When it comes to mass murder, it seems that everyone is a pop psychologist.
Everyone wants to know why some people strive to become killers, even at the
cost of their own lives, as is the case with Palestinians.
For years, the talking heads on television and those who wrote about the
situation for mainstream publications parroted the same line: The Palestinians are
motivated by a sense of poverty and hopelessness that has made their lives
untenable. What else would you expect desperate people to do but explode
themselves on Israelis?
But after 311/2 years of a Palestinian war of attrition against Israel, that
argument doesn't hold up anymore. The majority of those who have committed
such crimes were not dispossessed or poor. They are just as likely to come from
educated classes and to have a great deal to live for. The Palestinian woman
who last month faked an injury, then blew up solicitous Israeli soldiers at
the Erez checkpoint who tried to help her, came from a wealthy family and had
two children under the age of 3. And last week's atrocity on a Jerusalem bus was
perpetrated by, of all things, a member of the Palestinian Authority police.
It's no good pretending we can understand such people via the rhetoric of
compassion or the sort of inductive reasoning used by detectives on American
television shows such as "Law & Order." Instead, we need to try to begin
understanding the society that bred them.
But to even suggest such a thing opens us up to criticism for generalizing
about a people rather than discussing individuals. We are told that only racists
would even suggest such a thing.
Yet when it comes to Palestinian terrorists, focusing on the individual over
the group gets us nowhere. These terrorists are acting in accordance with
values that are lauded in their culture, and as part of a war that a particular
society is conducting against Israel. The suicide bombers and other terrorists
who kill Israeli men, women and children in cold blood are doing what their
state schools and religious institutions have been telling them is an honorable,
even saintly, deed.
So we must, albeit reluctantly, ask ourselves what sort of a society would
think it is a good thing to commit gruesome murders? Are Jews not considered
human? Are Palestinians truly barbarians, who, as historian Benny Morris recently
suggested, need to be penned up?
DEHUMANIZING THE FOE
In the past, even those who lived in enlightened liberal democracies have not
been troubled by generalizations about their enemies. Look at any movie made
in Hollywood during World War II and search in vain for a humanized portrait
of a German or Japanese soldier.
We can snicker at the crude chauvinism of that time, but what else were
Americans to think about people who had committed untold atrocities in Poland,
China and elsewhere? And the truth is, the screenwriters and the audiences of
those films actually didn't know a fraction of the horror that was committed by
the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust, or in the Far East by the
servants of the Japanese empire.
Americans then assumed that the Japanese and the Nazis, didn't place the same
value on human life as we did. But by the time of the Vietnam war, Americans
were too sophisticated to buy into such reasoning.
So, too, when it came to depictions of their Arab foes, have been most
Israelis. Almost from the start of the modern Zionist movement, Hebrew popular
culture has done its best to depict Arabs respectfully. Most films and plays
produced in Israel have gone out of their way to humanize Palestinians, and to
anguish over the conflict and the loss to both sides.
The notion of sacrifice for the nation is part of Zionist lore. But even a
work such as Nathan Alterman's classic poem "The Silver Platter," in which the
slain heroes of Israel's War of Independence remind the nation that the Jewish
state was bought with their lives, does not glorify death or dehumanize the
enemy; it reminds us of the terrible price of even a just war.
Even today, at a time when Jewish blood has been spilled so readily, mindless
hatred against Arabs is still a marginal factor in Israeli society.
Not so among the Arabs. You need only read the translations from the Arab
press and television that are published by the Middle East Media Research
Institute (www.MEMRI.org) to understand that the delegitimization of Israel and the
Jews is an integral part of mainstream Arab culture.
Some will blame Israel for this, and claim its refusal to give in to
Palestinian demands and its insistence on fighting back against terror is creating
Arab hatred. But that assertion flies in the face of the fact that the current
war is one the Palestinians chose when they could have had a state. The goal of
the Palestinian national movement Israel's destruction remains unchanged.
MORE THAN A PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION
Yet even in the middle of this desperate war, we saw last week the
willingness of Israel to trade hundreds of terrorist prisoners for one Israeli captive,
along with the bodies of three slain soldiers. Israel was reportedly willing
to release even more terrorists if only Hezbollah or any other Arab group would
hand over the long-sought Israeli prisoner Ron Arad, or at least his lifeless
bones. Recent reports in the Israeli press revealed that DNA tests proved
that a bone fragment that was received recently from Hezbollah (a down payment on
future trades?) was not that of Arad.
Why are Israelis so willing to trade so much for a single life when the
Palestinians are willing to expend their own so needlessly? I suspect that it may
be not so much a matter of devaluing life as it is the greater value they place
on the ultimate victory they seek.
This is more than a philosophical question, because if we think that Israel's
foes share our horror at the conflict, then we will always try to appease
them with concessions. If their goals are different from those of the Jews, then
a change in long-term strategy may be in order.
We may not understand why Arabs honor murder and Jews don't, but at this
point in history, we're forced to at least pose the question. If, rather than a
dispute about territory, something darker within Palestinian society is driving t
his terrible war, then every debate about the peace process is ultimately
moot. And that is a possibility very few of us wish to acknowledge.