Commentary Magazine


Topic: Palestinian culture

Peace Education Must Occur on Both Sides

Israelis and Jews around the world are rightly outraged about an attack on Arab teenagers by a group of Israeli Jewish teenage thugs on Monday. The attack is being described as a lynching and the fact that one 15-year-old suspect said of a 17-year-old victim who remains unconscious and hospitalized, “For my part he can die, he’s an Arab” has shocked many Israelis and friends of the Jewish state. The incident, which took part in Jerusalem’s Zion Square and was reportedly witnessed by hundreds of onlookers who were apparently too afraid or too indifferent to intervene has garnered international press coverage and set off a round of soul searching by many who wonder how the seeds of hate could have infected Jewish youth in this manner.

Israelis do well to worry about such violence, just as they should be deeply concerned about so-called “price tag” attacks on Arabs by Jews living in the West Bank. But those who are now openly indulging in speculation about Israel’s lost soul or its descent to barbarism need to take a deep breath before jumping to such conclusions. The incident and any such occurrence in which Arabs are subjected to violence in Israel is deplorable and must be punished severely. But the outsized interest in the story has all the hallmarks of the traditional journalist’s dictum about what sells: man bites dog, not dog bites man. Arab violence against Israelis is so common that it takes a horrific mass slaughter or a dramatic attack involving borders and third parties (such as the recent terror attack that came from Egyptian-controlled Sinai) in order for anyone, even Israelis themselves, to take much notice. But the infrequent instances when Israelis succumb to the atmosphere of hatred with which they have been surrounded for a century are treated as not only a very big deal but also a cause for the entire Jewish people to take stock of their moral compass.

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Israelis and Jews around the world are rightly outraged about an attack on Arab teenagers by a group of Israeli Jewish teenage thugs on Monday. The attack is being described as a lynching and the fact that one 15-year-old suspect said of a 17-year-old victim who remains unconscious and hospitalized, “For my part he can die, he’s an Arab” has shocked many Israelis and friends of the Jewish state. The incident, which took part in Jerusalem’s Zion Square and was reportedly witnessed by hundreds of onlookers who were apparently too afraid or too indifferent to intervene has garnered international press coverage and set off a round of soul searching by many who wonder how the seeds of hate could have infected Jewish youth in this manner.

Israelis do well to worry about such violence, just as they should be deeply concerned about so-called “price tag” attacks on Arabs by Jews living in the West Bank. But those who are now openly indulging in speculation about Israel’s lost soul or its descent to barbarism need to take a deep breath before jumping to such conclusions. The incident and any such occurrence in which Arabs are subjected to violence in Israel is deplorable and must be punished severely. But the outsized interest in the story has all the hallmarks of the traditional journalist’s dictum about what sells: man bites dog, not dog bites man. Arab violence against Israelis is so common that it takes a horrific mass slaughter or a dramatic attack involving borders and third parties (such as the recent terror attack that came from Egyptian-controlled Sinai) in order for anyone, even Israelis themselves, to take much notice. But the infrequent instances when Israelis succumb to the atmosphere of hatred with which they have been surrounded for a century are treated as not only a very big deal but also a cause for the entire Jewish people to take stock of their moral compass.

If you put it in the context of the one-hundred-year-old Arab war against Zionism and the culture of anti-Semitism and fomenting of hatred against Israel that is mainstream culture among Palestinians as well as other Arab countries like Egypt or Muslim lands like Iran, it is hardly surprising that a small minority of Israelis would wind up mirroring those deplorable sentiments.

Israelis are, after all, only human. When placed in terrible confrontations or difficult circumstances, it is only natural to lash out at violent enemies or to dehumanize the foe. If you think Americans are immune to such feelings, take a look at any popular American film produced during World War Two and see the way the Japanese are portrayed.

The real story here is not that a minority of Jews have fallen prey to the same sort of hatred that predominates the mainstream discourse among Arabs but that most have not.

Let’s also remember that violence against Jews in the West Bank is routine. Stone throwing at cars (which sometimes result in fatal crashes), shooting incidents and stabbing attacks are the stuff of everyday life there. Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem or Israeli Arab towns and villages are often no-go zones for Jews in a way that most Jewish cities and towns are not for Arabs.

