Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Memo to Condi: The Middle East Isn't Birmingham

First published on

She's done it again. In the run-up to the president's recent Middle East trip, Secretary of State Rice repeated to an interviewer from Israel's Channel 10 her comparison of Palestinians confronted with Israeli checkpoints to blacks facing Jim Crow restrictions in the Alabama of her youth.

In the past, Ms. Rice has also identified "hopelessness" as the spur to violence both among Palestinians and among those African-Americans who abandoned peaceful protest. She has seen similarities as well between Palestinian leaders seeking a Palestinian state and America's founding fathers fighting for independence from Britain.

Rice did preface her comments to Channel 10 with an acknowledgment that "sometimes one has to be careful about analogies" - this perhaps in response to criticism she's drawn for previously invoking such comparisons. She also repeated that she had lost a childhood friend, a young girl, in a church bombing in Birmingham and so can "understand a little bit" what it's like for Israeli mothers fearing their children might fall victim to a terrorist bomb.

Even a superficial look at Palestinian history, the declarations of Palestinian leaders and political organizations and the rhetoric of Palestinian media, mosque sermons and school texts, demonstrates that the Palestinian goal has been not equality - a state alongside Israel - but supremacy, a Muslim Arab state replacing Israel. This goal predated Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and its violent pursuit has led to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, not vice versa.

In addition, of course, America's founding fathers never sought the annihilation of Great Britain, never demeaned the British people as inferior beings unworthy of a state or even of life, and never urged American children to dedicate themselves to the murder of British civilians, as Palestinian parties, including that of Mahmoud Abbas, have done vis-a-vis Israel and its citizens.

Those who have pointed out the many problems in Secretary Rice's analogies between the situation of the Palestinians and her own childhood experiences have typically suggested that her error lies in uncritically applying too widely the personal precedent of African-American experience in the segregated South. But one can argue that the problem lies rather in her not applying that precedent widely enough.

Secretary Rice would arrive at a far truer comprehension of the Palestinian-Israeli, and broader Arab-Israeli, conflict, and the obstacles to its resolution, if she turned the prism of her childhood experience toward, and identified with, for example, the 2,000,000 Christian and animist blacks of the southern Sudan killed by Muslim Arab governments of Sudan in a decades-old on-and-off-again war of extermination, a war executed with broad support of the wider Arab world. Deeper understanding would derive as well from applying her personal experience to, and empathizing with, the hundreds of thousands of Darfur blacks likewise murdered by the Arab government of Sudan, and the 200,000 Kurds - another Muslim but non-Arab people - murdered by Saddam Hussein in the first stages of a campaign of extermination, again with broad support in the Arab world. Identification with the plight of the Kurds of Syria and the Berbers of Algeria - another Muslim but non-Arab people - subjected to discrimination and the suppression of their language and culture by the Arab governments of their respective states, would also cast illuminating light for the Secretary of State on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For, as has been pointed out by genuine reformist voices in the Arab world, that world is dominated by a murderous intolerance of virtually all minorities in its midst, whether religious, racial or ethnic. It is not about to make an exception for the Jews and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, whatever its borders.

Were Secretary Rice to apply her own childhood experiences of intolerance to an understanding of this broader reality, the precedent of those experiences could be usefully applied to fathoming the bias and hatred that drive the Palestinian and wider Arab war against Israel and its people and that stand in the way of movement toward peace. Her personal experiences could then be an asset rather than impediment in the fashioning of American policy - a policy whose objective would be interim steps to decrease the risks of violence until such time as changes within the Arab world allow for movement toward genuine peace.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Anti-Israel Bias and Rape

First published in the Hebrew weekly, Makor Rishon

Rape has been in the news in Israel recently; or, more precisely, the absence of rape.

One story involves a Hebrew University doctoral candidate who has looked at the non-occurrence of IDF rapes of Palestinian women in the territories - a phenomenon which the naive observer might well regard as a good thing - and has attributed it to self-serving, nationalistic motives. Another story concerns David Landau, editor of Haaretz, who apparently feels the Americans have not been forceful enough in pushing upon Israel their vision of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In a meeting with Condoleeza Rice, Landau told the Secretary of State Israel needs to be "raped" by the United States; that indeed it "wants to be raped."

Both episodes, beyond their strange perversity, illustrate the intense anti-Israel bias that animates significant segments of Israeli Jewish society. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the theme of rape figures in both, as attitudes towards rape provide insight into an essential characteristic of bigotry.

Much has been written about the frequency with which women who are raped are blamed for the crime committed against them. This is hardly limited to the Arab or broader Muslim world, where a raped woman may be indicted and punished for her "crime" and even faces murder by family members whom she has allegedly "shamed." In the West as well, rape victims are often regarded as responsible for what befell them.

Various rationales, each with their own psychological motivations, figure in this blaming of the female victim. But one recurrent theme is a predilection to regard the woman as having likely been somehow seductive, teasing, conveying signals of interest, inviting the attention of her assailant, ultimately having invited his assault.

