Israel at the Moral Cross-Roads

A tragedy, one of thousands that could have been averted: the killing by two Palestinians of four rabbis at morning prayer in a synagogue in Har Nof, a West Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, the two assailants in turn killed. Violence is contagious, endemic, even understandable, in the setting, but never exonerative—from whichever direction it comes. The problem is that precast judgment easily follows when the framework for assigning blame is skewed in favor of the strong, the powerful, the ones enjoying favor in the international community and, secondarily, having unlimited resources to present their case—regardless of merit. Short-term perspective, the event itself, works in favor of the dominant party; the longer-term perspective, lest it clutter a black-and-white interpretation, is viewed as devious and of no account. I do not plead for the justness of such an act as seen here, however extreme the persecutory forces presumed to have driven it. The four rabbis are indeed human, entitled to life and dignity, and, to the best of our knowledge, were not individually and directly involved in the repression of the Jamal cousins or other Palestinians.

But that is just it. The system is designedly one of repression. It is, beginning with Israel’s foundation period and statehood, if not actually before in the Yishuv, and even earlier, the politicization of Zionism as thought an exclusive refuge, necessitating, as if by divine right, the clearing away of all obstacles, be they human or material, to settlement. Repression: one-sided in origins, conception, implementation, supporting ideology, so categorically placed within the confines of Western society and civilization as to afford no opportunity to introduce a MORAL CALCULUS by which to make sense of long-term conditions and consequences. Legitimacy, itself a function of power, creates and bestows morality on any set of actions its progenitors impose–obviously inadequate as a moral proposition because countenancing and encouraging sheer force (in its myriad guises) as determinative, and as well, perversive of democratic values and practices for that very reason: to the victor go the spoils, including moral reputation.

This is not David vs. Goliath, itself ironic because no longer recognizable to Israelis, but systemic violence practiced by one people over another. Barrington Moore (with whom I had the privilege to study within and beyond the classroom), in his Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, developed the concept of “legitimized violence,” violence practiced in the name of law and order, violence sourced in the very workings of social structure, violence so commonplace as to become part of a self-justifying ideological explanation. Wherever dominant-subordinate, superior-inferior relationships exist, there legitimated violence is invoked, subsists, ultimately thrives. In practical (though disguised) terms, capitalism ordains rich and poor; strikers are struck down in the name of Order (too, civil-rights protesters); egregiously, the entire social structure promotes wealth-and-status differentiation, and with it, unemployment, penury, starvation, for large numbers, self-indulgent luxury, conspicuous consumption, power to be cruelly employed, for the few, all as part of the natural order of things.

In Israel-Palestine the situation is crystallized like few places on earth. The occupation takes the form of legitimized violence in every aspect of life, internally, for the Palestinians–in the fine-grained texture of daily existence (for those who remember, my words could have been that of Franz Fanon probing the darkness of colonialism) in which Palestinians are treated, and made to feel through every power of the state, checkpoints, permits, searches, house demolitions, as inferior (Golda Meir, using the Yiddish term, called them “schwarzes”), and externally, not only inferior, but prisoners, in a walled-up ghetto, subject to arbitrary arrest, blockade, deprivation of essentials, administered in the spirit of systemic punishment and arbitrariness. Spiteful, as a means of certifying strength. This does not excuse today’s horrible deed in Har Nof, but neither does it serve to obfuscate or excuse the past, as Netanyahu and probably all of Israel are busily doing, pulling out all the stops, in order to wreak vengeance on the Palestinians. Tallit and tefillin soaked in blood, the image presented everywhere, worldwide. As recently as weeks ago, there is no mention of the IDF having left Gaza in a state of rubble, shells and bombs killing hundreds, especially those seeking sanctuary in UN buildings, power outages while the gravely wounded in the hospital corridors cannot be attended to in the ER, medicines in short supply.

No, we must abandon the tit-for-tat schematization of Middle East violence, as though both sides were equally at fault, or, since the Palestinians, in isolated acts of terror, denied the advantage of legitimized violence, stand out as more conspicuous and flagrant, therefore appear entirely in the wrong. By my reckoning, the moral calculus reveals the opposite to be true: the institutionalization of violence and repression, exemplified in the always disproportionate application of force, convicts Israel as over the long-term bearing ultimate responsibility for what Palestinians seek to do in resistance or even revenge. That does not make it right. But neither can Israel plead victimhood, the injured party, oh, those rockets (literally a drop in the bucket, as casualties testify, the preponderant destructiveness coming from the Israeli side).


