of undermining the manipulative message they and the vast numbers like them spread throughout the United States. Their message is at bottom so extremely anti-Palestinian despite its moderate disguise, so bigoted in its elevation of Jewish pain and Jewish morality above all else, that it must be countered. It is, very precisely, the exact reverse of real anti-Semitism, and just as wrong.

Some examples of the Valerie-Daniel line of argument will demonstrate where they are coming from. A few years ago Valerie wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper gratuitously attacking one of my books and suggesting that Palestinians have no legitimate grievances and simply want the destruction of Israel. Six months later, after listening to a talk I had given on the relationship between Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli occupation (which appeared as “Before There Was Terrorism” on CounterPunch on May 2, 2002), Valerie wrote me an e-mail charging that I was being “preachy” because I had criticized those like George W. Bush — and Israel defenders like Valerie herself — who are selectively moral in their condemnation of Palestinian terrorism and their refusal to condemn Israel’s human rights violations and its continuing absorption of Palestinian land into Israel.

Israel, Valerie said, is only a “tiny sliver of land amidst many Arab foes,” and I was being “smug” to sit in Santa Fe and tell a “vulnerable” people what to do with “their” land. When I responded (magnanimously acknowledging that I might indeed be preachy now and then) that she did not seem to mind telling Palestinians, an even more vulnerable people, being stateless, what to do with their land, she rejoined with a little history lesson designed to let Israel off the hook: injustice and land theft had prevailed throughout history, including depredations committed by the United States itself, but here we were in the 21st century unfairly training our sights on “this little country Israel and demand[ing] that Israel behave in such a moral way.” The echoes of Benny Morris in this statement — the notion that morality does not matter when it comes to Jewish and/or Israeli self-preservation — are striking.

Valerie also echoes Morris’s justification of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians on the basis of U.S. mistreatment of Native Americans. The “great American democracy,” Morris said, “could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.” Valerie has not (quite) gone so far as to praise the “harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history” or to call this an “overall, final good,” but she is rather casual about excusing the depredations of settler colonial societies that oppress and displace native populations. History is full of these cruelties, she has said, and Israel should not be blamed for participating.

Most recently, Valerie attacked both Christisons. After Bill and I wrote a commentary for the local newspaper in November in which we enumerated the aspects of Israel’s occupation — expanding settlements, Israeli-only roads, bulldozed Palestinian agricultural land, demolished Palestinian homes, the separation wall — that we had witnessed during two trips to Palestine in 2003, she wrote us another e-mail saying we were being “particularly mean-spirited” and “totally one-sided.” I was tempted to respond by asking, do you mean to tell me that when the entire structure of Israeli society is descending into an obscene frenzy of destruction and brutality — in which Israelis steal and bulldoze Palestinian property with impunity, in which Israeli soldiers indiscriminately kill children and adult civilians, shoot at ambulances, let the sick die at checkpoints — you are actually worried that two people in Santa Fe are being mean-spirited??? But I didn’t — until now.

Revealing the real source of her problem with our article, Valerie fumed over our observation that Palestinian terrorism (which we stipulated could not be excused) does not arise from hatred of Jews or a desire to destroy Israel but is a direct response to Israeli oppression, and to U.S. support for Israeli oppression. With people like Valerie, one must never suggest that Palestinians have legitimate grievances against Israel or that terrorism, however indefensible, might have its source in Israel’s actions — or, of course, that any of Israel’s actions are oppressive or constitute terrorism. Suggesting such things would mean that Valerie and her comrades might actually have to do something, might actually have to put some substance behind their empty assertions that they have “always” opposed the occupation, might have to look beyond themselves and their self-absorption.

In the end, suggesting such things would mean that they might have to stop enabling the occupation with their deadly silence.

