This week the Jerusalem Post published a column by one of its editors, a British immigrant in Israel, lamenting her estrangement from friends back in Britain who keep seeing virtue in Palestinian terrorism. The next day, this letter appeared by an American immigrant:
The experience described so well…can happen in Israel with Israeli friends. How is it that someone who would never think of defending the KKK or Nazi ideology finds every possible way to excuse, diminish or explain the same disregard for human life when perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists?
Naivete or good intentions are no reason for closing one’s eyes and continuing to listen to a friend defending the indefensible. And being lazy to read up on Islam is not a valid reason for people to continue talking nonsense and still consider themselves my friends.
Unlike the letter-writer, I have Israeli friends who “defend the indefensible” and have kept them. I understand his attitude, though. These people are saying it’s somehow morally excusable to blow up themselves, me, their children, or my children. If I don’t break with them, it’s because I know they’re basically good folks and the perverse thing they say, while a failing, is not a decisive one.
In Israel, and probably also in the U.S. to a considerable extent, this softness toward terrorism is the sine qua non of the Left. Among the majority who recognize it as evil, the question becomes practical: what should we do about it? Withdraw from the terror enclaves and try to keep them surrounded and bottled up? Keep patrolling them while allowing them to exist? Fight them seriously and root out the terror? On such issues one can hold discussions without a sense of betraying one’s deepest values.
The Left, however, cannot cross the Rubicon of just condemning terror. I’ve seen the anguish and anger in leftist friends after an attack. But after a while, they always come out at the same place. It was we, our arrogance, our insensitivity, our one-sided narrative, that drove this desperate person to do this. You and I would do the same in his place — we would be mass murderers, child-murderers.
The question, then, is why the leftist persists in this view of things. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Maintaining an identity as a rebel and part of an elite. Terror attacks cause feelings of anger and of solidarity with one’s own. The attacks say that all of us deserve to die, any of us could have been the ones in the bus or the restaurant. The feeling that “we’re all in this together” is one of the supports for a group under siege.
Many leftists, however, have an ambivalent attitude toward their group. While affiliating with it and often (certainly in Israel) willing to fight for it, at the same time they need to keep a distance as superior critics who see through the vulgarities of the rest of us. I’ve seen leftists experience the “we-feeling” after a terror attack, but, eventually, shy away from it; they can’t allow themselves to melt into the masses.
2. Accepting the intractability of the conflict. The terror attack conveys a chilling message of total rejection and hatred. The repeated attacks of the last twelve years have convinced most Israelis, including many who were willing to give the “Oslo process” a chance, that peace is not in the cards; hence the popularity of the new unilateralism by which Israel supposedly “defines its own borders.”
Many on the Left, however — particularly, in my experience, female leftists — cannot accept this reality because it’s too distressing and grim. The terrorist must be a social protester who can be mollified; or, in another variant, he’s merely an extremist and we have to “talk to” the moderates. People with this mindset, while mostly willing to admit that Arafat was not, after all, a moderate, were eager to embrace Mahmoud Abbas as a new savior, and to this day are not interested in evidence of his lack of moderacy and total lack of power.
3. Subconscious identification with the aggressor. This is clearly the most problematic category. Many leftists, especially more radical ones, are known to be people who nurse anger at their parents, and at their society as an extension of their parents. Leftists who seem stuck on the idea that we would “do the same thing” if we were Palestinians, or Muslims, are the most suspect of harboring such feelings. The most virulent Israeli leftists have been known, indeed, to express such feelings openly when the victims of attacks are settlers, a group they hate. While not encountering such sentiments firsthand, in a couple of cases — the most socially problematic — I’ve sensed them lurking.
Wanting to shun people who could not just condemn the 9/11 attack, or the latest slaughter in an Israeli mall, is understandable and may even be right. Another approach is, given the difficulty of the reality and the moral complexity of individuals, to keep the doors open.