Evil is a tall order; I do not wish to become involved in metaphysical disputes, but when a patina of glibness provides surface cover for deeply-layered self-righteousness in the Israeli psyche, little can be expected of moral awareness of the crimes committed against Palestinians in the name of a Biblically-ordained and –justified Greater Israel, the uprooting of an indigenous people, their lives, their lands, their identity. That, to me, is skirting around, if not touching the very core, of evil, here, the willful depersonalization of the Other, now denied humanness , a blank tableau on which to practice the cruel arts of degradation, humiliation, imposed subservience. Somewhat out of keeping for the generation which itself suffered the pain and anguish of the Holocaust, to create in its midst, or that of its sons and daughters, its own Holocaust—as if in retribution for the suffering of the past. The psychopathology of absolute denial has become rampant in Israel; only the Palestinians commit crimes—who we, wholly blameless and seeking only peace and security for our loved ones.

Listen to Netanyahu, as he, within hours, mobilized the machinery of repression with arrests, property destruction, incitement to further violence. He wasn’t alone. I turn to New York Times reporters Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner’s artlcle, “Four Rabbis Are Killed in Jerusalem Synagogue Attack,” (Nov. 18), biased toward Israel, yet with evidence—for they are excellent reporters—that shows Israeli officials and the public drenched in self-righteousness (its corollary, the subhuman qualities of the Palestinians). Understandably, they say, “Witnesses and Israeli leaders were particularly horrified at the religious overtones of an attack on a synagogue that killed men in ritual garments and spilled blood on prayer books.” I too would be horrified if that had taken place in our Saturday morning conservative minyan. Yet, “religious overtones,” of course—just as ultra-Orthodox groups threaten to desecrate the precincts of Al Aqsa Mosque, etc.; more important is the contrived way the blood-imagery and ritual garments figure repeatedly in the Israeli narrative. They quote Yehuda Zahav, leader of a religious emergency response team: “’To see Jews wearing tefillin and wrapped in the tallit lying in pools of blood, I wondered if I was imagining scenes from the Holocaust. It was a massacre of Jews at prayer.’”

Reverence, soul-searching, renewed efforts at a peaceful solution–that would validate the sentiment, a lamentation over profound defilement of innocent life and of the religion. Instead, words, as Netanyahu puts on battle dress and—the operative word, “incitement”—blames Abbas and Hamas for the attack (“’the direct result of the incitement’”), Kerry joining the chorus, holding Abbas responsible, stating “The Palestinian leadership must condemn this, and they must begin to take serious steps to restrain any kind of incitement that comes from their language, from other people’s language, and exhibit the kind of leadership that is necessary to put this region on a different path.’” Abbas complied: “’We condemn the killing of civilians from any side. We condemn the killings of worshippers at the synagogue in Jerusalem and condemn acts of violence no matter their source.’” (This last may have refered to violence-from-above, official violence, airstrikes, tanks, artillery, in Gaza.) The article continues: “Within two hours of the attack, scores of Israeli security forces had stormed Jabel Mukaber, the Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem where those believed to have been the assailants lived, spraying tear gas at their family home and into the hills of olive trees. Relatives said the younger assailant’s parents, three sisters and a brother were arrested, along with the wife, mother and five brothers of the older attacker, who had three children, ages 6, 5 and 3.”

The moral cross-roads, continue repression, seek accommodation, the former paralysis, death, festering wounds, the latter, at least the start to crediting the humanity of one’s fellow human beings, and doing so, restore one’s own badly tarnished humanity. Acknowledgment of the destruction Israel has wrought will probably never happen, the result being perpetual conflict and sybaritic fool’s gold for one, misery no peoples should be forced to endure for the other. The moral calculus is badly out of kilter, oppressor triumphant, oppressed degraded. Perhaps only a drastic reworking of the world system, its thorough democratization, can right the sad state of affairs.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at