‘Price tags’: Morally bankrupt, politically foolish

Center Field: Last month, when we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, we talked mostly about Israel’s “atzmaut,” independence.

Tag Mehir graffiti 370 (photo credit: Iyad Hadad, B'tselem)
Tag Mehir graffiti 370
(photo credit: Iyad Hadad, B'tselem)
Last month, when we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, we talked mostly about Israel’s “atzmaut,” independence.
We were also celebrating 65 years of “sovereignty,” meaning control of our political destiny, in the form of a modern nation state.
The Jewish return to sovereignty has been complicated. It has come with a steep price tag due to the ongoing Arab repudiation of our sovereignty. At the same time, a loud minority of Diaspora Jews preferring to pick and choose their battles regret this Jewish return to history in all its complexity and lament Israel’s wielding power. But when you are responsible you cannot shirk your duties. You cannot choose to ignore Syria’s chemical weapons or Iran’s rush to go nuclear, no matter how inconvenient those challenges might be.
Last week offered a complicated seminar on sovereignty’s blessings and curses, as one family joined the nearly 30,000 families that have suffered grievous losses since 1948, the Israeli government showed the world what having sovereignty sometimes demands, and some Jewish renegades pretending to be nationalists attacked Israel’s sovereignty in committing various “price tag” crimes.
The murder of Eviatar Borovsky, the 31-year-old father of five young children, was heartbreaking. It was also outrageous. That a terrorist, recently released from an Israeli jail, could be so motivated by hate to butcher another human being is hard to fathom. Equally incomprehensible was the terrorist’s father’s pride, calling committing such crimes “a duty for all Palestinians.”
Moreover, the minimal coverage this crime received in the mainstream Western media was depressing. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal preferred to emphasize Israel’s justified targeted killing of a Gazan terrorist, who had killed and would kill again.
This imbalance reflected the ongoing Middle East outrage gap, which finds Israeli defensive moves more outrageous than Palestinian incitements.
Unfortunately, almost as heartbreaking, outrageous, unfathomable and depressing was the “price tag” response, which included clashes with Israeli soldiers, hostile graffiti written in Beit Ilu near Ramallah and, most disgusting, the stoning of a bus carrying Palestinian schoolchildren, which injured some schoolgirls. I write “almost,” because I acknowledge the difference between hooliganism, which is at worst attempted murder, and murder.
There is an important moral argument to make against these costly “price tag” crimes. Even if you accept the literal biblical reading of an “eye for an eye,” that harsh dictum applies to the actual criminals, not their fellow tribe members or young girls of the same nationality. If these criminals are “religious,” they should throw away their kippot, cut their tzitzit (fringes), and violate the Sabbath, because their desecrations are so profane they can no longer call themselves such.
These costly price tag crimes are politically foolish, not just morally bankrupt.
They backfire on Israel, in both the media and legitimacy wars.
On the media front, it is easier to grumble about “media bias” without taking responsibility, but there are moves that we in the pro-Israel camp can make, or not make, that make a difference.
In the battle of the news cycle, the best revenge after a murder would be for it to go unavenged. Reporters should have been forced to focus on the family tragedy, on the grieving widow, on the orphaned children.
Or, they should have been embarrassed by their inaction, shown to be biased for overlooking this crime, and treating the cold-blooded murder of a Jew as unexceptional or implicitly justified.
Instead, “price tag” criminals gave reporters the gift of a dramatic distraction, upstaging what should have been the story.
The price tag sins undermine the fight against delegitimization too. The pro-Israel community justifiably rejects the moral equivalence between a democracy defending itself and terrorists targeting innocents. Terrorism is a political crime targeting innocent civilians to spread fear and make a political point. “Price tag” crimes are a form of terrorism. Just as a terrorist does not become upgraded to a “militant” by targeting Jews, we cannot downgrade terrorism into a “justified response” when the criminals are Jews.
The “price tag” criminals should also burn their identity cards, because their illegal vigilante actions target Israeli sovereignty, too. They risk making Israel look like a banana republic rather than the Middle East’s only functioning democracy. Israel has given Jews the gifts of representative government, police, and an army to solve problems collectively and legitimately, not haphazardly and illegally.
A case in point is the implosion of Syria. Israel’s democratic representatives are entrusted with the complicated burden of managing this no-win situation.
Once again, Israel is cast in the difficult situation of being the Middle East’s “fixer.” A New York Times dispatch from last week was characteristic in writing: “Israel aircraft bombed a target in Syria overnight Thursday... as United States officials said they were considering military options, including carrying out their own air strikes.”
Israel frequently has to act while the United States and others can dither.
Similarly, 46 years ago, Israel had to decide, as Egyptian war drums rattled, Arab cries to drive “the Jews into the sea” mounted, and Gamel Abdul Nasser’s “United Arab Republic” army illegally blockaded the international waterways, the Straits of Tiran. Israel had to act – and did, destroying the Egyptian Air Force in a pre-emptive strike, and ultimately, under bombardment from Jordan and after warning King Hussein, fighting to reunite Jerusalem.
And so, on this Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, we should celebrate Israel’s sovereignty. We should sympathize with Israel’s fallen soldiers and terror victims. We should empathize with Israel’s leaders who faced and face difficult decisions. We must also condemn the “price tag” criminals unequivocally, and take pride in successive Israeli government’s historically high winning percentage, making far more good calls – such as in 1967 and last week – than bad ones.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.
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