Recently, the media’s repetition of the phrase “cycle of violence” to characterize daily bloodlettings in the Middle East has been challenged on opinion pages both in America and abroad. Such criticism is a positive sign, an indication that the language used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may soon begin to conform itself to reality rather than to a pipe dream of political evenhandedness. Certainly, the moral equivalency implicit in the expression “cycle of violence” is utterly false.
If Israeli and Palestinian actions over the last two weeks have taught us nothing else, they’ve taught us at least this:
If, tomorrow, the Palestinians ceased their suicidal attacks on Israeli civilians, the following day would undoubtedly bring a halt to Israeli retaliations — since retaliations are, by definition, responses to specific provocations, and since such violence serves no conceivable Israeli purpose except to deter larger-scale Palestinian assaults.
If, tomorrow, Israel ceased to retaliate against the Palestinians, the following day would undoubtedly bring still more suicidal attacks — since these are fueled by a deep-rooted determination to annihilate the Jewish state, and by an animalistic religiosity which justifies the intentional slaughter of Jewish civilians as Allah’s will.
The “cycle of violence” in the Middle East is not point and counterpoint. It is not yin and yang. It is crime and punishment. Which is why precise language matters. How you talk about something gradually seeps into your perceptions of the reality you’re describing.
If you want to understand the reality on the ground in the Middle East, listen to Rami Aziz, a 23-year-old Palestinian, who echoed the sentiments of an entire generation of young Arab men when he recently objected to his grandfather’s wish, spoken to a New York Times reporter, that Jews and Palestinians could someday live in peace: “But the Koran doesn’t say that,” Rami Aziz shouted. “Even the prophet encouraged killing Jews.” Or listen to the anonymous Arab student who, according to the Times, recently told an Egyptian official that the entire problem of Israel could be solved by “eight small, suitcase-size nuclear bombs.” Or the Palestinian teenager, already a member of Hamas, quoted in the Times Sunday Magazine: “There will be no peace. It’s us or them.” Or the 15-year-old Palestinian girl who told Sixty Minutes that she prayed someday for the opportunity to strap a bomb to herself and blow up Jews. Or listen to the ecstatic rage of scores or young men and women at shrines throughout the Palestinian settlements dedicated to young, demented souls who have “martyred” themselves in order to massacre Israeli women and children.
Perhaps the lot of it could be written off as the irrational excesses of misinformed, misguided and impoverished youth. But what of the older generation? What of the Palestinian mother who told the Times Magazine last year that her lone regret, after her son blew himself up in order to kill Israeli civilians, was that she didn’t have a hundred more sons to follow? What, for that matter, of the hundreds of parents who permit their children to leave home each morning with slingshots in their back pockets, knowing their intention is to provoke heavily armed Israeli troops into ugly photo ops? Forget, for a moment, the politics of the region. Focus on the scene at the front door: “Did you remember your notebook, Nasir? What about your lunch? Did you study for your algebra test? Good, now off you go . . . and give those Jewish sons-of-bitches hell on your way home.”
What, finally, of the Arab intellectuals — and the temptation to set the word intellectuals in quotation marks is strong — who explain away such behavior as the inevitable by-product of Israeli oppression? Even if we grant that a grave injustice was perpetrated upon Palestinians, we still must ask whether people who would employ children in such a manner thereby forfeit, temporarily at least, their aspirations for self-government. Gandhi, to be sure, didn’t send out children to lie across railroad tracks in India. Martin Luther King didn’t send out children to face down attack dogs in the Alabama.
If the moral imperative to protect the young is not universal, what is? And if it is universal, its willful and ongoing violation must carry a cost. To put the matter bluntly, it makes no sense to talk about a sovereign Palestinian state until the Palestinian people demonstrate a capacity to govern themselves in accordance with fundamental conceptions of right and wrong. To date, they have not even demonstrated the capacity to discern right from wrong.
Absent such a demonstration, the Palestinians cannot be entrusted with the subtleties and ideals of 21st century nationhood.
And, yes, once language conforms itself to reality, it is that simple.