Suggesting such things, particularly that Palestinian terrorism arises from Israel’s actions and not from a deep-seated, murderous Palestinian hatred of Jews, actually destroys Valerie’s principal political refuge. The notion that the Palestinians want to destroy Israel, and are somehow capable of doing this if criticism of Israel is permitted, is the bottom line in every communication she has sent us, and it is the bottom line of virtually every “moderate” Israel supporter who has challenged us: ultimately, their argument goes, although we want peace and are “willing” to give the Palestinians a state (they are never embarrassed by the arrogance of their “willingness” to cede what is not theirs, or Israel’s), the Palestinians do not want peace and will not live peaceably alongside Israel. Despite having offered “one concession after another” to the Palestinians, Israelis are being killed “every day” in cafes and restaurants and at bus stops. Therefore, there is nothing more that we can do — and, the underlying message goes, there is nothing we have to do.

Instead, Valerie turns victim and affects an offended tone. “Perhaps you don’t care who [sic] you offend or alienate,” she wrote to Bill and me. “Perhaps there are others you please by being so offensive.” Her real meaning: you are anti-Semitic if you criticize Israel too harshly or too specifically. Or, if it is obvious even to myopic accusers that you like — and indeed feel great affection for — many Jews, agree with many Jews, and cannot credibly be called a Jew-hater, then you are being “mean” if you say certain things; you’re offending her. And, just to make it a little bit worse, by being so mean and offensive you must in some way be in the service of dark, sinister forces — dupes of real anti-Semites or, gasp!, servants of that ultimate terrorist, Yasir Arafat.

Refuges from Reality

Valerie obviously favors ad hominem attacks. You see, she takes all this very personally because she identifies so closely with Israel, and so her attacks are personal. She and Daniel and the others actually feel criticism of Israel — feel it as if it were a personal attack on themselves. Like that vast segment of the Jewish-American community for whom Valerie is a caricature, she talks reasonably: the Palestinians should have a state, it is unfair to treat the Palestinians as merely terrorists, Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, as she says, are worsening a very bad situation (meaning that the Palestinians started it all, and Israel is merely compounding the problem). But when it comes to specifics, she cannot view the situation except from her inward-looking Jewish perspective. Israel is personal for her: some mild criticism is acceptable, like any reasonable person’s self-criticism, but real probing self-analysis is beyond her capability.

Like the conviction that Palestinians are out to destroy Israel, peace plans are another refuge, an escape, for Valerie and people like her. Peace initiatives provide a comfortable space from which they can promote an amorphous concept of “peace,” declaring their dedication to “balance” and giving all-out support by writing letters to politicians and newspapers, without having to face the grim realities of why peace plans are necessary in the first place, or why they always fail. Promoting “peace” allows them to escape the details of the actual realities on the ground. Valerie is an enthusiast for the People’s Voice plan drawn up by Israeli Ami Ayalon and Palestinian Sari Nusseibeh, as she is for the Geneva Accord, but her enthusiasm allows her to escape the details that the authors of those plans know all too well and openly recognize.

Valerie would no doubt be irked if she knew what Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s security service, Shin Bet, recently said about the Palestinian-Israeli situation and about why he believes his plan is necessary. In a recent appearance in Washington with Nusseibeh to advertise the plan, Ayalon drew a correlation between Palestinian hopes for peace, on the one hand, and terrorism: when hopes are high, terrorism has always been low; Hamas will not challenge majority Palestinian opinion and will always cease or sharply reduce terrorism when the people have high expectations. But terrorism rose when the Palestinian people lost any hope for peace in the summer of 2000. The missing part of the puzzle, Ayalon said, is hope. Valerie would not like this. Were she forced to hear this little dose of reality, she might have to label it mean-spirited, offensive, because it is a explicit acknowledgement by a former senior Israeli official that Israel was at least partially responsible for causing the Palestinian people to lose hope in the peace process, for causing the utter despair that led to the intifada and led to suicide bombings.

Jewish suffering is another, and perhaps the most manipulative, refuge. This is Daniel’s principal preoccupation, which he focused on in December 2001, when a group of concerned citizens in Santa Fe took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper calling for a reassessment of U.S. policy toward the conflict. The text of the ad, which was addressed as an open letter to the New Mexico congressional delegation, was authored by a friend of ours. He is an ordinary intelligent citizen, a retired professional, non-Jewish, who had grown concerned about the state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the dangers U.S. policy toward that conflict posed to the United States, particularly in the aftermath of September 11. We helped him gather over 130 signatures for the letter, including those of many Jews.

