Beyond us and them
On Monday night I clicked over from a nail-biting, extra-innings Mets game to CNN’s coverage of the crisis in Israel.
In short: Mets win, Israel loses.
While SNY.tv kept showing a did-he, didn’t-he replay of a disputed play at second, CNN looped a video of the beating of an Arab-American teen by two Israeli police. It’s awful to watch: The boy is being held down by one helmeted cop, his hands apparently cuffed behind his back, while another aims swift kicks at his torso and head.
It’s painful to admit that this wasn’t even the worst blow to Israel’s image in a grim week. That would be the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the beaten boy’s east Jerusalem cousin, by what police now say was a gang of Jewish extremists. If the murder of three yeshiva boys by Hamas terrorists had earned Israel any sympathy the week before, that quickly dissipated under what much of the media like to call “the cycle of Middle East violence.”
CNN at least gave Mark Regev, Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief spokesperson, an opportunity to say that Israel had launched an “impartial, objective, independent inquiry into exactly what happened” in the beating of the teen. “There is no excuse for this sort of behavior,” said Regev. “And it’s not the police investigating themselves.”
Indeed, Israeli investigators moved swiftly and without prejudice to find the killers of the Arab teen. Condemnation of his murder and alleged murderers was swift and unqualified from nearly all quarters. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leading settler rabbi, went so far as to call for the death penalty for the Jewish killers of Khdeir.
But there was also a self-congratulatory tone to statements of condolence and condemnation issued in the wake of Khdeir’s murder. Netanyahu might have been the worst offender, when he addressed Khdeir’s family. “I pledge that the perpetrators of this horrific crime will face the full weight of the law,” he said, promisingly. “I know that in our society, the society of Israel, there is no place for such murderers.” Regrettably, he went on: “And that’s the difference between us and our neighbors. They consider murderers to be heroes. They name public squares after them. We don’t. We condemn them and we put them on trial and we’ll put them in prison.”
He had a point, but it wasn’t the time to say it. It’s like paying a shiva call and reading to the mourners the comment you just left on Thomas Friedman’s web site.
Others doubled down on the impulse to draw unflattering comparisons between Israelis and Palestinians. “Arab rioters did not wait for the identification or apprehension of suspects in the killing of Mohammed Abu Khudair to begin destroying Jewish life and property,” Ruth Wisse, the Yiddishist and right-wing firebrand, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “News of the abduction of three Israeli boys had no sooner hit the Internet on June 13 than Arab celebrants were handing out candies and posting three-fingered salutes.”
Maybe it’s quibbling to point out that no Jewish lives were lost in the east Jerusalem riots, and pedantic to note that Wisse, like Netanyahu, is condemning an entire society for the actions of a few. There is, after all, a great deal of truth in their comparisons between Israelis and Palestinians — or, more accurately, the best of the Israelis and the worst of the Palestinians.
But to what end? I sometimes think the great debate over Israel’s future is not between the Right and the Left, but between those who insist Israel’s future is in the hands of the Arabs, and those who insist it is in the hands of the Jews.
The former insist Israel is under siege militarily and diplomatically, and negotiations and peace-making are futile until there is a revolution — a real one this time — in “Arab” society. Until then, Israel is at the mercy of hostile neighbors, antagonistic media, and a hypocritical West that enables its enemies. The best Israel can do is stay strong and wait it out.
The second camp believes that Israel has the power to shape its own destiny, through a strong and essential military, yes, but also through visionary leadership, daring diplomacy, and what the Israeli analyst Gidi Grinstein calls “flexigidity” — rigidity on the principles of Jewish security, sovereignty, democracy, and freedom of faith, and flexibility on the means of getting there.
The first camp prefers to point out the flaws and calumnies of Israel’s enemies. The second camp prefers to reiterate a Jewish vision for justice, and a faith in hope over nihilism.
I met the other day with a local representative of a national pro-Israel group, who asked me for my general impression of her organization. The group regularly issues statements condemning Arab behavior, declaring that Israel has no partner for peace, and painting Israeli leftists as naive at best, enemies of a Jewish state at worst. “I understand what you are against,” I said. “I don’t know what you are for.”
Perhaps the awful events of the past few weeks can be turned into an opportunity to remind ourselves of the values that make Israel and the Jewish people strong, without lecturing “our neighbors” on what makes us morally superior.