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The Suicide of the Palestinians

The Suicide of the Palestinians

Beyond barbarism in the Middle East.

by

Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

March 25, 2002 - We ought to face squarely the origins of the Palestinian descent into barbarism. In July 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made a peace offer that stunned Israel and the world: Israel would re-divide Jerusalem -- would turn over large pieces of its ancient capital to the same people who had destroyed its synagogues, desecrated its cemeteries, and banned Jews from entering when they last ran the show. Arafat rejected the offer. Then in September 2000 the new wave of murderous violence began, supposedly triggered by Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

In short, the Palestinian response to Israel's generous peace offer was, "Drop dead." How could that possibly have happened? A trick question -- because the obvious but wrong answer is so close to the right one that it's hard to tune the right one in. You have to fiddle the dial back and forth. Yet the difference between the two is crucial. The "lesson of appeasement" is not that appeasement is futile. Appeasement is not futile, it is dangerous. Israel's enemies claim that Israel herself provoked the ongoing Palestinian pogrom, and in a sense they might well be right. Outlaws interpret an openhanded offer as weakness, not generosity. They interpret weakness as an incitement to violence. You can goad a dangerous animal to attack by threatening or by shrinking back. Unless you want to fight, the only safe maneuver is to stand still.

Everyone knows about Munich, September 1938: Britain and France generously donate a big slice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, in exchange for "peace with honor," "peace in our time," and the Brooklyn Bridge. Many people know about the Kristallnacht pogrom, November 1938: Germany's approach to the Jews turns from mere oppression to bloodthirsty violence. Kristallnacht was "triggered" by the murder of a German diplomat by a deranged Jew. But some (not all) historians point out the obvious: A leading cause of Kristallnacht was Munich itself. Hitler read the Munich agreements as a proclamation by England and France stating: "We are weak; you have nothing to fear; do what you like."

Appeasement doesn't merely fail to prevent catastrophe, it provokes catastrophe.

The analogy is not close, just close enough. Israel is no Czechoslovakia and was not sold down the river. Barak made his offer freely and in good faith. But to a significant number of Palestinians, the offer obviously said: "We are weak; you have nothing to fear; attack." Appeasement doesn't merely fail to prevent catastrophe, it provokes catastrophe.

Now everything has changed, and we are only gradually coming to grips with the implications. Evidently the whole world is outraged by Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Even before the new violence, the world's outrage was hard to swallow. Some Israelis live among Arabs in settlements on the West Bank, some Arabs live among Jews in "settlements" (otherwise known as towns and cities) in Israel proper. What's the difference? The Israeli settlements are new, the Arab ones old. But if old settlements are legitimate and new ones aren't, what are all those mosques doing on the Temple Mount? Some European journalists refer to the great Temple Mount plaza as the "supposed" site of ancient Israel's holy temple -- as in, "that beat-up white shell on the hill in mid-Athens is supposedly the 'Parthenon.'" The plaza was expanded to its current enormous size by King Herod of Judea during the final years of the last century B.C.E. During the peace talks two thousand years later, in July 2000, a Palestinian negotiator helpfully explained why Barak's offer of control but not legal sovereignty over the Mount had been rejected: "We can't sell our Haram to the Jews," even though (he forgot to add) they built it. (Arabs refer to the Temple Mount as the Haram.)

"New" and "old" depend on your point of view. Jews have as much right as anyone to settle on the West Bank. But it long seemed to me (as to many other American Jews) that, leaving right and wrong out of it, the settlements were causing Israel more grief than they were worth and ought to be stopped. But everything has changed. Who in his right mind could still believe today that to stop building new settlements (or even to abandon old ones) would appease the Palestinians? On the contrary: Such a move is likely to be dangerous, as Barak's offer turned out to be.

Palestinians don't want to live peaceably among Israelis.

We now know what Palestinians want, and what they think of Israelis. After all, what exactly is the point of sending killers to massacre children at random? What do you accomplish? You impose hatred. You ask Israel, in effect: What do we need to do to make you all (not some of you; everyone) hate us? To make you unable to look at a Palestinian without revulsion? To force you eventually to take the terrible step of setting up enclaves where Arabs are banned? Palestinians don't want to live peaceably among Israelis; the natural conclusion is that they think about Israelis as they choose for Israelis to think about them.

Everything has changed, including (for many of us) our ideas about Islam. We ought to have paid more attention to the latest developments. We now learn that suicide bombers are told to expect a heaven full of comely virgins as their next assignment. To the suicide-murderers, those waiting virgins are real as dirt. The killers call themselves "martyrs," but in their own minds they are the next thing to sex criminals. "Pardon me, sir or madam, do you know why I plan to murder your child? Because the authorities are offering me great sex -- and, after all, I don't get many opportunities."

People who think this way are shielded from view, up to a point, by their own sheer evil. They are painful to contemplate. We instinctively look away, as we do whenever we are confronted with monstrous deformity. Nothing is harder or more frightening to look at than a fellow human who is bent out of shape. And moral deformity is the most frightening kind by far. How can Muslims of good faith allow such people to call themselves Muslim? But they do allow it. What does that mean? And is it possible that we have located here, in this inspiring vision of heaven as a whorehouse, the most loathsome idea in the history of human thought? This is the civilization that condemns "licentious" America?

