Selective Sympathy in Israel/Palestine

Palestinian street art. (Photo: Wanderlasss/ cc/ flickr)

Selective Sympathy in Israel/Palestine

The mainstream U.S. media often reveals its bias by selecting some personal tragedies for saturation coverage while downplaying or ignoring similar horrors to “others,” such as the massive attention given to the search for three kidnapped Israeli teens

The display of anxiety and aggressive agitation in Israel, triggered by the kidnapping of three young men from an illegal settlement on the West Bank, seems to be accompanied by a near total denial of any legitimate relationship between government actions (the occupation) and Palestinian reactions (the kidnapping).

No matter what the Israelis do to the Palestinians, the Israelis insist that those actions are justified, and no matter how the Palestinians react, the Israelis insist those actions are never justified. By objective standards this Israeli attitude borders on the pathological.

There are multiple tragedies that result from this disconnect. The tragedy of the three Jewish kidnap victims is the one that is foremost in both Israeli consciousness and also in the Western media, accompanied by speculation that the young men were taken as hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

As if to put out the message that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu will not play that game, the Israeli military is arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including some who had been released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The military is also destroying Palestinian property in a wholesale manner, wounding scores and even murdering a steady number of Palestinians in the search for the kidnap victims.

But all this mayhem, which only deepens Palestinian hatred, may be based on an Israeli false assumption. Quite likely this kidnapping was not carried out to set up some future exchange. Quite likely it was an opportunistic act of revenge, striking back against exactly the kind of repression that the Netanyahu government is again carrying out.

Many Zionists cannot fathom the fact that there are literally millions of Palestinians desiring vengeance for Israeli acts of abuse. That blindness is part of their denial that their own actions define much of the Palestinian reaction. This denial is reinforced by the gambit of labeling nearly all Palestinians as "terrorists."

Another tragedy, which gets much less media attention, is the tragedy of the collectively kidnapped people of Palestine. That is the phrase used by Avraham Burg, a disillusioned Zionist who, apparently, is slowly but surely replacing his old ideology with contemporary disgust.

As Burg puts it, "All of Palestinian society is a kidnapped society ... many of the Israelis who performed 'significant service' in the army ... entered the home of a Palestinian family in the middle of the night by surprise, with violence, and simply took away the father, brother or uncle .... That is kidnapping and happens every day."

No doubt some Israelis deeply resent the fact that much of the world has come to agree with Burg. More and more, those on the outside know that the Israelis have created the context for this latest kidnapping. These people across the globe no longer believe Zionist justifications for Israeli behavior. The result is that the Israelis are increasingly isolated in a misshapen world of their own.

For instance, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post dismisses the world's principal human rights organizations as hypocrites because they did not express "immediate outrage, demand action, and even demonstrate at the United Nations demanding the immediate release" of the "three Israeli teens."

Alas, the major human rights organizations, which have in fact expressed disapproval at the kidnapping, cannot do as the Jerusalem Post editorial wishes because they understand the degree to which Israeli policies have contributed to these tragedies. This fact makes very difficult, for many people, the otherwise natural sympathy that they feel for the personal plight of the three teens, the sentiment that the Israelis insist upon.

This may help explain the frustration of M.J. Rosenberg, a liberal American Zionist commentator who now takes to task American supporters of the Palestinian cause for what he calls their lack of humanity when it comes to the fate of the kidnapped Israelis. Rosenberg tries to lay out his objection in absolute moral terms:

"There is no justification for harming kids [the ages of the victims are 19, 16 and 16] no matter what the cause. Never. .... The test of your humanity is whether you condemn the harming of children without caveats and quasi-justifications. If not, just shut up."

Idealism Destroyed by Reality

Perhaps Rosenberg's rather harsh demand brings to the surface yet another tragedy inherent in the present situation - the tragedy of insisting on moral ideals which, while admirable, are just not realizable under the present circumstances.

To be succinct: There is the world as we say it should be (the ideal) and there is the world as it actually is (shaped in large part by state practice). The rule of law and most principles of morality seek to move the world in the direction of the ideal. However, if a state demands the sympathies of those who take seriously the ideal, it must at least demonstrate national behavior that does not purposely contradict the ideal.

Thus, in the hypothetical case of an Israel moving in the direction of an inclusive society based on genuine democratic behavior, we would condemn out of hand not only this kidnapping but all the prior instances where Israelis - men, women and children - had suffered and died due to communal violence. However, there is no such Israel. If anything, we have the real Israel moving away from genuine democratic practice and toward the status of an exclusive apartheid state.

But what about the children? After all, children "have no agency" and therefore should not be held responsible for the conditions created by their elders. But again, the Zionists cannot demand such an exception while agents of the Israeli state regularly arrest and incarcerate Palestinian children. This is a sad truth of the world as it actually is: double standards make ideals impossible.

This moral predicament may be tragic but it is quite consistent with how ordinary people act and react all of the time. People usually do not act with sympathy toward bullies, overtly egocentric individuals, or those who threaten their neighbors. By extension, whole groups of people who support such behavior, either because of a distorted perception of history, the improper teachings of religious ideology, or simply because they are conditioned to "follow orders" cannot be readily sympathized with either.

The Zionists can complain about the unfairness of this situation, but the only thing that will make a difference is a change in their own behavior.

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