The Last Word: Risen and fallen angels - The Israel-hating Left
A couple of months ago, the Associated Press published a series of pictures taken in the village of Kabatiya, near Jenin. They showed a Palestinian man being marched down a street by armed guards, then shot like a dog in the village square. Were the executioners Israeli? No. They were members of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of Fatah, Yasser Arafat's political movement.
The victim was 45-year-old Muhammed Daraghmeh, accused of molesting his two daughters and collaborating with Israel. Was the accusation true? Who knows. Had the charge been proved by some kind of normal judicial procedure? It had not. Instead, the crowd chanted "death, death," the gunmen obliged, and the crowd cheered. More astonishing was that the gunmen invited the foreign press to record the scene. They were pleased with themselves, not ashamed.
Now consider the plight of Palestinian homosexuals. In August 2002, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece in The New Republic which told the story of "Tayseer," a 21-year-old Gazan homosexual, who was lured to a tryst in an orange grove near his refugee camp. The next day he was summoned to the Palestinian police and told his partner of the day before was an informant. If Tayseer wanted to avoid prison, he had to become an informant. Tayseer refused.
What happened next was this: Tayseer was arrested "and hung by his arms from the ceiling. A high-ranking officer he didn't know arranged for his release and then demanded sex as payback. Tayseer fled Gaza to Tulkarm on the West Bank, but there too he was eventually arrested. He was forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck.... During one interrogation, police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle. Through the entire ordeal he was taunted by interrogators, jailers, and fellow prisoners for being a homosexual."
I take note of these stories for two reasons. First, because Tayseer and Muhammed were victims not of the Israelis but of other Palestinians, and the context of their victimization was not the occupation but the style of rule established by the PLO from the moment it arrived in Gaza in 1994.
The second reason is that the abolition of capital punishment, and the promotion of gay rights, are two great causes of the "engaged" Left. A third great cause, of course, is Palestine. How is it that the three causes can travel together? How can the Left treat with veneration a movement that, in basic respects, is the antithesis of the very values it claims to champion? Conversely, how can it view with venomous hatred the one country in the Middle East that attempts to live by those values?
There are several plausible answers to this question, which fall into one of two categories: First, that whatever Israel's virtues or Palestine's vices, Israel's crimes against the Palestinians are such that they command the Left's attention above and beyond other international conflicts. Second, that there is something deeply wrong with the Left's moral and political vision.
It will come as no surprise to readers that I subscribe to the second view. But let's try to do justice to the first.
There is, of course, the usual charge sheet: Occupation, settlement, land seizures, indiscriminate use of force, extrajudicial killing, house demolitions, and so on.
Yet none of these accusations constitutes the real core of the Left's complaint about Israel. After all, Israel is not the only country denying an angry minority its state: the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are doing the same to the Tamils. Nor is Israel the only country building a wall – Morocco built one in Western Sahara, which it illegally occupies, against the Polisario Front. Nor, certainly, has Israel been uniquely heavy-handed in its tactics: Whatever Sharon did in Jenin or Sabra and Shatilla, it's as nothing next to what Putin did in Grozny.
A more serious argument would begin by pointing out that however Israel treats its own citizens is not material to the question of how it treats Palestinians. France, too, was a liberal democracy in 1957, when General Aussaresses was torturing Algerian militants. Nor, to extend the analogy further, does the misrule of the Palestinian Authority necessarily delegitimize the cause it represents, any more than the actions of the FLN delegitimize the cause of Free Algeria.
Furthermore, one might say that precisely because Israel is a democracy, the standards the West applies to it must be higher than the standards the West applies to the Palestinians. Israelis, says Giancarlo Chevellard, the outgoing EU ambassador to Tel Aviv, "are one of us... We expect more from Israel than from Cambodia or Colombia."
Finally, it can be argued that Israel, on account of its superior power, is in a position to make political and territorial concessions whereas Palestinians are not. Thus, Israel's failure to make such concessions can only be attributed to greed – for land – or religious fanaticism – for The Land.
For the Left, then, what it boils down to is this: Israel is a country that could do better, morally speaking, but chooses not to. It could safely withdraw to the 1967 borders, but chooses not to. It could hold itself to the highest legal and ethical standards, but chooses not to. It could have peace at the cost of a little land, but chooses not to.
This, indeed, would seem to justify special opprobrium, if true. For true evil – the Satanic paradigm, the paradigm of God's fallen angel – is contingent on knowledge of good. Hutus in Rwanda and Arab militias in the Sudan may murder by the hundreds of thousands – but that is what Africans and Arabs do, isn't it? It may be dreadful, but it's not surprising.
