You’ve seen them, haven’t you? The vicious personal attacks, the expletives, the death wishes? If you’ve read any writing like mine – writing by a Jew who acknowledges Palestinian humanity – and taken the time to look at some of the readers’ comments, you know what I mean.
If you don’t – well, for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider only the attacks on me personally. (Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Norman Finkelstein and my friend Jonathan Ofir, among others, have all attracted similar vituperation.) An ostensibly religious Jew has publicly called me a “deviant,” “an enemy” and “the worst kind of Jew”; he has also compared me to Nazi collaborators, concluding that since I “lack the morality of a sewer rat,” it might be appropriate for a truly religious Jew to murder me.
An exceptional case? I wish it were. One of my recent columns in this space called attention to the dehumanization of Palestinians who resist Israel’s occupation. In response, an assortment of Jewish readers described me as “vile,” “a sub-category of human,” “a disgusting human being,” “an enemy to Judaism” and a “self-aggrandizing demented buffoon” with “sick, twisted opinions.” Another of my fellow Orthodox Jews – borrowing a leaf from the Nazi pamphlet Entartete Kunst – suggested that my concern with Palestinian rights could only mean a taint in my Jewish lineage.
And so it goes.
I could ignore these comments, of course. But I prefer trying to understand them. For if we don’t understand what drives Jews to such bizarre slanders – all the while believing themselves completely above reproach – it’s obvious that we won’t be able to change their minds. And if we don’t, it isn’t only Palestinian rights that must suffer: people incapable of civilized discourse about the institutions they cherish are eo ipso incapable of keeping their civilization alive. So it’s dangerous to turn one’s back completely on the invective, however stupid and shallow – the very stupidity of the attacks is the index of the threat their authors pose to their own culture. And to mine.
So why do the mudslingers hate us so much? Here are few things I think I can discern behind the ranting.
1) They’ve been deceived about themselves. For decades, many Jews – particularly Israeli Jews, and those raised to identify with Israel – have been taught that they belong to a higher breed of human being, one that by nature never harms anyone needlessly. Like the citizens of Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg, they believe in their moral superiority because it’s been preached at them, incessantly, as the essence of their identity: to doubt it is to doubt themselves.
Thus the celebrated Jewish-American writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who embraced Israeli citizenship in time to assist in the torture of Palestinian prisoners and the brutal military repression that characterized the IDF’s response to the overwhelmingly nonviolent first intifada, could still kvell in print over Israel’s martial prowess and piously insist that Israeli Jews are morally superior to the Palestinians they kill.
It’s not that Goldberg is stupid or deliberately dishonest. He’s just so wedded to the fantasy of Jewish purity that he cannot acknowledge the testimony of his own eyes without imperiling his sense of identity. Like Heinrich Himmler, who boasted that SS officers, having seen “a hundred corpses lying together,” “remained decent fellows” because of the Germans’ “harmless soul” and “idealism” – qualities never found among the “alien peoples” they were forced to exterminate – Goldberg must insist, against all evidence, that Palestinians are naturally violent while “we [Israelis] don’t try to kill children.”
2) They’ve been trained in fear. Just as they’ve been taught to assume their own superiority, our critics have been taught to hate and fear those they repress. And why not? If you want to hold other people down with a clear conscience, you need to persuade yourself – or allow yourself to be persuaded – that your victims are monstrous, evil by definition. Over two years ago, I quoted in one of my columns a widely-publicized sermon in which an Orthodox rabbi advised his flock to shun all non-kosher food because “the Arabs seek nothing else but Jewish blood” – implying that Palestinians were not just murderers but vampires, longing to suck the blood from Jewish veins but thwarted when that blood is pure. (Because they aren’t, I guess.) I have yet to hear from another Orthodox Jew who found this passage grotesque; on the contrary, several denounced me for questioning it.
Conversely, such people have been taught to identify virtue exclusively with those they know. Instead of seeing loyalty, justice, compassion as qualities they share with humankind generally, their exposure to these traits in their own communities only reinforces their sense of uniqueness: if we are like that, then they cannot be. This is what Sartre had in mind when he wrote that “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would have to invent him.” It’s also why, as Laith Saud has remarked, those Americans (and Jews) today who want to see in themselves “an unadulterated Enlightenment” must picture the Other – Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims generally – as “purely barbaric.” To those trapped in this mindset, the good we know in ourselves must be ours alone if it is to be real.
3) They’re demoralized. Behind the bravado and the hate speech, today’s Israel-Firsters are a confused, beleaguered, unhappy lot. The state they once regarded as Olympian has revealed feet of clay. The airy utopianism of Israel’s early leaders has given way to a Jim Crow society where crowds of young Jews chant racist slogans while the Justice Minister, no less, openly condones murder. Israel supporters who rightly criticize Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, or condemn the Syrian army’s violence against civilians, are inwardly uneasy when they consider that Israel has been doing the same things for decades. They want to believe in their superiority, but facts keep getting in the way.
James Baldwin pointedly observed in the 1960s that “the absolutely prohibitive price the South has paid to keep the nigger in his place” had only “succeeded in having what is almost certainly the most bewildered, demoralized white population in the Western world.” The same is true of Israelis today, and just as true, I’m afraid, of the Jews who condemn me for repeating some of the facts about Israel’s history and its continuing occupation of Palestinian land. My sins, however these people might describe them, are venial next to the violence they’ve done to their own consciences. Jettison moral principles unless they further Jewish ethnic supremacy; throw away facts; turn your back on the human rights so painstakingly incorporated into international jurisprudence after the horrors of World War II; say no to justice and yes to apartheid; shuck off every acquaintance, every former friend who points out uncomfortable truths to you; trade your religion (if you’re religious) for a slice of stolen real estate – and what have you got to live for, except some dirt that was never yours to begin with? These Zionists are not to be envied; behind their fury, I think I can hear their pain.
So what is to be done with them? Sad to say, the obvious antidote – information to counter ignorance – is not really effective. If these people wanted the facts they would have absorbed them long ago: today, the real difficulty is keeping one’s head deep enough in the sand to avoid knowing the facts. So their ignorance is only the shell of a deeper malady.
I propose a different approach. Instead of educating our critics with facts, I suggest we first demonstrate to them the force of our own moral convictions. We do this not by answering insults with insults, but by addressing them as human beings – just as we address Palestinians. Without flagging for a moment in our pursuit of justice, we can calmly, sadly, insistently challenge our enemies to justify themselves. Do they support the occupation? Jewish settlements that violate the Geneva Convention? Why? Can they justify apartheid? Do they believe they can square Jewish ethics with robbery and violence? If so, how?
Such questions make more sense to me than apologetics. After all, it is our critics, not we, who ought to be apologizing; they, not we, who owe an explanation and a self-defense. And they need to see that we know that, and that we won’t stop affirming it, whatever happens. This may not stop the personal attacks. But I think it can shift the focus of the discourse.
By the way, I do not expect my enemies to be mollified by my attempt to understand their motives. They do not want to be understood; at bottom, they are terrified of understanding themselves.
I make the effort because justice for Palestine cannot be sought in a vacuum. Edward Said was fond of quoting a beautiful line from the poet Aimee Cesaire: “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.” The great things we strive for are meant for everyone. And the words we share about those goals must take everyone into consideration, too – even those who hate us.