The open letter read as follows:

“Many of us here in Santa Fe believe our foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians is inherently flawed. Our massive and almost unqualified support of the Israeli government has not only incurred the legitimate wrath of countless Arabs, but has made us accomplices in a great historical injustice against the Palestinian people.

“We believe in a strong Israel securely safeguarded by treaty. We speak out against an expansionist Israeli foreign policy which maintains an illegal and oppressive occupation of the Palestinians. The land belongs to both peoples; we ought to treat them both even-handedly.

“We are also aware that this point of view has seldom been expressed publicly, in part because people fear being branded anti-Semitic. It is now time to get beyond these fears and openly debate an alternative policy rooted in fairness.

“In short, we strongly urge you to press forward on Secretary of State Powell’s initiative to end the occupation [this was our own attempt to escape into the eager promotion of futile peace plans, but how were we to know in December 2001 just how ineffectual Colin Powell would be as a peacemaker and how uninterested the Bush administration would be in seriously pursuing peace?], not only because it will remove one of the underlying causes of hatred of the U.S., but also because it is the right thing to do.”

The reaction to this ad was electrifying in a small town. The statement garnered a great deal of support, but on the other side there were charges of anti-Semitism, counter op-eds, letters to the editor. It caused some tension in the antiwar community, and it was probably a contributing factor to the formation of the local Tikkun group by a group of Jews awakened by the events of September 11 and by the realization that unquestioning support for Israel was not necessarily a sure thing. It caused Daniel to do a lot of soul-searching; he wrote a lengthy critique of the ad, never published and unknown to me until he sent it to me six months later along with a similarly long response to my “Before There Was Terrorism” talk and article.

His principal theme in both critiques was that we had presumed to stand in judgment over Israel for its occupation policies without, he claimed, being balanced in that judgment or sensitive to Jewish pain and suffering. Despite applauding the signatories of the ad (with only one hand, he hastened to note) for having the “laudable audacity” to raise a subject that many find convenient to ignore, he declared us all guilty of “moral grand-standing.” He objected that the ad had taken a “judging, moralizing approach,” which he read (mistakenly) as a demand that the United States drop its friendship with Israel and “adopt the Palestinian narrative [as being] the truer and more deserving of support.” Many concerned people in the West “without an obvious stake in the conflict,” he asserted, “find it easier to be outraged by the brutality and brazenness of the Israeli occupation than to take seriously many Jews’ and Israelis’ fears for their personal and collective survival.” He appears from this and other statements to be under the impression that only Jews have a stake in the conflict; the terrorism and wars that result from the conflict should apparently not concern the rest of us.

In his later message to me, Daniel adopted a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone: he thought I could be “an important ally to the Jewish people in its struggle for recognition and security in the Middle East” if only he could “hear” me. But before I could be heard, he said bluntly, I would first have to be able to “effectively counter the suspicion that you are one-sided in your sympathies and concerns, that you feel and are outraged by Palestinian suffering but remain lukewarm if not subtly disapproving in the face of Jewish suffering. More specifically, you will have to be able to feel not only Jewish grief and rage in response to actual depredations but the enormous reservoir of historically determined Jewish fear of the worst in other peoples.”

I responded by doing, at least initially, exactly what I thought Daniel wanted: by groveling, by exposing at embarrassing length but quite sincerely my emotional feelings about Jews, my longstanding deep sense of empathy and, to the extent possible as a non-Jew, my identity with Jewish suffering. I probably ruined it for him, however, by also expressing my equal sense of empathy for Palestinian suffering and my belief that Israeli policy was responsible for most of this suffering. I detailed several examples of what I took to be his own and other Jews’ obliviousness to the Palestinian side of the conflict and the refusal by many Jews to recognize any pain but their own.

