Leif Knutsen

Be that light

Although few facts are in and a trial is far off, the Abu Khdeir murder may turn out to be as momentous as the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Let’s be ambitious about our opportunity to change.

Anyone who lives in the diaspora and presumes to have an opinion on Israeli political decisions should be humble about the topic, as this piece by fellow blogger Cara Lebenzon illustrates. We do not live with the daily frustrations, disillusionment, and risks that Israelis (or for that matter, Palestinians) do.

On the other hand, we have the same vantage point as world opinion and can see how things look from the outside.

Nothing is giving the anti-israeli polemicists greater problems than the nearly unanimous outrage against the brutal murder of Mohamed Abu Khdeir, as well as the principled Israeli position that murder is murder, regardless of pretext, victim, and perpetrator. This absolutely pathetic op-ed in Al-Jazeera is an example of the desperation: what outrages the anti-Israeli crowd is not Israeli vice (of which there is plenty) but Israeli virtue.

There is a massive campaign to drown out a) news of Palestinian rioting, abuse, and terrorism, and b) Israeli restraint and compassion, by recapturing the premises for the narrative: this isn’t supposed to be about Israeli politics (which contains plenty of controversy), or even Palestinian suffering (which is real), it’s about promoting the image of Israelis as incorrigible criminal racists, undeserving of any legitimacy.

So although I understand Lebenzon’s frustration, it is still important to create as much cognitive dissonance for those who entertain the demonic image of Israel.

There is no doubt in my mind that Israel – although far from perfect – is doing far better than any other country in remotely the same situation would do. But it may be that today’s standards among the nations is too low, and that there should be a wider and more intense debate on whether Israel has better and more merciful options for handling, and with hope resolving, the conflict with the Palestinians. Being a “light onto the nations” means more than “being mostly ahead.”

This means activism on several fronts:

  • More actively humanize the Palestinians. One of the biggest strategic flaws in anti-Israeli propaganda is that they reduce Palestinians to a helpless, cowering mass who will only rise up to throw rocks, and who are only capable of producing corrupt leaders like Fatah or murderous fundamentalists like Hamas. This is offensive both to Palestinians and Israelis, but it presents an appealing stereotype. The more Israelis do to lift and promote Palestinian entrepreneurship, art, even political expression, the clearer becomes the absurdity of anti-Israeli rhetoric. It may seem crazy to do PR for your adversary, but who has a stronger interest in encouraging the development of a healthy Palestinian civil society than Israel?
  • Develop and test more creative anti-terrorist measures, especially if they minimize the effects on non-combatants. The current status quo may not be sustainable in the long run, but in the short run it provides innovative ways to deal both with threats and attacks that are less retaliatory and more targeted. It seems to me that Hamas and other extremist groups conduct operations with the primary hope that Israelis will be scared and the secondary hope that Israel will respond in ways that encourage Palestinian resentment and international condemnation against Israel. We have to figure out ways to defy those expectations and persuade Palestinians that peace is a more worthwhile goal than victory.
  • Actively prosecute lawlesness in the territories. Unauthorized settlements, price-tag crime, vandalism, harrassment, etc., against Palestinian neighbors in the territories should be investigated, prosecuted, and punished to the fullest extent of the law, for the simple reason that Israel’s commitment to the rule of law should be beyond any reproach. People may disagree with Israel’s settlement policy, but there should be no question that the law of the land is upheld.

None of these challenges are easy, but neither are any of them beyond our reach. But they require growing up a bit: it is not just about what we defiantly can justify, but also trying to be effective and admirable. Being a light onto the nations means thinking like a parent: being watched means setting high standards, trying harder, being more creative, judging ourselves more harshly than we would judge anyone else.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.
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