On Banality and the Toulouse Rampage

I spent a week trying to make sense of William Pfaff’s ill-considered NYRB blogpost on the murders in Toulouse, and now, having read his latest contribution, can definitively conclude that what he has to say on this topic isn’t just stupidly offensive, it is also offensively stupid.

Every time a Jew is murdered by a Muslim in France we are told that the Middle East conflict has come to France — indeed, this was the headline of Pfaff’s first blog post.  It’s a thoughtful enough-sounding thing to say, but it raises two questions.  First, How can something keep arriving if it’s already there? Anguished commentators lamented that the Israeli-Arab dispute was being imported to France ten years ago during an epidemic of synagogue burnings in France, and again in 2003 when a Paris rabbi was stabbed by a Muslim assailant shouting “God is Great.”  The same observation was made when Sébastien Selam had his eyes gouged with a fork and then his throat slashed by his Muslim neighbor who then proudly announced, “I have killed my Jew, I will go to Paradise.”  And that trite declaration was rolled out again in 2006 when Ilan Halimi was kidnapped by a gang of Muslims, tortured for 23 days, and murdered.  Not only did none of the neighbors in the banlieue report what was going on over the three weeks of Halimi’s ordeal, some came to watch as he was tortured while his captors shouted passages from the Koran.

The second obvious question is, Doesn’t a conflict have two sides?  I haven’t done a thorough search of police blotters, but sedulous googling yielded no torchings of French mosques by French Jews, no stabbings of French imams by French Jews, no ritual torture-murders of French Muslims by French Jews, and no shootings of French Muslim children at school by French Jews seeking revenge for any of a host of terrorist attacks in Israel (or in France for that matter!) that a hotheaded nihilist could resort to as justification.  I suspect that if there were a case of French Jews behaving that way, the last thing we would expect to see is reasoned opinion in fashionable lefty journals telling us that this was just the Middle East conflict arriving on France’s shores or that it was collateral damage from the Palestinians’ relentless struggle against Jewish self-determination.

But that is precisely the argument Pfaff makes in his first post, asserting right in the first sentence that the murders in Toulouse were, “among other things, another episode in the war that for nearly a half century has been going on between Zionism and the Palestinians.” (Wait, nearly a half century?  Does that mean that Pfaff thinks that the conflict began after the 1967 war?)  He points out that Mohamed Merah justified his shooting of the Jewish schoolchildren as “revenge for the killing of Palestine [sic] children” by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza that week.  The middle of March was indeed a hot period in the Israel-Gaza border zone, and in the days before Merah’s shooting rampage anti-Israel forums on the internet were aflutter with a gruesome picture of the bloodied body of a young girl, allegedly killed by Israeli fire into Gaza.  The woman who initially tweeted the picture was — you can’t make this up — an official from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the picture in all its bloody gore was genuine, but it was a six-year-old photo of a poor Palestinian girl who was killed in an accident, not in any armed conflict and not by any Israeli.

Pfaff mocks Prime Minister Netanyahu’s outrage at the statement put out by the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton comparing the deaths in Toulouse to “what we see happening in Gaza and Sderot.”  But what the Prime Minister (Pfaff mistakenly calls him “President Netanyahu”) was reacting to was the original version that her office put out mentioning only Gaza; this was corrected to include Sderot only later.  (In fairness to Baroness Ashton, when she spoke she clearly did try to name both the Israeli and Palestinian towns.  Her office’s official statement left out the Israeli town, either because of the taboo of ever mentioning that an Israeli city has been under consistent rocket attack for eleven years or because Ashton mangled slightly the pronunciation of Sderot.)

This is hardly the only after-the-fact edit that should concern Pfaff.  When the article was posted on the NYRB’s website, it ran under the provocative headline “Zionism’s Collateral Damage?” (this about the murder of three schoolchildren and a rabbi!) before being changed to the only slightly less risible “The Middle East Conflict Comes to France.”  Journalistic convention would dictate that if there was a correction made here, there should be some note or explanation.  There is none.

Every worn out trope is trotted out, whether it is the assertion that American support for Israel is only a product of “intimidation” or a plug for Peter Beinart’s new book which, whatever its merits, was not on the mind of the Toulouse killer.  But by far the most memorable part of the essay was this statement:

Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.