Assumptions in this vein are widely, and rightly, regarded as reflecting intense misogyny, or bias against women. The perspective underlying the assumption is that men are perhaps sexually forward but basically decent human beings not out to hurt anybody while women are deceptive, full of wiles and capable of leading men down paths they would not otherwise go.

Such lines of thought capture a central and defining characteristic of bigotry: taking a biased, jaundiced view of all occurrences involving the target of the bigotry and choosing to explain those occurrences in a manner consistent with the bias.

The same dynamic can be seen in, for example, anti-Jewish bigotry. To the anti-Semite, if Jews are attacked and physically abused in horrific ways, they must have somehow invited the attack, because non-Jews are essentially decent people who would not do such things unless severely provoked while Jews are unsavory, wily, scheming types who try the patience of others in a manner that triggers extreme responses. Similarly, if a Jew is generous towards others, to the anti-Semite it must be because he anticipates some ultimate material gain in his generosity, as it is in the nature of others but not of Jews to be genuinely generous.

And so it is with anti-Israel bigots, whether gentiles or Jews. If Israeli soldiers don’t rape Palestinian women, it cannot be because the culture in which they were reared, and the code of ethical conduct inculcated by the IDF, condemn such abuses in the strongest terms. No; there must be an unsavory, reprehensible explanation for the soldiers’ behavior.

Hebrew University doctoral candidate Tal Nitzan surmises in her paper that the absence of rape is due to Palestinian women being dehumanized in the eyes of Israeli soldiers. (Are we to conclude then that, for example, Sudanese militia raping the women of Darfur are doing so because they are more inclined to see Darfurian women as fellow human beings?) She also speculates that Israeli soldiers refrain from rape out of demographic concerns, as - she theorizes - the offspring of rape would likely be raised as Palestinians and the soldiers are fearful of adding to Palestinian numbers.Arutz Sheva’s Hillel Fendel, in an interview with Dr. Zali Gurevitch, head of the Hebrew University professors’ committee that recommended publication of Nitzan’s paper, asked, "Can’t it just be that Israeli soldiers come from a culture that very much condemns rape? And why not mention the much-touted ‘purity of arms,’ i.e., the high moral conduct [promoted by] the Israeli Army?"

Gurevitch, who apparently shares Nitzan’s biases, gave the nonsensical reply that observers do not have the right to demand a particular explanation to a given phenomenon. Of course, Fendel wasn’t demanding that explanation but simply questioning why it wasn’t even considered in the paper? Why neglect laudatory explanations and entertain only unsavory, reprehensible ones?

But , again, that is the nature of bigotry, including anti-Israel bigotry.Haaretz editor Landau’s urging America to "rape" Israel is a variation on the same theme. Landau fervently believes that Israel’s presence in the territories is the essence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that Israeli withdrawal would yield peace. It is not simply that he chooses to ignore all the evidence to the contrary; Landau’s view is that there can be no legitimate basis for any other perspective.

Israelis who have resisted returning to the pre-1967 borders do so largely because they give credence to the declarations of Palestinian leaders - in Palestinian media, mosques and school texts - that Israel has no right to exist and must be expunged and that it is the duty of every Palestinian to pursue this goal. These Israelis also agree with the authors of UN Security Council resolution 242 that the pre-1967 borders were too precarious and invited aggression against Israel. They oppose full withdrawal also in part because they have been exposed to the terror war waged against them by their neighbors and they have seen how previous territorial concessions have made their situation more, rather than less, precarious. But Landau - in his bias against those who disagree with him, which is the majority of Israelis - chooses to regard such resistance to full withdrawal as explicable only by scurrilous, reprehensible motives.

Landau’s bigotry has led him to believe Israelis incapable of measured, humane weighing of evidence and reasonable decision-making. He has openly acknowledged that he slants news coverage in Haaretz to lead the benighted public in the direction he desires and, in a similar vein, he would like to see outside forces push Israelis in the same direction. In particular, he would like to see the United States use its might to this end.

Like the misogynist who can only see the rape victim as a seductress who invited rape, Landau regards Israel as an unsavory, wily entity that similarly invites attack. Not only does it need to be "raped" by the United States, but, he assured Condoleeza Rice, it "wants to be raped."

To explain with any precision why Landau chose to use "rape" to capture his vision of the American pressure he desires to see applied to Israel, and why he told the Secretary of State it was his "wet dream" to address this matter with her, would require some extensive understanding of his personal history and predilections, and how they have shaped his fantasy life.

But Landau’s choice of words convey transparently enough aspects of his pathology: his delusions regarding the threats faced by Israel, his pathological animus against those Israelis who recognize the threats and disagree with him, and his sexualized violent fantasies of having his own political views imposed on his fellow Israelis. That, as editor of Haaretz, he daily translates this pathology into anti-Israel propaganda disseminated around the world, should be of concern to everyone interested in the well-being of the Jewish state.