United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week, Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the popular Facebook page Humans of New York, took his routine to prisons in New York and around the country. For those unfamiliar with ‘HONY’: the Facebook page is essentially a collection of individual photographs, usually random New Yorkers on the street, with quotes from those people attached to their photographs. It’s a bit like the old “inquiring photographer” section in the newspaper, but the quotes are presumably unprompted.
Without getting too much into detail, the underlying purpose of a HONY photograph is to attract empathy. For example, if a deeply depressed twenty-something were to admit to Brandon that he’s struggling with drug addiction, he will come home to hundreds of supportive comments on the HONY Facebook page.
The significance of taking this project to prisons is obvious. Convicts, especially those jailed for violent crimes, are often viewed as people whose crimes defy explanation and expunge their humanity. Some states in the US even forbid convicted felons from voting, effectively depriving them of any opportunity to express their citizenship at all.
HONY is giving voice to a voiceless population and, like clockwork, a legion of super-compassionate commenters leave heart-warming comments for those who typically see little of it. Some, especially victims’ rights advocates, will have strong and legitimate reasons to object to this project. But no one, I think, will go as far as to say Brandon or any of the thousands of people leaving supportive comments are justifying criminal actions.
Which brings me to the rather harmless statement delivered by Ban Ki-moon to the UN Security Council last month that triggered an inordinate amount of controversy in Israel and the American Jewish community. “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation,” Ban said, echoing similar remarks made by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s at the Harvard Kennedy School in October.
Ban added: “As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.”
Reading this over, it is difficult to figure out why the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, felt the need to respond to the statement by saying “there is simply no justification for Palestinian or any other forms of terror.” Greenblatt is right, but I suspect Ban Ki-moon agrees completely.
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The secretary general did not justify terrorism. What he did instead was reject attempts to decontextualize Palestinian terrorism from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the heart of which is Palestinian statelessness.
Rejecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that radical ideology and incitement from the unpopular president of the Palestinian Authority are what’s primarily behind the recent wave of violence is hardly “justifying terrorism.” It’s expressing a disagreement and offering an alternative explanation (one, mind you, that doesn’t rule out incitement as a contributing factor).
I would surmise that the fundamental notion behind Ban’s explanation, that Palestinian terrorist attacks are no different from attacks in previous conflicts stemming from occupation, such as the French-Algerian conflict, is what has actually triggered the outrage.
Many Israelis are convinced, and not without a measure of support, that this case is different. Not only are there attacks taking place in the West Bank, but inside the Green Line as well (notwithstanding that any intentional attack on civilians is an intolerable war crime).
The distinctive element here is that Israelis and Palestinians, unlike the French (excluding the Pieds- Noirs) and Algerians, are nextdoor neighbors geographically. In addition, Algerian militants didn’t reject the legitimacy of France itself; I think it’s a safe bet that the Palestinian who stabbed Hadar Cohen at the Damascus Gate didn’t have restoring the 1949 armistice lines in mind.
But Ban’s explanation transcends ideology and invokes “human nature.” Therefore, it implores empathy. Just like high crime rates are often associated with poverty and racist public policies, so to is terrorism from occupied territories connected to the realities of occupation.
They can’t be detached.
It appears it is Ban’s empathy for young and frustrated Palestinians, including those who’ve committed heinous crimes, that has angered so many. This is unfortunate, but one shouldn’t let the international community off the hook. While not justifying terrorism, too often Israeli civilian victims of terrorist attacks are presented as wartime casualties in headlines, news reports and foreign ministry statements. Empathy is important and it should be universally applied.
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