I criticized the sense I had gained from his messages and from others like him that they were “just now,” as he put it, beginning to look seriously at the conflict and at Israel’s actions. He had referred to the “less and less avoidable spectacle” of the Israeli occupation. I pointed out to him that Palestinians had themselves not been fortunate enough to be able to “avoid the spectacle” of the then 34-year-old occupation and that, if he and others had not avoided it, we might have a solution by now. I ended by criticizing what I saw as the selective hearing of many Jews: “The idea that Israel must not be judged on moral grounds, or that the Jewish community cannot hear or be expected to hear such judgments, is totally unacceptable. . . . We must never allow Jewish fears to paralyze us, and we must never allow Jewish suffering and fears to become the reason for ignoring another people’s suffering and fears, or to be the justification for oppressing another people.”

An Excuse for Every Inconvenient Reality

Although I had naively believed that my logic would convince Daniel, he was not satisfied. I heard from a friend that he felt he still could not “hear” me. He later told me that he wanted to continue the dialogue but was just too busy. I refrained from observing that this had been the problem all along: supporters of Israel had always been just too busy, or just too disinterested, or just too much concerned with Jewish pain to care about Palestinians, to recognize Palestinians as a people with a stake in Palestine and a stake in independence. Daniel’s response told me a great deal about him, primarily that he was not so much interested in hearing expressions of empathy for Jewish pain as he was in simply not hearing any criticism of Israel.

Two years later, Daniel is still at the same point. Although he thinks he is open-minded, he still writes long messages to the Tikkun group about the need to speak only from a perspective of a love for Jews. He seems to have an excuse for every inconvenient reality. When at a meeting last year Uri Avnery’s name was raised as a credible Israeli voice standing in moral judgment over Israel’s occupation, Daniel demurred. He had heard something or other about Avnery’s supposedly shady past; he did not know the details, of course.

When at a recent meeting it was noted that 750,000 Palestinians had been displaced in 1948 to make way for creation of a Jewish-majority state and that this majority could not have been achieved without removing the large non-Jewish population, Daniel spoke up to say that, according to his reading, “only” 200,000 Palestinians had been displaced. (Not only is this a gross underestimate — and quite a surprising assertion from a man who lectures on the history of Zionism — but the cavalier dismissal of the dispossession of even 200,000 people is not what one would expect from someone who claims the high moral ground.) He tries to portray the separation wall as entirely a security measure against Palestinian terrorists, even when the evidence of Israel’s massive land grab inside the West Bank is as plain as the map in front of him. He will even stand in front of that map and argue that the wall’s route does not close the Palestinians into area constituting less than 50 percent of the West Bank. Such is the power of self-absorbed denial in even the most analytical and thoughtful of intellects.

Daniel and Valerie have many fellow travelers along their particular path of manipulative argumentation. A few examples demonstrate how remarkably common their approach is.

During a talk several months ago by a local rabbi well known as a political and social liberal, she described what she characterized as an anti-Semitic atmosphere in Santa Fe. She contended that there had recently been so many letters to the editor critical of Israel in the local newspaper that she believed all Jews in Santa Fe must now feel under siege. Noting that people tell her she should not worry because the letters are political and have to do with Israel, not with Jews, she countered, “But, after all, Israel is the Jewish homeland” — the clear implication being that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. (I was so dumbfounded by this baldfaced equation of policy criticism with ethnic hatred that I was initially unsure I had heard correctly, but several other audience members heard the same thing). The rabbi protested several times that she was “pro-Palestinian” and that she had been a member of Peace Now for 20 years — meaning, I suppose, in the context of her other remarks that, since she has established her own credentials as a sometime critic of Israel, no one else may criticize, and she herself need not worry any further about what transpires in the occupied territories.

Coincidentally, a letter to the editor by the same rabbi appeared the following day. It was in the same vein, observing that the critical letters to the editor had taken away her sense of belonging to the Santa Fe community, and concluding that the Jews’ two millennia of persecution should be taken into account when considering Israel’s actions, that we do not have the right to talk about the conflict because we don’t live there, and that in the end “What makes most sense is not to offer an opinion about this complicated and painful conflict.” The notion that no one who does not live there can criticize Israel is a common escape for people like this. These same people never have trouble criticizing the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza although they don’t live there either.

