Center Field: Taking pride in Israeli shame

"Every society produces sinners; It is absurd to expect Israeli society to be criminal-free; This expectation reflects a reverse bigotry, putting Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people on probation."

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
August 11, 2015 21:13
Former president Shimon Peres speaks at a peace rally in Tel Aviv

Former president Shimon Peres speaks at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: SHIMON PERES SPOKESMAN)

 
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The burning of the Dawabshe family home in Duma on July 31 was a sickening crime, killing a toddler, Ali, and his 32-year-old father Sa’ad.

This despicable sin offends all good people, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, or country. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “terror is terror” – there is no excuse and, on one level, no connection between millions of law-abiding Israelis and the deviants who burned these innocent victims. Nevertheless, Israelis en masse have expressed shame, not just disgust. I take pride in our shame.

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Shame entails taking responsibility for others’ crimes – and trying to prevent future evils.

Every society produces sinners. It is absurd to expect Israeli society to be criminal-free. This expectation reflects a reverse bigotry, putting Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people on probation, with our basic rights contingent on our being superhuman, perfect. The test of a society is how effectively it contains its criminals, and how it responds when its own members act abominably toward others.

By contrast, Palestinians are shamefully unashamed of their shamelessness.

In a powerful essay that, surprise, surprise, the mainstream media ignored, Bassam Tawil, a Palestinian scholar identified discretely – and seemingly for his safety – as living “somewhere in the Middle East” – wrote recently about his shame regarding Palestinians’ lack of shame.

Posting on the nonprofit Gatestone Institute’s website, Tawil contrasted Israelis’ mass denunciation of the Duma burning – led by the president and prime minister – with Palestinians’ perpetual justification for worse crimes, tempered occasionally by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “ambiguous, half-hearted condemnations.”

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This shame gap, Tawil writes, reflects Palestinians’ mass failure “to educate our people on the principles of tolerance and peace. Instead,” he writes, “we condone and applaud terrorism, especially when it is directed against Jews. We want the world to condemn terrorism only when it claims the lives of Palestinians.”

Daring to compliment the man Palestinians and much of the world love to hate, Tawil further challenged his people – and risked his own life – by confessing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “strong and clear condemnation left me and other Palestinians wondering when was the last time we heard similar statements from our leaders.” This, Tawil writes in the title of his essay, which should go viral, is “The Difference Between Us and Them.”

Both Tamil’s essay and Israel’s response – which has now gone beyond statesmanlike statements to include a crackdown on Jewish extremists – use shame to take responsibility and impose restraints.

On one level, it is bizarre to think that anyone can take responsibility for anyone else in our anything-goes, hyper-individualized world. But especially in a Middle East that remains deeply tribal, and in a world that balances hyper-individualism with intense social controls, society can encourage or discourage the politically motivated crime of terrorism.

Israeli expressions of disgust must reinforce police crackdowns because these murderers must never consider themselves martyrs who represent other Jews or are accomplishing anything religiously, nationally, or politically.

Similarly, Palestinians must stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs, singing songs in their honor, naming public squares in their memory, and, as Tawil notes in embarrassment, distributing candies to celebrate mass murders, even of young children.

Imagine what a game changer that could be. If the next time a Palestinian stabbed someone at a gas station, or ran over some teenagers who are completing their national service in the army – or worse – Palestinians started apologizing, holding prayers vigils and insisting that these crimes were not committed in their name. If Palestinians repudiated terrorism, not because it doesn’t work but because it is wrong, Palestinian society would start maturing from a society of victims who dodge responsibility for anything and blame “the Jews” for everything, to a more tolerant, functioning and ultimately democratic society. This shift could build trust with Israelis and invite the compromises Palestinians – and the world – have been pressuring Israel to make.

Once again, Palestinian society is being tested. If the Palestinians want to build a state, they must foster a culture of shame, which underlies a culture of democratic responsibility and morality. If, however, the Palestinians’ desire remains to destroy the Jewish state, they should unashamedly keep their culture of shamelessness, which underlies a shameful culture of undemocratic, criminal irresponsibility.

As always, leadership counts. Morality matters. Responsibility cannot just fall on the Israelis; it must be mutual. Israelis must take responsibility too. Something is rotting at the national-religious camp’s extremes.

A few fanatics have so demonized Palestinians they can justify burning an innocent child; they have so deified the land they can justify sacrificing lives for real estate not just for security; and they have so convinced themselves of their own virtue they can justify treason against their own government and violence against our own youngsters – our soldiers and police officers who protect us honorably. Because each of us should see ourselves as parents or siblings of every soldier and police officer. Imagine your child harmed by a settler hooligan. This outrageous lawbreaking must end.

Beyond the security crackdown and the sweeping Left-to-Right condemnations, we Israelis must do some soul searching and educating.

We should instill more democratic, Jewish and Zionist values that prioritize human lives and peace rather than worshiping maps and delusional fantasies based on slanted, anachronistic biblical interpretations.

True, Palestinian culture is as far from being democratic as Israeli culture is from being undemocratic. But as a Jew and a Zionist, I appreciate people’s power to change history, for better and worse. Jews are entering Elul, the month building to the Jewish New Year, our annualized self-shaming and growing process of reflection, responsibility, repentance and redemption. We need more Tawils on both sides, fostering, as Netanyahu said, “zero tolerance” for the murderers among us, whoever they are, whatever their motive.

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s which will be published this October by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. A professor of history at McGill University, this will be his eleventh book.

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