And what is Israel to do? Kill terrorists? Lock up incipient terrorists? Fine, but not enough. Develop the Palestinian opposition also. People who say there is none can't be serious. Among all those mothers and fathers of children who have become suicide-murderers, not one? Not one who believes: "The 'leaders' who did this to my child must be stopped"? Of course you don't dare say such things in the territories. But surely (one optimistically assures oneself), Israeli intelligence could locate a few such families if it tried, and if they were removed to safe ground and protected. "Safe ground" couldn't be Israel or America, or the credibility of this new opposition would be fatally compromised. But it could be Europe. (Khomeini preached the Iranian revolution from France.) Those few families would be mere people, not "leaders," not politicians. But prospective leaders and politicians would come. Being (as a rule) without passion themselves, they are drawn by passion. The Palestinian leadership would try hard to silence these families and their followers, but the message would get through: Our barbaric leadership is destroying us.

But what of Europe? Not long ago I picked up a copy of Le Monde, which reports on the recent meeting where work was started on a constitution for Europe -- the goal being to allow Europe to campaign, as the equal of any great power, "pour affirmer ses valeurs," to assert its values; and you can't help but wonder, exactly what "valeurs" are we talking about? Indifference? Complacency? Spiritual exhaustion? "European values" (certainly "French values") has come to sound like "Palestinian moderates" -- a contradiction in terms. To any instance of Western man -- American or not, Jew or gentile, male or female -- Europe's spiritual collapse is heartbreaking. It is strange but true that the only European country one can picture (by the remotest stretch of the imagination) cooperating on the sly with Israel to help create a Palestinian opposition is Germany - or maybe, if the Untied States made an issue of it, Britain.

THERE ARE LARGER questions about Israel's role in the World that have been pressing for years, but nowadays seem to grow more acute by the hour. The axioms that underpinned Zionism have been turned inside out. Modern Israel was conceived as a safe haven for Jews. It had other reasons for existing -- but safety, and the dignity that only comes with safety, were Zionism's emotional mainsprings. In recent decades, though, especially sine the end of Soviet tyranny, the safe-haven idea has lost cogency like an unwound watch running down. In the last few years, Israel has started to look (on the contrary) like the most dangerous place for the Jews in the world -- if we exclude the small Jewish communities that still exist in Arab countries. Israel must change the way in which it explains itself. (Yoram Hazony made essentially this claim in his seminal "The Jewish State" of 2000.)

When we look at Israel today, it is crucial that we not allow Palestinian barbarism to distract us from another part of this picture: the everyday heroism that lights the whole place up from end to end. A large proportion of Israelis have relatives or connections abroad, mainly in the United States, and they could run to safety if they wanted to. Who would blame them? Who would even have the theoretical right to blame them? But overwhelmingly they have chosen to stay and stand fast. The whole population, man, woman, and child, is holding (is refusing to abandon) a dangerous forward position under fire. It's hard for Israelis to praise Israeli courage, but Americans ought to.

Why do they do it? Partly for powerful negative reasons. It isn't easy to leave home; and many Israelis are determined that Jews will never again be driven from their homes into alien lands by thug mobs. But there is more to Israel than resolve in the face of a uniquely tragic history. Israel still pays its way using the world's only emotional currency denominated entirely in negative numbers. It needs a new currency with positive markings.

Israeli thinkers have talked enough desert; it is time to talk lava.

Israeli thinkers ought to speak less about the tragedy (or the ordinariness) of Israel's 3,000-year history, and more about its luminous greatness; ought to talk up the nation's brilliant prospects, and the central role it has played from Moses to Wittgenstein in creating and molding Western civilization. They don't like to talk this way, but they ought to steel themselves and do it anyway. "The Jew is a desert region," Wittgenstein wrote, "but underneath its thin layer of rock lies the molten lava of spirit and intellect." Israeli thinkers have talked enough desert; it is time to talk lava. Much of the world is at a spiritual lowpoint right now, dragging its belly on the ground. Israel has known before what to do about that. Israel has addressed the whole world and wrought spiritual revolutions, and ought to do it again now.

Published: April 6, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Sequoyah Oren, October 17, 2005 12:00 AM

competition or complexity

All citizens of Israel, no matter what religion are free to practice the religion of their choice. This is so important, and I pray that our Palestine siblings will embrace the separation of church and state when they are charged with their self-administration. Sometimes good fences make good neighbors.

Shalom & Wado,
Sequoyah Oren

(4) Ryan Scarbrough, August 24, 2002 12:00 AM

The beauty of perspective

Torah teaches us to look for beauty. I agree with Mr. Gelertner that the victim mentality does nothing for us and we should instead focus on the beauty of Israel past, present and future. We are like a fountain from which flows life and art and love and beauty. These are gifts we have given to the world, even when we have had no place to lay our heads. Fear follows ignorance, and enlightenment is marked by a greater love. So also teaches the Torah. Let us not only pray for peace, but also may we work to shine the light of love and beauty into every dark corner. Flip on the light and the rats will scurry away, allowing the enlightened folks on the other side of the fence to start picking up the pieces of their culture and learning a new way.

(3) Anonymous, April 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Interesting spin on settlement issues

Appreciate the author's perspective. Has brought up a number of new issues worth elaborating on. Also should broaden his lava to include "symbolically" our unfortunate "ghetto jewish mentality" that we have difficulty shaking. this article is a positive new inference.

(2) Joseph Nerenberg, April 8, 2002 12:00 AM

Great article!

Great article!

(1) Benjamin Samson, April 8, 2002 12:00 AM

Brilliant artic le

David Gelernter is an incisive and thoughtful writer and thinker. I am looking forward to more of his writings on Israel.

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