Shortly thereafter, I had a weird and frustrating e-mail exchange with a prominent local attorney and former city councilman, begun when he broadcast a criticism of my “Before There Was Terrorism” article on the Tikkun group’s e-mail list (not knowing, I suspect, that I was also on the list). This man too, who is Jewish, protested that he opposed the occupation and had “publicly stated this on many occasions” but believed I was being hopelessly one-sided and was blind to the realities, particularly the “fact” that the real problem was Palestinian refusal to guarantee Israel’s security as a Jewish state. Still in that naïve period when I thought logic and facts had some capacity to sway opinions, I decided to discuss this with him, enumerating the instances in which the Palestinian leadership had recognized Israel’s existence and right to exist. He did not like this and signed off angrily after a brief exchange, saying I had missed the point of his communications but that as a working man he did not have the time to point out where I had gone wrong. Another example of a fervent supporter of Israel who has no time to care about the conflict but resents anyone else doing so.

In April 2003, at the annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Bill Christison spoke on a panel on the critical demographic issue in Palestine-Israel with four other panelists, including one who represented the Palestinian position and one the Israeli position. The panel was entitled “Middle East Arithmetic: Israeli Ideology and Arab Demographics.” Bill and Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian American who serves as a legal adviser to the PLO, directly addressed the inherent contradiction between Zionism’s insistence that Israel be a Jewish-majority state and the fact that, until their expulsion when Israel was established in 1948, Palestinian non-Jews made up the vast majority of the population of Palestine and are again nearing the point of demographic parity in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

The other speakers dodged the issue altogether. Stuart Schoffman, an American-Israeli journalist who has lived in Israel for 15 years, devoted his initial remarks to a rationale for the creation of Israel and spent most of the rest of the discussion pleading his support for two states in Palestine, his opposition to the occupation, his distaste for Sharon, but his great concern that Palestinians are allegedly not accepting Israel’s legitimacy, and his pain over the “demonization” of Israel in which Bill and Tarazi had engaged. Schoffman was a perfect echo of Valerie, Daniel, the rabbi, the lawyer, and on and on.

Bill addressed the panel topic directly in his initial remarks: “The stark truth is that there is no way to create and maintain a Jewish state in Palestine without displacing the native Palestinian population and without ensuring through non-democratic means that the Palestinian population never grows to the point of outnumbering the Jewish population. . . . [Since the occupation] Israel has been able to rule over the Palestinian people without granting them citizenship, thus artificially maintaining its Jewish voting majority and cynically maintaining its façade of democracy. But in fact what this has meant is that Israel has been using the Palestinians’ land without their democratic consent, ruling over them without their democratic consent, and calling itself a democracy because it allows the small proportion of Palestinians who live inside its 1967 borders to vote.”

Tarazi, a Christian Palestinian, put his argument in terms of religious rather than ethnic identity to dramatize the impact on non-Jews of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. In 1948, he said, hundreds of thousands of Christian and Muslim Palestinians were expelled or fled, and Israel refused to allow them to return “for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s because they’re the wrong religion. This is religious discrimination in its purest form, and yet no one recognizes that that’s what Israelis mean when they talk about a Jewish state. They mean the right to discriminate against non-Jews, who were, of course, the majority population.” Today, Tarazi asserted, “Israel’s motivation for peace has nothing to do with mutual reconciliation, nothing to do with equality, the application of international law. It has to do with getting as much Palestinian land as possible with as few Palestinians on that land as possible.” People don’t realize that the motivation even of the Israel left in espousing the two-state solution “has nothing to do with seeing us [Palestinian Christians and Muslims] as equals, and they still don’t. It has to do with getting rid of us as a demographic problem.”