To state these facts is to neither excuse nor rationalize the Jerusalem attack. Israeli schools already emphasize peace education but that message is often undermined by the knowledge that no such programs are being taught in the West Bank while the Arab media both in the Palestinian areas and in supposedly civilized countries like Egypt are drenched in anti-Semitism. Jews should do all they can to educate their kids to turn away from hate. But until their Arab neighbors emulate this practice, we shouldn’t be surprised when we discover that such efforts are not always successful.

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Romney Wins the “Culture” Argument

Whether it’s general ignorance of religious issues or the impossibility of turning a complex issue like the Middle East into easily digestible sound bites–the American media’s specialty–the mainstream media’s coverage of the region is ghastly. Nowhere was this blind spot more obvious than the press coverage of Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel and his comments echoing what Arab leaders and scholars have said for years (though less harshly) about the ways Arab culture has held back regional economic development.

What Romney said is clearly true, which helps explain some of the terrible reporting. For example, I wrote about the Washington Post’s awful write-up of the story, in which the reporter made snide remarks about Romney and offered demonstrably false assertions without consulting the experts. This is most likely by design: had the reporter consulted experts, they would have told him what everybody knew: that Romney was, of course, correct. But the media’s attempt to write the first draft of this story and set the narrative against Romney was so egregiously off-base that it has made commentators across the ideological spectrum uncomfortable enough to speak up. One example comes from the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who writes:

The cultural difference between Israel and its Arab neighbors is so striking that you would think it beyond question. But when Mitt Romney attributed the gap between Israel’s economic performance and the Palestinians’ — “Culture makes all the difference,” he said in Israel — the roof came down on him. PC police the world over raised a red card, giving him demerits for having the temerity to notice the obvious. Predictably, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced the statement as “racist.” It was, of course, just the opposite.

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Whether it’s general ignorance of religious issues or the impossibility of turning a complex issue like the Middle East into easily digestible sound bites–the American media’s specialty–the mainstream media’s coverage of the region is ghastly. Nowhere was this blind spot more obvious than the press coverage of Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel and his comments echoing what Arab leaders and scholars have said for years (though less harshly) about the ways Arab culture has held back regional economic development.

What Romney said is clearly true, which helps explain some of the terrible reporting. For example, I wrote about the Washington Post’s awful write-up of the story, in which the reporter made snide remarks about Romney and offered demonstrably false assertions without consulting the experts. This is most likely by design: had the reporter consulted experts, they would have told him what everybody knew: that Romney was, of course, correct. But the media’s attempt to write the first draft of this story and set the narrative against Romney was so egregiously off-base that it has made commentators across the ideological spectrum uncomfortable enough to speak up. One example comes from the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who writes:

The cultural difference between Israel and its Arab neighbors is so striking that you would think it beyond question. But when Mitt Romney attributed the gap between Israel’s economic performance and the Palestinians’ — “Culture makes all the difference,” he said in Israel — the roof came down on him. PC police the world over raised a red card, giving him demerits for having the temerity to notice the obvious. Predictably, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced the statement as “racist.” It was, of course, just the opposite.

How could such cultural criticism be the opposite of racism? Cohen explains that not only does Arab culture hold the Palestinians back, but the West’s soft bigotry of low expectations only exacerbates the problem:

This hubbub about culture may seem esoteric, but it is really very important. The tendency to hold the Arabs blameless for their own culture is part of the predilection to hold them harmless for the lack of peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis have much to account for, but they are not alone in this matter and they are not the ones who have over and over again rejected peace plans. The adamant refusal to hold the Arabs accountable infantilizes them — a neo-colonialist mentality that is, in the end, simply insulting.

Beyond columnists, the debate has become academic as well. Yair Rosenberg notes that Albert Einstein held to this theory long before Romney did. More recently, however, it was David Landes, whose work on the subject Romney explicitly mentioned in his Jerusalem speech. That led to a somewhat amusing round of commentary in which Jared Diamond, author of a book Romney also mentioned, wrote that Romney not only misunderstood Diamond’s book, but that Landes might not even agree with Romney. That inspired Landes’s son, Richard, to take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to ever-so-politely point out that Diamond knows nothing of Landes’s work–but that Romney got it exactly right.

It is, as Cohen acknowledges, somewhat shocking to be even having this conversation. Our current secretary of state once characterized the culture of Palestinian child development as blanket “child abuse”–farther than Romney, Landes, or Einstein were willing to go. That half a decade later this country’s flagship newspapers have elevated their interpretation of political correctness and cynical point-scoring above even basic facts offers us an uncomfortable truth about the extent of the intellectual rot at the institutions of American liberalism.

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