The Elephant in the Room

Last night, I opened up my computer to terrible news: Three Israelis were murdered in their homes, in a brutal terrorist attack. The terrorist, a young Palestinian man from a nearby village, had posted on social media in anger about the recent events on the Temple Mount prior to carrying out the attack.

As I was still digesting the headlines, my Facebook feed was filled with pictures of Palestinians celebrating the attack, alongside Peace Now memes blaming Netanyahu, essentially claiming “We told you so”.

I was disgusted by both types of posts. After a tragedy occurs, how can our first reaction be to mine it for good propaganda? But because I identify with the left, this article will focus on left-wing — not right-wing — reactions. This is similar to how, because I identify as Israeli, my posts tend to focus on Israeli — not Palestinian — behavior.

I think that the left has a real problem. On the one hand, you don’t want to engage in victim blaming. Not blaming the victim is important not just on an ethical level, but also on a political level: You want the rest of Israeli society to understand that you feel their pain.

Additionally, it’s important to acknowledge the agency of Palestinians, and their responsibility for their own actions. Israel puts Palestinians, both as a collective and as individuals, in certain situations — very difficult situations. However, it is up to Palestinians how they react to those situations, and they bear responsibility for their own actions. To deny this, is to deny the Palestinians’ humanity, engaging in an act of colonialism over those whose rights we claim to defend.

At the same time, if we acknowledge that Palestinians are humans, then we also have to acknowledge that their behavior is not completely unconnected to the circumstances that they find themselves in. This paradox was beautifully expressed by Karl Marx:

“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.”

This means that Israeli policies and actions impact Palestinian policies and actions — which means that Israel must be able to have an honest conversation about how its policies impact Palestinian actions without being accused of victim-blaming or of negating Palestinian responsibility.

Let’s assume there was a serial killer targeting anyone who used the word “Please”.  Saying “Please” is a perfectly nice thing to do; certainly, people cannot be blamed for using it. The evil serial killer is responsible for his own actions. However, it would be reasonable to explain the link to the public, and encourage them to refrain from saying “Please” until the killer was caught -even though they had done nothing wrong.

Our inability to discuss the connection between Israeli policy and terror hampers Israeli security; it’s as if, in the case above, the police refrained from telling the public that the serial killer targeted polite people.

Part of the reason the left encounters resistance when it tries having this conversation is simply that the rest of Israel doesn’t trust us, and solving that problem takes time, and patience, and lots of listening.

But another reason is that the illusion that Israeli policy has no impact on Palestinians’ choices allows Israel to continue the status quo. If Palestinians will constantly try to kill us, no matter what, then we don’t have to do anything different in order to protect ourselves. We have no moral obligation to change our actions, because doing so wouldn’t have any impact, other than to increase the vulnerability of Israeli civilians.

This is the mirror image the left’s claim that Palestinians can’t help but become terrorists: It negates Palestinians’ humanity and their ability to make their own choices. It also is completely devoid of hope, seeing Palestinian violence against Israelis as something that will continue no matter what, regardless of Israel’s actions.

Being pessimistic does not make a theory false, but since Zionism is built on a tradition of optimism and of looking at actions we can do to impact the situation, even when the set of choices is limited, it’s a bit surprising that the Israeli right has managed to brand itself as the “real” Zionists and market its message of doom and gloom to the Israeli population.

Another reason the left encounters resistance is that, unfortunately,  there is almost never a good time to have this conversation: There is almost never a time where the memory of a recent terror attack does not have Israelis on edge. This is a challenge not only for the left, but also, for Israeli society as a whole: How can we talk about anything calmly, when we are constantly traumatized?

I don’t really have an answer, but I do believe that the fate of Israel depends on finding one -as Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.

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.