Schoffman took umbrage and launched into an indignant justification of Israel, explaining again how Israel had been created as “not only a refuge for the Jewish people, [but] a place that tries to put into practice, and struggles to put into practice, Jewish values, social justice, under enormously, enormously difficult conditions” (etcetera, at considerable length — his emphasis.) Yet, here were these insensitive critics “demonizing” Israel, “making it into some kind of malevolent racist entity, turning it into a pariah state.” This is “a very, very dangerous game. I don’t — I myself as an Israeli don’t presume to speak for the motivations of Israelis en bloc, but one of the things I can say is this, that I don’t even begin to understand the notion that the only thing that motivates the state of Israel is to be a discriminatory entity. I can’t even fathom that.” He could, he asserted, “give you myriad examples of the respect which is given to other religions within Israel proper. Freedom of religion, freedom of dissent, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, all those things are there.”

The exchange between Tarazi and Schoffman that followed provides a striking example of a hearing man trying, and failing, to get through to a deaf man. Tarazi responded, “It’s amazing to hear Israelis speak, because they say it’s a Jewish state but that doesn’t mean we discriminate against non-Jews. What does it mean to be a Jewish state? They never ask themselves that question. . . . What I would like to see, as a Palestinian, is for Israel to announce that Christians and Muslims actually have an equal right to live there, that Jews are not superior to Christians and Muslims.”

Another panelist, confused by Tarazi’s talk of Muslims and Christians rather than Palestinians, asked him, “Has there actually been some kind of a failure by the Israelis to acknowledge the right of other religions to be practiced?” No, no, no, Tarazi answered emphatically, “the right to be there, not the right to be practiced. They’re perfectly happy to allow a Christian every once in a while to go to the Church of the Nativity, but they’re not going to say they actually have the right to be there, they have as much right to live in the Holy Land as Jews do, because if [Israelis] do say that, they’re going to say, well then how can we justify not letting Christians and Muslims back in under the right of return? They have an attitude that is, We have superior rights to be here, and therefore we’ll tolerate them to the extent that we can, but not wholesale.”

Schoffman’s response to this clear and irrefutable enunciation of the essence of the Zionist ideology that underlies the existence of Israel was again to take offense. “Michael, if you want to come out and say that you deny the fundamental right of the state of Israel to exist, which is implicit in what you’re saying, then please do say it,” he declared righteously. Schoffman’s obtuseness was breathtaking, but Tarazi tried to clear things up for him. “I would say the exact opposite,” he emphasized. “I recognize the right of Israel to exist. I do not recognize the right of Israel to exist and discriminate against the majority population.” This particular exchange ended at this point, Schoffman pleading that there was not enough time to examine the issue any further — yet another example of an Israeli defender pleading the press of time when confronted too closely with real life.

Immersed in Bereavement

Sometimes I think these people all went to the same debate school. Almost universally, they engage in the same tactics of argumentation: when confronted with facts, blithely deny them; when faced with reality, deny it or minimize it or create an elaborate excuse for it, and then turn on the interlocutor as an Israel-hater or a Jew-hater. Or sometimes they deny it and use reassurance to undermine the interlocutor’s point: everything will soon work out; many of us have always opposed the occupation; the Jewish people are intrinsically just and humane, never deviate seriously from Jewish values, and in the end will correct the unfortunate hiccup that Sharon represents in the practice of those deeply imbedded values; Jewish suffering has attuned Jews to the universal attributes of justice; and so on.

Most often, particularly since the intifada broke out, the tactic has been to create an enemy. The emphasis is on Palestinian perfidy and Jewish innocence: the Palestinians, as an entire people, are immoral, inherently violent, undeserving of true independence, certainly not the “moral equivalent” of the Jewish people, and always, always bent on Israel’s destruction; Israel’s actions are always justifiable self-defense; it is anti-Semitism speaking when anyone charges Israel with terrorism, or deliberate killing, or deliberate property destruction, or land theft, or hegemonic ambitions. And in the end, particularly when they cannot argue away reality, they become offended, or there is just not enough time for probing discussion. Always, the focus is on Jewish suffering, past and anticipated. One is reminded, when listening to these defenders of Israel excuse its depredations and plead Jewish pain, of the man who killed his parents and threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.

