Matthew Duss’s pathetic disclaimer and despicable apologetics

By happenstance, many years ago, I spoke with the celebrated and now late minister William Sloane Coffin, and he used the term “impure tragedy.” It is not in common use, but my understanding at the time and since is that an “impure tragedy” is one in which the victim is greatly culpable for his or her own misfortune. The impurity of it all complicates empathy, because it is mixed with anger and resentment.

It is impossible to read about the intifadah of blades without detecting the sense of this impurity, something also Noach Shapiro notes in his recent blog entry: “Dear Jews, Don’t Write That Second Paragraph.”

Too many places, the Second Paragraph is the first and only paragraph. A typical example is the piece by Matthew Duss in Slate, titled “Israel’s Cycle of Violence,” a piece that would best serve as an astonishing collection of rhetorical fallacies but instead is typical of the pathological cowardice and intellectual slovenliness of Western punditry.

Let’s take a look at it:

The title: For sure the cycle of violence is inside Israel, but the use of the possessive form is misleading: these murders, this “moment” as Duss calls it, is something that has befallen Israel, or rather its people; but if any entity owns it, it is surely the place Duss calls “Palestine.”

Would anyone dream of referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor as “America’s naval attack?” Of course not; but Duss is trying to make the point from the very beginning that this is essentially an Israeli, and not a Palestinian problem.

Then the subtitle:

“There’s no excuse for recent attacks. But it shouldn’t shock anyone that Israel’s harsh occupation and abuse provokes Palestinians.”

If there is no excuse, what is the point of making one in the very next sentence? People are provoked all the time, with or without good reason. Duss’s piece, for example, left me fuming, but the provocation brought me to writing this piece, after a brisk hike through the still-safe city of Oslo. Curiously, I felt no impulse to stab anyone, or even kick a rock.

I have not met a single person yet who doubts the anger of the Palestinians, though they may differ on its root causes. But if the “recent attacks” have no excuse, then everything else is irrelevant. But not for Duss, who pushes one fallacy after another to prove the opposite of his initial alibi: that it is the Israelis, and not the Palestinians, who should be blamed for the wanton murder of Jews.

Netanyahu and Abu Mazen: Duss argues that Netanyahu is unfair to Abbas by linking Abbas’s incitement to the violence, because Abbas — according to Duss — “has been taking responsibility — and fighting terror.”

There are several problems with this line of reasoning:

  • There is no question that Abbas’s rhetoric lately has been way beyond the pale of civility, never mind diplomacy. Neither is there any question that he and his organization are the chief instigators of the lie that the Israeli government was planning to change the “status quo” of the Temple Mount (a point I shall return to).
  • “Taking responsibility and fighting terror” is only accurate in a limited sense. On no account has Mazen accepted responsibility for the recent violence, and he is “fighting terror” in a very limited, arguably self-serving way.
  • Even if he were feverishly trying to put an end to the current murdering, this does not exonerate him from his share of the incitement that sparked it.

(Parenthetically, Duss remarks: “It’s important to note here that the majority of violent attacks by Palestinians have taken place in areas where the Palestinian Authority has no presence.”) First an annoyance, if it’s important to note, why put it in parentheses? Second, does this mean that the PA has no responsibility for the acts it encourages outside of its “presence?” Third, he has a point: these attacks take place where Israel has responsibility for the safety of its citizens, and anyone who tries to kill Israelis must know that they are risking their lives making that attempt, as the case would be anywhere else in the world. What Duss parenthetically but “importantly” notes is actually completely irrelevant.)

The “status quo” of the Temple Mount

Let me first say this, because it isn’t said often enough: A wise politician should know that the Temple Mount represents a powder keg in the Middle East, but every reasonable person should recognize that this situation is an outrage; in fact, it is an act of terrorism.

The change in status quo that is so unbearable to even contemplate, is the possibility that (gasp!) Jews might stop to pray on the area. If devout Jews had been equally outraged over the Christian use of the Centacle above David’s Tomb, would this have been met with any understanding?

