As the kids’ kidnapping crisis continues, one critical moment disturbs me. When the terrorists first realized they had kidnapped teenagers, especially two sixteen-year-olds, did it make these Palestinians pause? Did the kidnappers consider freeing these innocents? Has their clear non-combatant status at all improved the treatment of Gil-Ad, Eyal, and Naftali?
Alternatively, did the victims’ youth delight these criminals, believing they could terrorize even more, given their assumption that Israelis’ love for our youngsters weakens us (when it actually strengthens us)?
I fear the latter is true, that capturing kids thrilled the terrorists, because these Islamist extremists are totalitarians. Their totalitarianism acknowledges no complexity, dehumanizes the “enemy” as racist, colonialist, imperialist, Zionist, and sacrifices all – including their children and ours -- to serve their absolutist goal. It remains the biggest obstacle to peace.
As the Israeli government counterattacks against terrorism, we need a parallel counterattack against today’s intellectual and ideological support structure for totalitarian terrorism, which emboldens extremists, intentionally or not. In this battle of ideas we must accept complexity, acknowledge fluidity, reject false moral equivalences, and question biases, no matter how trendy.
As an academic, I feel betrayed by my many colleagues who enable totalitarian terrorism with their simplistic slogans regarding Israel. Academics thrive on complexity; we can complicate anything, leveraging it into papers, lectures, and cocktail riffs. Yet, when Israel is involved, oversimplification and obfuscation prevail, encouraging demonization.
Accepting complexity acknowledges that two peoples love the same land. It involves learning history and respecting the Jews as a people, with legitimate claims to the land. It entails seeing Israelis’ willingness to risk for peace, including making unprecedented concessions of land legitimately won in defensive wars, to Egypt in 1979 and to the Palestinians in the 1990s.
Accepting complexity would end the occupation preoccupation. It is the Palestinians’ conceit to make every conversation about Israel be about them. Just like there is more to America than the black-white racial issue, there is more to Israel than the Israeli-Palestinian national clash.
Calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than “disputed” gives that territory an organic coherence it never had until 1967 and dictates an outcome that adopts the Palestinian narrative while denying any legitimacy to Jews’ historic, legal, and strategic counter-claims. The West Bank was improvised by the hastily drawn Armistice Line in 1949, illegally occupied, er, controlled, by Jordan, then included in “the territories” which were defined by what Israel won in 1967, not any authentic historical unity.
Acknowledging this messiness could eventually lead to peace and mutual recognition. Populations moved and borders shifted –at least half a dozen times for Israel last century alone. Compromise based on current demographic realities that minimize population displacements could emerge from acknowledging the situation’s fluidity. Anyone, Israeli or Palestinian, from left to right, who talks about the historic borders as static is a fool or a fanatic.
Intellectuals should respect the Zionist movement as one of many legitimate expressions of nationalism in today’s world. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – which recently divested from three companies doing business with Israel – sponsors an execrable “congregational study guide” demonizing Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism. Zionism Unsettled begins by quoting a Palestinian who says “Zionism was (and remains) not just about the colonization of Palestinian land but also about colonizing minds – Jewish, Arab, European, American.”
Who knows what “colonizing minds” means? It implies that those Jews are mysteriously powerful and evil, while negating Jewish rights to Israel because “colonial powers” by definition are interlopers.
Academics, beware the false moral equivalence embedded in phrases like “the cycle of violence,” which compare Palestinian terrorists and Israeli defenders, confusing perpetrator and victim. Jewish Voice for Peace radicals felt pressured to condemn the kidnappings to preserve their claim to love both sides. But their statement had one line about the kidnapping upstaged by a two-paragraph closing rant against “Israel’s repressive policies” that justify “a small minority of Palestinians” who choose “to communicate in the language that Israelis employ on a daily basis: the language of violent resistance.” This disproportionate, emotionally-stingy statement with three teens missing, jumps from “enabling totalitarianism” to championing terrorism.
Less toxic but still disturbing is the way intellectuals allow their anti-religious prejudice to view Zionism as religiously-based not peoplehood-based, then convict Israel of already becoming a theocracy by projecting ahead based on ultra-Orthodox birthrates. David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy repudiates Israel because he believes “History is the story of the human catastrophe that results when states promote religious ends or use religious criteria to guide their governance.” This sloppy overgeneralization ignores the “human catastrophes” triggered by “godless” Communism and Nazism, while downplaying the growing peoplehood piece in Israeli identity.
In The New Republic, an Israeli-born Harvard Law Professor, Yochai Benkler, caricatures Tel Aviv as a “cosmopolitan bubble” in an otherwise crazy country degenerating into an anti-democratic “ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox-nationalist society.” This crude projection – echoed in the silly New York Times op-ed too-optimistically seeing “winds of change blow across Iran,” while too-pessimistically insisting “secular democrats in Israel have been losing ground to religious and right-wing extremists,” ignores the Great Israeli Middle. A million, mostly non-religious Russian immigrants, and millions of once-religious Sephardim who have rapidly modernized but remain traditional, represent Israel’s true future.
Clearly, the terrorists are responsible for their own evil actions. And Palestinian political culture’s constant rejectionism and nihilism is guilty of aiding and abetting. But the growing intellectual sloppiness and ideological hostility among those who should know better emboldens extremists and hurts peace prospects. Beware comparing Israel’s imperfect democracy with its neighbors'' absolute dictatorships. Just as the Soviet Union’s many Communist Fellow Travelers now embarrass us, today’s Blame Israel Firsters embarrass themselves. Rather than buttressing totalitarianism terrorism with biases and half-truths, they should more clearly repudiate those who treat teenagers as targets not non-combatants.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!