As moral theories go, this is a defensible one: defensible in the way that judgments of guilt or innocence require a prior determination of mental and moral fitness. Did the defendant know he was committing a crime when he committed it? If the answer is yes – as it is assumed to be in the case of the Israelis – then the crime is damnable; if the answer is no – as it is assumed to be in the case of the Palestinians – then the crime is forgivable.
The problem here is that rendering a "yes" or "no" answer in the cases of Israel and Palestine is not simple. Take Israel: Can it really be said that Israel's conduct against the Palestinians is markedly worse than the conduct of other Western democracies at war? Furthermore, how does one go about determining whether Israel's alleged failure "to do better" is willful and malicious, or circumstantial and excusable?
Neither question is easy to answer. It is one thing to judge Israel's actions in light of relevant international legal covenants. But the strong case against Israel should not be proved normatively but comparatively: That is, not by the extent to which Israel departs from a given legal standard, but rather by how Israeli standards compare with the standards of Israel's Western peers. If, for example, France and the United States have employed a policy of targeted assassination against select enemies of state (as they have and do) then Israel must be held to that same standard (even if it continues to be held to a different standard vis-a-vis the Palestinians).
On the second point – could Israel have done better on the peace front? – one may equally ask: Could Germany do better on the economic front? I mention Germany because it presents a case in which almost all economists and policy makers are agreed on what needs to be done (mainly, reducing high labor costs), but the actual doing of it is not so simple. Germany is a democracy; there are competing sectoral interests, some quite obstructionist; there is a delicate political balance; and it is not enough for the chancellor to give his orders and be done with it.
The same goes for Israel. If Israel's tougher critics are going to demand that it comport itself in a way that befits a democracy, then they must also accept that democratic outcomes will often be imperfect and not to their liking.
There is another logical difficulty with ascribing to Israel willful malice toward Palestinians, and the problem is this: Why hasn't Israel acted worse? Israel, say its critics, is the powerful party; therefore it is morally incumbent on it to make the bulk of concessions. But if Israel fails to make those concessions, and if it fails to make them precisely because it's greedy and fanatical, why has it not proceeded to the next steps? If you're capable of one Sabra and Shatilla, you're capable of dozens of them. It is difficult to square the image of a murderous Ariel Sharon with the fact that 2,500 Palestinians have been killed in four years of fighting, and not 25,000, or 250,000.
In other words, the only way Israel can credibly be alleged to have chosen not to do good when it could have done good is if it had gone on to commit the most heinous crimes, in the style of Nazi Germany. Satanic evil – chosen evil – is never half-hearted.
Now to the Palestinians. This column began by asking how a movement that is in so many respects violent and illiberal should have such an overwhelming claim on the sympathy of the pacifist and progressive Left. Part of the answer, of course, is that the pacifist and progressive Left often has a secret fondness for violence and illiberality – remember the Red Brigades and the Weathermen. Part of the answer, too, is that the Western media has tended to magnify Israeli violence and minimize Palestinian violence, leading to a generally distorted picture of events. But these are not the deepest reasons.
Rather, the Palestinian cause has benefited from a certain kind of mirror-imaging or inverse correlation. To the extent that Israel is seen as powerful, the Palestinians are seen as powerless. To the extent that Israel is seen to be guilty, the Palestinians are seen to be innocent. To the extent that Israel is seen as having deliberately chosen its course, the Palestinians are seen as having been stripped of the ability to choose. And to the extent that Israel is seen to represent a unique kind of evil – the evil of the fallen angel – the Palestinians represent a unique kind of good – the good of the lost little puppy.
It is easy to see that in this role the Palestinians perform a real fu'nction for their champions in the West: as the fetishized "other" and as receptacles for their compassion. Yet here too there are problems with the Left's vision. Does the Left really want to suggest that Palestinians are unfit to be judged by the same standards used to judge Israelis? And if the Palestinians are not quite "innocent" of such crimes as suicide bombing, can it still be said that they are innocents in a more general sense, as people who have been deprived of individual moral agency by the all-encompassing reality of Israeli occupation?
There is also the problem of whether the Left's vision of the Palestinians as emblems of powerlessness coincides with the Palestinians' vision of themselves. My impression is that it does not. On the contrary, I am repeatedly struck by how confident Palestinians are of ultimate and total victory over Israel. At a private conference last year in London, one Palestinian embassy official put it bluntly: "The '67 borders were your last hope," he said.
For the Israel-hating Left, Palestine has become a religious destination, not a political question; a world of fallen and risen angels, in which facts conform to molds and evidence yields to faith. At some point, however, it will become increasingly difficult to bridge the chasm between their faith and their values. If they're not careful, it is a chasm into which they will, eventually, fall.