No other subject comes before the verb “invite” besides the “Jews” of the beginning of the sentence; Pfaff clearly intends to say “Jews invite international terrorist attention as long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.”  Let’s pause for a moment and see if this sentence could be politely uttered about any other group involved in an international dispute.  If someone had shot Hindu children at a school in New Jersey, would we say “Hindus invite international terrorist attention as long as the Kashmir issue is unresolved”?  Can we imagine an attack on Turkish children in Germany followed by a pensive “Turks invite international terrorist attention as long as the issue of Kurdish rights (or Cyprus) is unresolved”?

Faced with the outrage that his first piece provoked, Pfaff revisited the topic a few days ago.  Now he is upset that people might draw political conclusions from the actions of essentially a lone gunman.  But of course, this is precisely what Pfaff was doing himself only one week before.

The piece opens by noting that Abe Foxman of the ADL and other hostile commenters accused him of “blaming the victim.”  Why would anyone think that about a statement that “Jews invite international terrorist attention”?  Pfaff wishes that what he calls “thoughtful members of the international Jewish community” could understand that,

the indiscriminate use of such accusations debases them, and that their use in attempting to discredit political critics of Israeli settlement policies, Palestinian relations (or recent efforts to promote an American attack on Iran), undermines debates that for Israels own sake should be taken seriously.

As this is the hoariest trope in discussions of Jews and Israel in the West, one automatically assumes Pfaff must be referring to anti-Semitism.  But Pfaff never claims to have been accused of anti-Semitism.  The antecedent of “such accusations” is clearly the charge leveled at him of “blaming the victim,” which is what he says he was accused of by Foxman and commenters on the NYRB website as well as in private correspondence.  And who among the critics of his first piece was using that as a cover for discrediting critics of settlements or Israel’s hawkish stance on the Iranian nuclear issue?

It would be tasteless indeed if someone tried to manipulate the murders in Toulouse to further a political agenda that had to do with settlements or bombing Iran or whatever — as tasteless as it would be to see in the murders yet further evidence of Israeli villainy (and an opportunity to portray American support of Israel as nothing more than the result of “intimidation”).

In the new piece, the murdered pupils are “three Israeli children,” a usage Pfaff justifies by later noting that all the school victims “apparently” had joint French-Israeli citizenship and at same time taking care to mention that Toulouse has a large Israeli expatriate community involved in aerospace and high tech.  He’s almost saying, They only look innocent, these kids!  The dual citizenship of these children is about as relevant as the dual French-Israeli citizenship of Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier abducted and held hostage by Hamas in Gaza for five years.  A report on Schalit referring to him as “an abducted French teenager” would be technically true, but miss the point too.

He now writes that “we do not know enough” about the killer to assess his motives and suggests that the fact that he shot apparently Muslim French soldiers (a wounded victim was actually Catholic) calls into question his anti-Semitism.  But only a week before, Pfaff was sure that he knew why the killings happened — they were another episode in the Israeli-Arab conflict.  And he is playing it a bit naïve with the ideology, which is actually not terribly mysterious.  The strands of jihadism that have grown in Muslim communities in Europe are diverse and, like many ideological clusters, full of internal contradictions, but an opposition to the NATO war in Afghanistan, a view of Muslims who collaborate in Western anti-terror efforts as traitors, and a cosmic hatred of Jews are pretty dominant features.  Merah may have, as Pfaff asserts, lacked “education and sophistication,” but there’s not a great mystery about the ideological motivation behind his killing spree, and nothing to suggest Pfaff’s conclusion that there was something “banal” about it.

It’s actually quite rare for the New York Review to post a follow-up to a blog post, but Pfaff’s March 28 post essentially blaming Israel for the murders in Toulouse was so egregious that he apparently felt the need to clarify.  I don’t believe he did himself any favors with the second piece, posing as a victim of “debasing” attacks, and striking a righteous pose against all who would fold the Toulouse incident into a pre-existing political worldview, as though he hadn’t just done the same thing.

Pfaff can be forgiven for not using a second entry on the blog to address the factual errors in the first (the duration of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Ashton statement, the Israeli “president,” etc.), though in reality those are all things the New York Review’s editors should have caught before the piece was posted.  But if he really feels it necessary to revisit what he wrote, he needs to begin with the sentence that summarizes his entire argument.  If you can’t see what is wrong with “Jews invite international terrorist attention,” then you have a problem that is much worse than just banal.


About the Author
Dr. Shany Mor is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a research fellow at Haifa University’s Chaikin Center.