When Pope Francis leaned his head in prayer against the high concrete wall that Israel built in Bethlehem, many Israelis and their supporters were aghast at the impression the photo-op might create among the uninitiated. Oded Ben-Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican and currently a diplomatic adviser to the Knesset, said in an interview to The Jerusalem Post that the Palestinians had “used the pope as a political vehicle or tool to obtain a public relations victory.” Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, went so far as to describe the visit as a “slap in the face” of the Jewish people.
The concern was that the pope’s visit might entrench the misconception of the separation barrier as a brutal and malicious means for walling the Palestinians into a ghetto for no reason other than racial hatred. Of course, anyone who witnessed the horrors of Palestinian terrorism during the second intifada knows that to be a gross lie.
Israeli officials demanded that context be provided to offset any such misconception. Though generally speaking off-the-record, the officials sought to remind the public and the world that the barrier as a whole was built in response to recurring acts of murderous Palestinian terrorism that had plagued Israel, noting that the wall sections of that barrier had been erected to prevent gunfire and grenade attacks that had been repeatedly aimed at Israelis in those areas.
To that end, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked that the pope add to his itinerary a visit to the memorial plaque in honor of Israeli victims of terrorism – and the pope acceded.
Familiarity with the context in which the decision to erect the barrier was made is crucial to understanding the reasons for that barrier’s presence today. Generally speaking, familiarity with the context of any situation is crucial to understanding that situation accurately. However, a number of problems can accompany a demand for context.
The first is a formal problem, since context might best be described as an ever-expanding set of circles that circumscribe and envelop one another. When Israelis say the context of the separation barrier is the terrorism of the second intifada, Palestinians respond that the context of that eruption of violence was the ongoing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank.
To that, Israelis respond that the continued occupation was the result of the Palestinians’ refusal either to accept any Israeli or American proposal for ending the occupation peacefully (such as the proposal put forward by Ehud Barak and the Clinton parameters) or for putting forward a proposal of their own. To that, Palestinians respond that those proposals were unacceptable, and were tantamount to an unfair ultimatum that they surrender more of their homeland, rights and justice than could be stomached.
That process of ever-expanding context is almost endless, and creates a series of contextual circles that continue to expand outward until they come to circumscribe events in the distant past, such as the historical Arab responses to the Zionist project and the various partition plans, and delve even further back into the history of Jewish and Palestinian Arab connections to the land.
In that sense, the boundaries of relevant context are in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, when the process is completed, Israelis say Palestinian terrorism and refusal to accept the legitimacy of Jewish rights to independence and sovereignty in the Land of Israel are the root causes of the current situation and all its specific manifestations, including the separation barrier; alternately, Palestinians say that foreign occupation and illegal colonization are the root causes of the conflict and all its specific manifestations, including terrorism.
At the very least, this demand for context in the face of criticism helps clarify and illuminate the core issues that truly are at stake for the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provides a more accurate understanding of why certain actions were taken, such as the construction of the separation barrier.
However, the mere existence of context does not necessarily justify the decisions that were made. Just because Palestinian terrorism against Israelis was perpetrated in the context of the ongoing occupation cannot justify that wanton and indiscriminate murder of civilians. Terrorism is an evil unto itself, regardless of its context, and should be condemned without reservation. Alternately, the erection of a non-lethal protective security barrier in response to such terrorism was certainly justifiable.
When something, such as terrorism, is fundamentally immoral, context provides no justification. That is also true of hate crimes that are committed against Muslims and Christians in Israel and the territories by Jewish thugs. Neither Arab acts of terrorism nor, for example, a decision by the Israeli authorities to demolish an illegal building in an outpost can justify pinning the “price tag” of a hate crime against innocent people to those acts.
The demand for context, moreover, can also be specious mechanism that is designed to deflect criticism instead of addressing it. As noted, one need not condemn the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in order to condemn Palestinian terrorism, which is an evil unto itself. The same is true of criticism of hate crimes that are committed by Israelis.
Amos Oz, for example, did not need to criticize Arab terrorism before he was entitled to take the Jewish perpetrators of hate crimes to task, even if his choice of words was deemed to have been offensive. That was a demand for context that was not germane to the issue, and was designed to deflect and dismiss the criticism that, unto itself, was entirely legitimate and worthy of debate. Hate crimes are inexcusable and immoral, regardless of whether other equally heinous or even worse crimes are committed by others.
Similarly, international and local criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank – be they security policies or settlement policies – need not be coupled with criticism of Palestinian terrorism, the horrors Syrian President Bashar Assad has visited upon his own citizens or anything else, for it to be legitimate. To dismiss the critics for failing to couch their comments in an irrelevant context – and by so doing to sidestep the need to address the criticism itself – is merely a childish exercise in deflection that is ultimately counterproductive.
Just as criticism of the separation barrier allowed Israelis to articulate the good and legitimate reasons for its construction, criticism of hate crimes allows Israelis to condemn their perpetrators and to distinguish themselves and their country from the people who commit them.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.