The Wisdom of Peter’s Grandmother

Recent events in Paris have driven Peter Beinart inward. He engages in some introspection, waxes nostalgic, and demonstrates some humility. But don’t worry – Israel is still a brutal colonizer.

In his latest musing Peter grapples with the unspoken question, “How can anyone disagree with me? How is it possible to speak of Muslims in such cruel terms, and of course, to persist in brutally denying Palestinians basic human rights?”

Peter talks about his grandmother, who grew up among Muslims and would not have been surprised at their brutality in Paris, since it is a part of their culture. But of course, Peter understands that’s only because she grew up with them, so you can’t really blame her for being so unenlightened.

Peter tells us we should seek to understand the viewpoint of all. Not just that of the Palestinians, but those of the Russian Avigdor Leiberman voters, and the Sefardic Jews of Paris as well. (Magnanimous of you, Peter.) But not, mind you, because we have something to learn from them, that we may well be mistaken in our approach to the Palestinians. But because without empathy, “our arguments can have little impact.” How patronizing. How manipulative.

Peter, there are two flaws in your thinking. First, you think it’s good to visit the Palestinians in order to empathize with them and help them gain human rights, but your empathy toward your Jewish brethren only extends to getting them to think your way. Perhaps there are ways in which your empathy toward Jews of different backgrounds can move you to help them gain whatever it is they lack?

And second, empathy can tell us how to help (or in your case, influence) others. But it can also tell us how to interact with an implacable opponent. Your grandmother would describe the Muslims she lived among as a monolithic “them,” and you found this off-putting.

I know. Talking about “them” dehumanizes the subject, and we are talking about 1 billion Muslim people here. And it is difficult to ascribe sentiments of genocidal violence to so many people.

So instead of talking about people, let’s talk about ideas and actions. Cultural Islam, or the regions where Islam is the dominant religion, is pre-modern. They do not value liberal ideas or freedoms which we in the West take for granted. There is no freedom of the press, freedom of speech, or freedom of religion. Women cannot walk unaccompanied, and homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. Honor killings, where a family member can kill a female relative for as much as consorting with a man, are part of the culture. Corporal punishment is a standard feature of their criminal justice system – a Saudi blogger (he’s just a blogger for God’s sake!) – was recently flogged 50 times, the first set of 1,000 lashes. And this for the sin of encouraging freedom of speech. This was not done clandestinely, mind you; the flogging was broadcast live, and posted on YouTube. And lest one think the beating did not meet with the approval of the “Muslim street,” witness the crowd egging on the executioner. And all this in the middle of western solidarity for Charlie Hebdo.

For a variety of reasons, an extremist strain of Islam is gaining power, and because much of what it stands for resonates with Muslim culture or the “Arab street,” there is little internal effort to quash it.

Now, none of this is palatable to the American liberal mind. It is natural to assume that others think like you; if you appreciate decency, compromise, and peace you assume others do as well. If you value democracy, you assume that others do too. But we are not dealing with a culture which values cooperative, democratic principles, and the sooner the West wraps its head around this idea the better.

The empathy you call for can also help us understand the Muslim Middle Eastern mindset. But the price of empathy can be that it leads you to thinking in terms you find revolting. Maybe this is what your grandmother had in mind..

About the Author
Long-time Jerusalemite tired of influential foreign voices beating down on Israel. Come on you guys -- you know better!
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