Last week a flagship BBC radio programme in the UK put a listener’s question to a panel of guests: “Are Palestinian lives as valuable as Israeli lives?”
To Jewish listeners, this question is immediately recognisable as coded and offensive. It ought to be merely rhetorical: no doctor operating by the Hippocratic oath would give preferential treatment to a king over a beggar, for example, and that is a social value that we all very rightly uphold.
The only people who would ask such a question are those wanting to imply that Israelis—or Jews (they don’t differentiate)—think otherwise: that Jews (or Israelis) consider Palestinian lives as worthless and fair game in any conflict.
This is how the racist mentality explains Israeli’s recent pounding of Gaza—and much else besides.
You might think that the BBC’s production staff would know better than to let racists flag up such views, for fear of sanctioning hatred. The fact that the question was aired, and not recognised as a dog whistle to other racists, suggests however that the idea behind the question is widely shared and thought plausible.
Three of the four panellists in the radio programme took the question as their cue to critique Israel’s heavy-handed treatment of Gaza. It was left to the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, now of Stanford University, to point out that if anyone holds Palestinian lives cheap, it’s Hamas, which states in its charter that Jihad is its path, that death for the sake of Allah is its loftiest wish, and that in the face of the Jews’ usurpation of Palestine it is compulsory that the banner of Jihad be raised.
“It’s important to recognise in the case of Hamas that there is no serious intent to engage in a peace process,” Ferguson said, adding that it is Hamas’s suicidal ideology that results in Arab deaths.
It was left to Ferguson, too, to point out that the Palestinian Authority had not allowed West-Bank Palestinians to vote for 15 years, correcting a previous speaker’s claim that it was Israel that was to blame for this.
None of these details seems to matter to well-thinking people, though, which is odd. The UK is a liberal democracy and the roots of that liberalism lie in its Protestant past and the influence of 19th-century Christian socialism. Central to Christian self-definition is the doctrine that “God is Love”—and Christians have often one-upped Jews by comparing their “Christian” God to what they see as a Jewish God of Anger and Vengeance.
“Love thy neighbour as thyself” they say, quoting the Book of Matthew, and that impulse can be seen in the architecture of the UK’s welfare state and in its welcoming of strangers. When it comes to Jews, however, the liberal majority is quite happy to love the haters, to hate by proxy and to incite others to hatred.
A chance to wallow in hatred
The pro-Palestinian marches seen all round Britain and Europe over the last two weekends represented not just solidarity with Gaza—and outrage at Israeli heavy-handedness (always condemned as disproportionate)—but a wallowing in hatred, not just by Arabs but by Muslims (in the UK mostly Pakistanis) and by the Left.
Their outrage is understandable and many in our own community will share it, not only because Israel seems heedless of the impact of its overwhelming force on ordinary Palestinians but on how such force is perceived.
Again and again, Hamas can count on provoking the IDF into what looks like an over-reaction, parlaying Israel’s strength to magnify the perception of its own vulnerability.
It digs an elephant trap that Israel falls into every time—from its response to protests about the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, to the police entering the Al Aqsa mosque compound in response to the taunts of rock-throwers a few days before Eid, to its response to Hamas rockets.
What the right reaction might have been to any of these provocations is debatable but the outcome is not: having at last won back some international goodwill for its response to Covid-19, Israel has frittered it all away for the sake of showing Hamas who’s boss—as if there was any doubt.
In PR terms, it’s a disaster—ill-judged and self-defeating—which is no doubt why Hamas began its harassment in the first place.
Just once in its life, letting the other guy overplay his hand might serve Israel better. Let Hamas throw boulders. Let it launch rockets. Then let the media in and show the damage. It’s an easy win.
But Israel won’t do it. In refusing ever again to be the underdog, it ignores to its peril that the world loves victims; that what the world does not love is brutes.
There’s no doubt that the question about the value of Palestinian lives is doubly offensive: not just for its implicit and false accusation about Jewish inhumanity but for its failure to level the same accusation more truthfully at the Palestinians.
For Hamas officials, the cheapness of lives is constantly demonstrated. Thousands are sacrificed—randomly, and without their assent—as pawns in the battle for the world’s pity and to distract from their leaders’ catastrophic failure of governance.
But it’s all very well to assert this. If Israel is too insensitive to see how its strength works against it, no one else is going to run to its rescue. However terrifying its missiles are, the first weapon in war is PR and that’s one weapon it doesn’t seem to have in its arsenal.
Out in the world, no one understands why Israel does what it does, and why its psychological insight is so flawed. In that vacuum of understanding, hatred thrives—and gets shared, because there’s nothing risky about it. Siding with Israel—that’s risky.