A bias that comes with the territory

Gideon Levy has reproduced a series of hit-and-run columns dispatched from Gaza that bash at the problem without solving it.

Gaza Ruins 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Gaza Ruins 311
(photo credit: MCT)
Israel’s internal critics fancy themselves modern prophets, boldly speaking truth to power. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy’s new book The Punishment of Gaza denounces Israel for imposing “futile bloodshed and destruction... humiliation, destitution, deprivation and bereavement” on Palestinians.
But Levy, like many of his comrades, undermines his credibility by lacking the prophet’s faith in the power of truth. His harsh, one-sided repudiation ignores the messy, multidimensional complexities that keep the region mired in violence. As a result, his book becomes the latest round in Israel-bashing, all too easily dismissed, rather than the important call to conscience he hoped to write.
This is a shame because Levy offers powerful testimony that Israelis should not ignore. The suffering Palestinians endure as a result of bombs, bullets and bullying is heartbreaking. Israelis should acknowledge and atone for the tragic losses so many families, especially in Gaza, have suffered. Levy introduces us to Hamdi Aman’s family, to the Wahba family, to five children killed in Gaza in eight days in September 2007. He testifies to the human toll this ongoing conflict takes.
“To the best of my meager abilities, I am asking all Israelis to be outraged – or at least to understand what is being perpetrated in their name,” Levy writes plaintively, powerfully. Yet he cannot fathom how his onesided caricature makes his goal more unattainable.
It is not just that Levy pooh-poohs the suffering of Sderot, mocks the Gaza disengagement as a sham and appreciates none of the steps toward peace, however imperfect, Israel took over the Oslo years. His biggest failure, in a book reprinting 40 short dispatches from Gaza originally published between 2006 and 2009, is to forget the fear that built up about Gaza over nearly 10 years.
When Yasser Arafat led the Palestinians away from negotiations back toward terror in September 2000, Israel was immobilized. It took over a year and a half, the election of Ariel Sharon, the terrorist murders of more than 130 Israeli Jews in March 2002, to prompt a systematic offensive into the West Bank. Even then most Israelis remained terrified of Gaza. The conventional wisdom assumed that the ambush that killed 13 soldiers during house-to-house combat in Jenin in April 2002 would be replicated on a mass scale in Gaza. The operational failures during the 2006 Second Lebanon War intensified the fears.
Levy ignores all that. For him, the history of the conflict is simpler: “We started it. We started it with the occupation, and we are duty-bound to end it – a real and complete ending.”
This interpretation whitewashes history. It ignores the Arab riots of the late 1920s and the 1930s. It forgets how the grand mufti of Jerusalem turned the 1947 UN partition plan from a flawed but optimistic compromise into the start of a decades-long war. It minimizes the role of Palestinian terrorism, Arab rejectionism and the real threats that precipitated the 1967 war.
Moreover, in the guise of defending Palestinians, it actually insults them. Treating them only as the victims of the conflict robs them of their moral agency, their dignity, their responsibility. This form of modern leftist condescension is rooted in racism, wherein the only credible actors in history are white Westerners, thereby reducing Third World types to noble pawns, always acted upon, never acting for themselves.
As a result, “we” are always “pushing the Palestinians into using what petty arms they have.” We are always acting.
They are always reacting, nobly but feebly.
Amid this thin, diluted retreat from history’s depth and complexity, despite usually overlooking Palestinians’ self-destructive tendency to resort to violence, Levy makes the valid point that violence has worked for them. “Nobody would have given any thought to the fate of the people of Gaza if they had not behaved violently,” he writes. “That is a very bitter truth, but the first 20 years of occupation passed quietly and we did not lift a finger to end it.”
A book exploring this “bitter truth” and others would have been most welcome. How can we break out of this cycle of violence? How does Israel feed the violence while trying to combat it? What is the moral culpability of soldiers and civilians when innocents die or are maimed during otherwise legitimate operations? These are tough questions someone with Gideon Levy’s tenacity, humanity and passion should be tackling. Yet somehow, he prefers to reproduce a series of hit-and-run columns that bash at the problem without solving it. These hurried, angry dispatches will serve Israel’s enemies in their quest to delegitimize the state, but will not serve Levy’s stated aim, as a self-proclaimed patriot, to save the country from itself.
Yes, Israelis should be more self-critical. But Israel’s hypercritical critics could benefit from more self-criticism and humility too. They would be much more effective as a result.