Double standards and selective sympathy

Double standards and selective sympathy

From the attacks in Paris to the deadly toll of terror in Israel, events of the past week have reminded us of the wide gap between Jews and the rest of the world.

As if we needed any reminding.

Following the rampage in Paris, which left over 140 dead, Jewish organizations, Israeli officials, and everyday Jews rushed to condemn the murders and express their solidarity with the people of France. Friends adopted the Tricolore filter on their Facebook pages; the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City were illuminated in blue, white, and red. 

But even in solidarity there was discord. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel stands “shoulder to shoulder with France in this common battle with militant Islamic terrorism,” not everybody accepted the comparison. Editorialists in France and Israel charged Netanyahu with distorting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ignoring Israel’s own culpability in the “cycle of violence.” To equate Hamas with ISIS and Boko Haram, an American student in Israel wrote in the Forward, “allows Netanyahu to suggest that terrorism in Jerusalem has nothing to do with political struggle but stems purely from religiously or ethnically motivated hatred.”

And the outpouring for France caused others to wonder why there seemed so little similar sympathy for the Jewish victims of terror in Israel. Some noted that France supported the European Union’s decision to label products made by Jewish-owned businesses in the West Bank. Others asked why there were no blue-and-white “We stand with Israel” filters on Facebook (see related story). According to Israel’s count, 21 people have been killed and 184 wounded in terrorist attacks in Israel since Oct. 1. That includes 74 stabbings, 10 shootings, and 11 “car rammings.” The terrorists in Israel have yet to stage the kind of mass event that paralyzed Paris, but the fact that Israelis are experiencing slow-motion violence doesn’t make it any less frightening or traumatizing. Why isn’t the Eiffel Tower lit up in blue and white?

Over 30,000 people signed a petition asking the Obama administration to “acknowledge” the murder of Ezra Schwartz, the 18-year-old American teen killed by a terrorist while on his way to deliver food to Israeli soldiers in the Etzion bloc in the West Bank. (The Obama administration condemned Schwartz’s murder in the “strongest possible terms” in a statement issued Nov. 20.)

Schwartz’s murder seemed to galvanize many Jews’ suspicions of double standards and selective sympathy. In large part that is because we felt his murder so personally, so acutely. The Rutgers-bound Ezra could have been any of our kids, visiting Israel on a gap year or summer program or even Birthright. Why, we ask, don’t others here feel a kinship with this young American cut down while undertaking a charitable mission? 

The perception gap between Jews and the rest of the world has a lot to do with the Israeli narrative, unresolved even among us. We talk about Israel as a Western bastion in a violent neighborhood, full of tech entrepreneurs and suburban professionals. But we also play up Israeli vulnerability in the face of Islamic extremism, Palestinian incitement, and Arab rejectionism. Imagine the young Jewish family, with fragile ties to Israel, who might be contemplating letting their kid spend time on a program in the country. Is Israel the “start-up nation,” or a war zone?

Much of the world, meanwhile, regards Israel as a battleground and, perhaps worse, as a special case. Tsk-tsking commentators hold its government to impossibly high standards of “Western” behavior, but ignore the vicious context in which its antagonists operate. 

The conflicting reality of Israel — which is both a thriving Western country and a jittery stage for all sorts of extremism — creates a challenge for those interested in shaping the country’s public image. The Right insists that Israel is facing the same brand of terrorism as the rest of the world — fed by radical Islam, carried out by its deluded followers. The Left says such analysis is propaganda and removes Israel’s agency in addressing the issues at the core of the conflict. 

And the vast middle, I’m guessing, want to put aside transparent hasbara and political opportunism in the name of a simple human impulse to grieve for the victims and condemn the perpetrators. They accept that Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians is political and specific, but also know that religious fanatics are eager to exploit the struggle in service of their nihilistic ideology. They feel deeply for the parents burying a child, whether shot dead in a Paris theater or on a road south of Jerusalem. They understand how the simultaneous attacks on a world cultural capital seize headlines and drive the global agenda, but feel it is not too much to ask that attention also be paid to an American teen who was killed not for anything he did or said, but because he was a Jew.

They know that competitive suffering is always unseemly, even when justified. And that sympathy is not a zero-sum game. 

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