There is so much I would like to say to Valerie and her compatriots: I’d like to tell her about the recent Gideon Levy article in Haaretz called “The Price of Ignorance,” which discusses the denial by most Israelis of the Israeli killing and destruction that go on in the West Bank and Gaza every day. “Few Israelis are capable of imagining what life is like” in the towns of the West Bank where suicide bombers live, he wrote. These are young people who have “no reason to get up in the morning other than to face another day of joblessness and humiliation.” Most Israelis have little interest in knowing this; most of the Israeli media don’t report it, don’t show the killings, or the bulldozers that demolish homes, or the injured being taken to hospitals (or, he might have added, the injured who are never taken to hospitals because Israeli soldiers prevent ambulances from reaching them). “A society that disregards loss of human life, caused by its own soldiers, is a tainted society,” Levy declared, and the situation is compounded by Israel’s victimology: “there aren’t many societies that immerse themselves in bereavement so intensely. . . . We count only our own dead, all the rest don’t exist.” This selectivity permits Israelis, conscience-free, to present Palestinians as the only guilty party.

I’d like to read Valerie and Daniel and the others this statement from Amira Hass, another of those honest Israelis like Levy who know and report what goes on in the occupied territories. In the introduction of Drinking the Sea at Gaza, a description of her years living among Palestinians in Gaza in the mid-1990s, Hass tells a story she had heard from childhood, of her mother being herded from a cattle car at Bergen-Belsen in the summer of 1944 and being watched by a group of curious but indifferent German women who had been bicycling past. “For me,” Hass writes, “these women became a loathsome symbol of watching from the sidelines, and at an early age I decided that my place was not with the bystanders. . . . To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel — democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve. I needed to know the people whose lives had been forever altered by my society and my history.”

I would love to tell Valerie these things, to urge her to stop being among Levy’s blindly bereaved, among Hass’s bystanders, among the destroyers of hope whom Ami Ayalon is trying to take some responsibility for. But I know it would do no good. Valerie is busy being bereaved, and so she is not interested in being a witness, or in examining Israel’s exposed nerve, or in knowing how Israel’s society and history have affected the lives of Palestinians. She is not interested in examining her own conscience. Now, in fact, she can invoke Benny Morris on her side and go on ignoring reality and her conscience, secure in the knowledge that one of Israel’s preeminent historians is leading the way.

Sometimes it is difficult to get over the frustration. I want to demand of these people, where were you in the 34 years of occupation before the intifada broke out and you suddenly became interested? Or in the years of occupation before terrorism hit U.S. shores and you suddenly had to think about why people have such deep grievances against the U.S.? To the rabbi: if you have really been a member of Peace Now for 20 years, what were you doing in those years, and where were you for the decade of the occupation before Peace Now even came into existence, and what about the decades before that when no one, no one, cared about the grievances of Palestinians dispossessed for Israel’s benefit? If you have truly “always” been opposed to the occupation, what have you done to end it? What have any of these people done; where were they when Israel, pretending to be negotiating a final peace agreement throughout the 1990s, well before the intifada erupted, was proceeding with the settlement expansion, the roadblocks, the checkpoints, the highway construction, the land confiscation, the settler increases, the apartheid that were the principal spark for the intifada? Or, I want to ask them, did your silence and your revulsion at criticizing Israel because it is Jewish simply help to perpetuate and consolidate occupation and injustice?

If Valerie and her friends open their eyes, acquire the honesty of a Gideon Levy or an Amira Hass, stop immersing themselves in bereavement, then they will be able to listen, to hear, to see. But, like Jeff Halper, the Israeli activist who rebuilds demolished Palestinian homes, who has written that he despairs of “ever convincing my own people that a just peace is the way,” I despair of ever being able to bring Valerie or Daniel or any of their vast crowd of fellow deniers to the point of listening. Halper writes that as one of the few Israelis who have ever even been to Palestine, he finds it “impossible to convey to my own people, my own neighbors (good people all, even the Likud voters), what occupation means, why they should feel responsible and resist with me. Israel is a self-contained bubble with a self-contained and exclusively Jewish narrative.”

Valerie and Daniel and the others are living in the same bubble.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON worked as a policy analyst in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.

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