Duss also writes: “As for Netanyahu’s claim that Abbas was lying about the Temple Mount, it’s worth noting that Abbas is far from the only one unclear on Israel’s intentions.”

There is, of course, a world of difference between being “unclear” about someone’s intentions and spreading rumors that their are definite plans. Perhaps it is intemperate of Israeli politicians to question the “status quo” of a Judenrein Temple Mount, but a responsible Palestinian leader would seek to calm things down.

(Then Duss tries to bait liberal American Jews by including some irrelevant material on electoral politics and Adelson).

Bret Stephens

Duss goes on:

“The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens went further, penning a feverish screed accusing Palestinians — as a people — of being “psychotic,” having a “blood fetish” and “blood lust.” (It’s worth noting that, if someone wrote something remotely similar about Jews, Stephens would be among the first to accuse him or her of anti-Semitism.)”

Here is the article by Bret Stephens, and these are the full quotes that Duss lists as fragments:

  • “Palestine: The Psychotic stage.” Need I remind Duss how he characterizes “Israel” in his own piece?
  • “Today in Israel, Palestinians are in the midst of a campaign to knife Jews to death, one at a time. This is psychotic. It is evil.”
  • “Regarding the causes of this Palestinian blood fetish, Western news organizations have resorted to familiar tropes.”
  • “The significant question is why so many Palestinians have been seized by their present blood lust — by a communal psychosis in which plunging knives into the necks of Jewish women, children, soldiers and civilians is seen as a religious and patriotic duty, a moral fulfillment.”

I suppose Bret Stephens could have appeased people like Duss — as if that were remotely possible — by inserting the modifier “some, but by no means all, because certainly there are plenty of peace-loving Palestinians.” But “Palestinian” in the national sense, which is how both Stephens and Duss would have it, refers in common usage to a phenomenon that has significant prevalence among Palestinians, or in Palestine, if you will.

It is this same usage that drives Duss to write, for example, and with far less empirical basis: “Israel’s harsh occupation and abuse,” “Israeli settlers and troops commit regular acts of violence against Palestinian civilians with complete impunity and near-zero accountability, all of it justified under Israel’s increasingly threadbare assertions of ‘self-defense,'” and so on.

Jewish violence

Duss writes: “Jewish violence toward Arabs is reaching levels we don’t recall seeing in the past,” an IDF official told Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea. “Israelis have ripped out hundreds of olive trees belonging to Arabs, ruined houses, smashed cars. The violence motivates counter-violence.”

By the way, so-called “price tag” violence has been even worse than this, including murder. Eliciting unanimous condemnation and shame across a wide range of Jewish and Israeli organizations.

There are two things that puzzle me about this rationalization of Palestinian terrorism:

  • Is Palestinian terrorism somehow more justified, more understandable because Israelis, or Jews, also are capable of heinous acts? Must every Jew be perfect to prevent any Jew from being murdered?
  • If “violence motivates counter-violence,” what does the continuous existential threat against Israel motivate among Israelis?

Abbas and stability for Israel

“Under Abbas, the Palestinian Authority has delivered years of security to Israelis, something acknowledged across the board by U.S. and Israeli officials.”

Duss is giving credit to Abu Mazen for conditions that were plainly out of his control: Mazen took office in May of 2005, a few months after the Palestinians were defeated in the Second Intifada. By then, significant portions of Israel’s security barrier was also completed. The civil war between Fatah and Hamas started soon after he took office and lasted until 2007.

Mazen has (mostly) been less of a firebrand than Yassir Arafat, but that scarcely makes him the kind of leader capable — or willing — to deliver anything resembling “years of security.” Israelis, for their part, have no illusions about what Mazen is likely to deliver, nor to what they owe the relative peace from the West Bank.


Matthew Duss makes his living having an opinion about the Middle East. This piece is an example of how devoid huge elements of the anti-Israel industry are of elementary facts and basic logic. It belongs on the fringes of political discourse and not in periodicals that want mainstream respectability.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area