Gefen Bar-On Santor

Careless words about peace shed blood.

Source: iStock, Alexandr Bushkov

In the aftermath of the day of horror during which Israelis were slaughtered and tortured by terrorists, my cowardly self is dreading a confrontation with something else.  What I fear is the typical rhetorical tropes that tend to materialize among some people in polite Canada when Israel takes military action to defend itself.

The humanitarian disaster that was sadistically inflicted on Israeli civilians is unprecedented in the history of Israel.  Many people and leaders around the world and in Canada are speaking about this pogrom as a turning point.  Many around the world and in Canada are showing real compassion and moral insight.   However, I fear that some currents in Canadian culture are too sleepy or too self-satisfied to make moral adjustments when it comes to perceptions of Israel.

People who do not want to confront the horror of Israel hate (a metamorphosis of Jew hate), but who nevertheless want to express that they care, would sometimes voice statements of concern: “I heard that things are tough at home; is your family safe?”

But they will also make a point of “not taking sides.”  Under the guidance of this moral principle, no reference will be made to Israel’s right to defend itself.  Concern for the safety and wellbeing of loved ones will hang in the rarefied air without calls to hold those who threaten that safety accountable.

“I understand your feelings,” Some would say—before moving on to enlighten their Israel-loving listener about the greater moral truths that lie beyond those limited personal feelings.

Once an acknowledgement of Israeli suffering is made, one can set the timer and count the seconds—one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi—before the “but” or “however” make their bold appearance, followed by the word “occupation” as the root cause of all evil (with no acknowledgement of the opportunities that were missed to end the occupation and to live in peace).

There will be didactic reminders of the fact that the Palestinians are suffering.  Such truisms (yes, war is horrible) are delivered with pedagogical seriousness and self importance, as if they were the distinctive superior insight of the speaker, or as if spoken to a child who still needs to be trained to transcend selfishness—honey, it really hurts your little brother when you do this.

In some prestigious contexts, people who uphold Israel’s right to defend itself will also be reminded of their intellectual inferiority—failure to study the concepts of postcolonial theory or some other intellectual constructs and to apply them responsibly to the world around us.

Never mind that my own education while growing up in Israel in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s—at home, in school and while serving in the Israel Defence Forces—was structured around the hope for peace.  This does not mean that biases, moral errors or crimes were not committed in Israel (vigorously calling these out is an integral part of Israeli culture)—but the orientation of our education was for peace.  My father, who has been a great source of influence and strength to me, was a stay-at-home dad and artist and is also an independent thinker about physics <>.  His army service (before I was born) in a special-forces unit left him with a deep aversion to war.  I doubt that there are many people who have witnessed a more sincere and more earnestly and persistently expressed concern for the human costs of war and acknowledgement of the humanity of the “enemy” and of the problematic aspects of occupation than I have experienced during my education at home.

Partly due to my peace-centered education, my heart breaks first and foremost for the victims of terror—but also for the Palestinians who are ruled by a destructive leadership.  And this is where the morally superior rhetorical tropes about Israel do more than just crawl under my skin.  They embolden destructive leaders by reminding them that too many of the well-meaning people of the West, in practice, have their backs.  These destructive leaders know that every act of terrorism—no matter how horrendous—will soon follow, in various manifestations and degrees, by explicit or implicit delegitimizations of Israel’s right to defend itself.  I fear that even the memory of the unprecedented attack on October 7 is only a few seconds away from being buried in the rubble of Gaza, which will become the focus of humanitarian sentiments—even as there are Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

But people who believe that they are speaking out on behalf of the Palestinians or on behalf of peace are deceiving themselves about their own motivations.

Think about the world as we know it—including the tragedy that is now unfolding in Gaza—and compare it to an alternative world in which the persistent message from Western culture to Palestinians would be that they are expected to live in peace with Israel.  Period.  Intellectuals, activists and ordinary people would give the same consistent, firm message: Israel DOES have the right to defend its borders, and you CAN live in peace and prosperity if you accept the right of Israel to do so.  “The occupation” is not a magic rhetorical trope that shuts down critical thinking.

Such a tough-love attitude from the West is more likely to lead to peace and prosperity for the Palestinians than the familiar, apparently supportive but actually paralyzing, rhetorical tropes.

There is little doubt in my mind that most people in Gaza want to live their lives peacefully. There is likewise no doubt in my mind that many in Gaza hate Hamas, and that many of the terrorists feel self-doubt and self-loathing about what they were manipulated to do. At the same time, people in Gaza and in other societies hostile to Israel are heavily brainwashed and gamed by destructive leaders.  And the thrill of moral superiority that some people in the West seek is providing ammunition to these destructive leaders. Moralizing words that fail to emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself and that invoke “the occupation” as the root of all evil have helped to pave the way to the shedding of blood on October 7.

For this reason, pro-Palestinian activists are actually anti-Palestinian wellbeing.  And people who draw implied false parallels between sadistic terrorism on the one hand and tragic but necessary self-defense on the other hand might be putting their own desire to think about themselves as good above the duty to understand reality.

Unrelated to Israel, on February 14, 2022, the Canadian government invoked the Emergencies Act (previously called the War Measures act). They took this radical measure to put an end to a peaceful convoy of truckers who came to Ottawa, the capital, to protest draconian COVID measures. Bank accounts of organizers and key donors were frozen; organizers were arrested and are being prosecuted, and the truckers were actively vilified by the government and by many Canadians as white supremacists and Nazis. The Canadian government refused to negotiate with the peaceful protesters, treating them as if they were terrorists and literally speaking about the occupation of Ottawa by the truckers.  Residents of Ottawa described traffic inconveniences (a daily reality in most cities in Israel) as if they were an assault.  I was there in the protest near the Canadian parliament, and I did not feel terrorized or threatened by the truckers; I saw nothing except the democratic right to protest.  But now, I fear that some of these Canadians for whose satisfaction and convenience fellow peaceful citizens were essentially treated as terrorists will soon be lecturing to Israel about its right to defend its citizens.

For that reason, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me and Me is all I can really hear when I listen to the rhetorical tropes that are typically invoked in response to Israeli military action.  Those who truly want peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians must not give rhetorical gifts to destructive leaders.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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