Don Draper’s Israel problem

On the incalculable setback Israel's world standing has suffered in the wake of recent events

Israel is known for many enviable things, but its fine opinion on the world stage is surely not one of them. Israel’s PR has been, for decades now, positively dreadful, a nation perpetually caught in an unflattering light — some of it due to its own making.

Six Jewish extremists were arrested for the abduction and gruesome murder of Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, 16. Apparently the suspects had acted in revenge for the murdered Jewish teenagers whose own burials had just taken place. Israel’s collective anguish had not even completed the sitting of shiva before the conversation abruptly shifted to Palestinian pain and Israeli brutality.

It gets worse. Over the weekend, video of Israeli riot police beating up Palestinian-American Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, was making its online debut. Tariq had traveled from Florida to attend the funeral of his torched cousin.

The fact that suspects of this hideous crime are being referred to as “Jewish extremists” is cringe inducing in itself. For a nation that asks the world to appreciate its geographic misfortune of being a lone democracy in a tsunami of religious intolerance, where a caliphate is creeping across the region and where barbaric acts such as beheadings and dismemberments are as common as camels, how can the Israelis explain a Palestinian boy being burned alive by a mix of Israeli fanatics and a West Bank settler, a dangerously ideological tandem that the world regards as occupiers of another’s land? Yes, Israel is a democracy, but not without the occasional failing grade on its global report card.

Palestinians may never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, but Israel, for all its military nimbleness and high-tech flair, can’t seem to stop tripping over itself in sabotaging the goodwill it otherwise deserves. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy of the three Jewish teenagers, Israel once more failed to quietly stand aside and lay bare its historical dilemma with terrorism. Instead, the world is hearing the crashing sounds of Israel’s clumsy internal politics.

Those Israelis who reflexively claimed that Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder was likely the result of a family feud are no different from Palestinians who wishfully believed that the three Israeli teenagers had staged their own kidnapping.

As for Tariq Abu Khdeir, it may be true, as Israeli Border Police have reported, that he was no innocent, that he was carrying a slingshot and was part of a masked gang with concealed knives clashing with the police. Several Palestinian teenagers were killed doing very much the same thing during Israel’s 18-day Operation Brother’s Keeper. What we know is that these Palestinian cousins were not treated like Israel’s brothers; time will tell whether they are entitled to the same protection.

It is true that the West Bank oftentimes resembles the Wild West, with rocks and Molotov cocktails taking flight and burning tires sizzling though Arab villages like tumbleweeds. Frontier justice is sometimes the norm, which in no way resembles the rule of law more strictly enforced on the other side of the Green Line.

Yet, now more than ever, Israel must take severe measures to show the world that the double standard of justice in the West Bank has its limits and that when crimes are committed by Israelis against Palestinians the legal system will not play favorites. And Palestinians in the West Bank need to be reassured that while their losses won’t necessarily be mourned by Israelis, they will not be ignored, either. Settlers who resort to “price tag” vengeance are lawless criminals suffering from the worst kind of cowboy envy. They must be treated as harshly as someone who would dare to commit such crimes in Tel Aviv.

There is a moral difference between disparate laws that are invoked to fight terrorism, which even Americans have come to accept with the Patriot Act, and vigilante crimes that occur without color of law and the punishment for which can receive no excuse. In the ordinary course of life and when not in the service of uprooting terrorism, the rule of law must protect the rights of Palestinians within the territories, and surely that goes for visiting Palestinians from America, too.

There are now renewed obstacles to peace, squandered global goodwill, and the impression once more of Israel punching above its geographic weight, the dark hand of Israeli might circling the globe like a public relations debacle from hashtag heaven. Not even Don Draper could put a better spin on Israel’s past few days.

The murder of the three teenagers from the West Bank allowed Israel, for a brief moment, to forget the continuing damage done to the Jewish soul by the settler movement. Now the handiwork of “Jewish extremists” who allegedly tortured Muhammad Abu Khdeir can be added to the erosion of the moral high ground that Israel has suffered all on account of this disputed biblical land.

Israelis know that having a Jewish state carries with it the obligation to conduct themselves as Jews. The people who received the commandments must be vigilant in applying them — even to themselves.

About the Author
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society (FOLCS). He is the author, most recently, of the novel, "How Sweet It Is!" His forthcoming nonfiction book is titled, "The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment."
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