Post-Midnight Sonata: Thoughts on the Recent Violence

  1. Allegro: Online Discourse

To live in Israel means to be constantly thinking about war and peace – and I’m not referring to the novel by Tolstoy. In a city besieged by Palestinian terrorists with knives, to be an Israeli Jew eating a waffle on the sidewalk becomes an act of defiance. In a world where Jewish extremists yell at those who advocate for coexistence, sitting with an Arab becomes a political statement. Of course, hurling insults at people engaged in an activity you find offensive is in no way morally comparable to randomly stabbing people as they’re walking down the street.

I’ve seen a lot of moral equivalence floating around on the internet, regarding the recent violence. The violence of the past few weeks has been Palestinians carrying out terrorists attacks, and Israelis stopping those attacks, often wounding or killing terrorists in the process. There is room for debate about what appropriate and ethical police and army guidelines should be in this situation, and it’s important to prosecute anyone who harmed an attacker after the attacker in question had already been neutralized. But shooting someone in the middle of trying to kill innocent civilians is not morally equivalent to actually trying to kill innocent civilians.

At the risk of revealing that I spend too much time online, there’s another trend in internet discourse that has me peeved – the way that the narrative on both sides of the Israeli political spectrum denies the Palestinians’ humanity. The left-wing narrative says, “The recent violence is the inevitable result of Israeli oppression. Israel squandered its opportunities for peace; now the Palestinians, frustrated by their political predicament, feel they have no choice but to turn to violence, as desperation transforms into hate.”. The right-wing narrative says, “The Palestinians hate us. They will hate us no matter what we do. Even if there were a Palestinian state tomorrow, that hate would not go away. There’s no point in taking any steps to alleviate the Palestinian plight. They only understand force; we must deal with them with an iron fist.”

Each narrative is different, but they have one thing in common: They both dehumanize the Palestinians by denying their agency over their own lives, and their ability to make moral (or immoral) choices. That’s not to say that those choices occur in a vacuum. As Karl Marx said,  “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”. I’d add that this applies to women as well.

Because Palestinians are humans, any political position stemming from a narrative that doesn’t recognize them as full moral agents is flawed. Similarly, any analysis of a situation in which teenage boys are committing acts of violence is flawed, if it doesn’t take into account teenage male psychology. Teenage boys want to look cool. Teenage boys with Facebook want to look cool on Facebook. Killing Jews is what counts for cool in some parts of East Jerusalem right now.

2. Andante: Background

It’s important to acknowledge that Palestinians have legitimate grievances towards Israel. East Jerusalem Palestinians don’t have Israeli citizenship, though they can vote in municipal elections and get Israeli public healthcare. They live in poor neighborhoods, with failing school systems – and they see the contrast between living standards and educational and employment choices in their neighborhoods, and those in primarily-Jewish West Jerusalem. (In the city’s defense: East Jerusalem Palestinians don’t vote in municipal elections and many don’t pay municipal taxes, because to do so would be to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty. Democratically elected city governments aren’t generally responsive to populations that don’t vote or give them money.)

However, legitimate grievances and economic disparities don’t automatically lead to hate and they don’t automatically lead to terror – nor do they justify it. Instead, they provide the backdrop for the campaign of incitement that’s been happening in the Palestinian media since September, as well as from some Palestinian politicians – including Abu Mazen. Not only has Abu Mazen legitimized the false rumour that Israel wants to change the Temple Mount status quo (which, based on interviews with Palestinians that I’ve read, seems to be a major motivator behind the recent violence) and refer to Jews as people whose filthy feet defile holy places, but he also claimed that a 13-year-old Palestinian boy had been randomly killed by Israeli security forces, when in fact, the teen in question had been injured while carrying out an attack, and is being treated at an Israeli hospital. Of course, the Palestinian media is rife with reports that terrorists shot in the act were in fact innocent Palestinian bystanders, randomly targeted by Israel. It’s not hard to see how a Palestinian believing those reports might get angry.

That anger doesn’t justify terror. There isn’t an excuse for lunging at a woman and her baby with a knife, or for attacking a teenager while he’s riding his bicycle. But I think it’s hard to talk about things Israel is doing wrong, or about changes in Israeli policy that could alleviate the problem in the long-term, without looking like you’re justifying terror – and that poses a major problem for Israel’s left-wing. There are steps that can be taken – like granting East Jerusalemites citizenship, granting more building permits, and having special programs to develop East Jerusalem’s educational and economic infrastructure – that can transform East Jerusalem into a less fertile ground for the sewing of hate. There are also certain steps, such as deciding that now is the time to demolish illegal Palestinian building in Jerusalem, or such as the decision to demolish the houses of terrorists’ families (presumably, the terrorists themselves won’t be living there for a while, since they’ll be in jail), that must be the topic of a proper debate, that examines these policies’ ethical implications, and that pits these measures’ short-term security value against the long-term harm of increasing Palestinian animosity.

Allegro: Where is the Left?

But there is no credible left-wing to help us have these conversations. The left constantly bemoans Bibi’s lack of moral leadership, but it’s not his job to start a debate about whether or not his policies are effective. He’s an elected politician, interested in selling his policies to the Israeli public so that they’ll continue to vote for him. It’s the left’s job, as the opposition, to provide government oversight. I think however, that the left is afraid. Some are afraid of being seen as disloyal if they criticize Israeli policies while Israel is the victim of daily terror attacks. Some are afraid that they’ll be accused of focusing on Israel’s flaws, instead of on the Palestinian Authority’s transgressions – though of course, it makes sense to focus on Israeli policies, which the Israeli government can control, rather than on the behavior of the Palestinian Authority, which is not in Israel’s hands. Others are uncomfortable acknowledging that there is incitement from the Palestinian leadership, lest they shed doubt upon Abu Mazen’s trustworthiness as a partner in the peace process, since the continuation of that process is a major tenet of left-wing policy. Left-wing politicians recognize that when Israelis are feeling vulnerable and afraid of being stabbed while going grocery shopping, they’ll be understandably hesitant to take the type of short-term security risk that the peace process entails, even if that process is essential to ensuring Israel’s long-term security (not to mention its character as a Jewish, democratic state). Many Israelis feel that there might still be some Palestinians who hate us even after the establishment of a Palestinian state – not all, to be sure, not even a majority – but the same small few who’d be willing to risk their lives in order to carry out terror attacks. But rather than acknowledge any of these fears, the left chooses to stay silent. Parts of it remain silent about Israeli mistakes, while parts of it remain silent about Palestinian hate.

But until it speaks out, it can’t complain that nobody votes for it.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.