How to break free from the clutches of an empathy so bizarrely understood?
This time the question appeared as a comment to an article about the devious arguments of a British journalist converting Hamas’s propaganda into pseudo-information for Western readers. A reader signing himself ‘Henry J.’ wrote:
The article shows just one side of the coin. The fact that Palestinians use violence is indisputable. However, one has to understand the other side: deprived of any hope, the only way to better their situation is aggression against the occupation (or, whatever you call it).
The problem will not be solved by aggression from the Palestinian side, nor by the sniper’s bullets (because rubber bullets didn’t go far enough – what kind of logic is that?)
Aggression breeds aggression, occupation breeds aggression, frustration, and the motivation to hate.
What hope is Henry writing about? Is it about the hope for a better life, for hot water in the tap? About electricity 24 hours a day? About a school system that allows students to join modernity, to learn a profession, to earn a living without waiting for handouts, to do something that other people need? How did Henry arrive at his ‘empathy’, which seems to totally ignore the Palestinians who hope for a normal life without war, for being in a place where the authorities think about meeting the needs of the population and not exclusively about exterminating the eternal enemy? Henry never reacted to my attempt to start a discussion. I will not learn how his empathy for Palestinians arose, but only those Palestinians who, as he writes, believe that the only way to improve their situation is ‘aggression against the occupation’. Probably Henry had never met other Palestinians, maybe he had never heard of their existence. But every day he hears and reads about the ’horrible plight’ of those who do not see any other way.
Who knows, maybe an attempt to reconstruct what Henry could see and hear before he arrived at his ’empathy’ is worth a try. He must have often seen the name of the organization ruling the Palestinian Authority – the Palestine Liberation Organization. Did he ever wonder what this organization wants to liberate? Did he ever stop to wonder where Palestine is? The Palestine Mandate included present-day Jordan, Israel, and the area which the Jordanians dubbed the West Bank, but which for thousands of years was called Judea and Samaria. Does Henry know that Jordan constitutes 78 per cent of Palestine? Does he know that when the League of Nation designated Palestine for a National Home for Jews with the stipulation to preserve the rights of Arab residents, the British sectioned off 78 per cent of the Mandate for a country of Palestinian Arabs, which is today called Jordan (and from which every last Jewish resident was immediately expelled)? Does the Palestine Liberation Organization want to liberate all of Palestine, i.e. Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank? The early work of Yassir Arafat’s organization was an attempt to start a civil war in Jordan, and as a result the PLO was expelled from Jordan. A substantial part of Jordan’s residents consists of descendants of Arab refugees from today’s Israel, and they call themselves Palestinians. They have restricted civil rights in Jordan; their plight there deserves sympathy.
Let’s leave this problem, though, and go on to the question of whether Henry recognizes Israel’s right to exist. This is an important question. Israel, like Poland and many other countries, came into existence as a result of decisions by international bodies after the end of World War I. Jews repeatedly tried to return to Palestine after their expulsion by the Romans. They returned, were massacred and expelled again, and returned time after time. Finally, after the defeat of Turkey and with some support of the victorious powers, these hopes had a greater chance of becoming reality.
Henry uses the term ’occupation’ and adds hurriedly ’or whatever you call it’. Occupation means occupying somebody’s territory. For four hundred years it was a Turkish territory (it was a part of Damascus Province). Proponents of the term ’occupation’ answer that Arabs lived there, so even if it wasn’t a state of Palestine it was a country of Palestinians. And here is a problem, again. The population consisted of Muslim Arabs, who were the biggest group, then Christian Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. Jews were the majority of the residents of Jerusalem. And on top of that, in the last decades of the nineteenth century the region was desolate and depopulated.
The weakening Ottoman Empire softened their restrictions and Jewish refugees started to flow into Palestine, first from Yemen where horrific persecution of Jews compelled them to flee anywhere they could, the next wave was Russian Jews escaping pogroms. (As usual, in the face of conflicts in and between countries, murderous antisemitism exploded, and so Jews trying to save their lives and not having a chance to escape to America automatically directed their thoughts towards Jerusalem.) It’s interesting that the influx of Jews caused an economic boom in Palestine, and in 1880-1948 Arab immigration from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab countries was greater than the total of Jewish immigration. Henry may not know about the British White Paper which restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine while Nazism was growing in Europe as well as during World War II; he may not know about the Nazi propaganda aimed at Arab countries; he may also not know about the co-operation between German Nazis and Arab nationalists in Palestine. He may not know about those Arabs who could see a chance of progress and development of the Middle East in co-operation with Jews, nor about the fact that they were attacked and often murdered by Arab nationalists.
Understanding the other side requires some effort, but it’s possible that Henry didn’t have a chance. The Palestine Liberation Organization was for a long time Moscow’s puppet. Arafat got his training in the DDR and in Romania, and Abbas wrote his doctoral thesis in Moscow and became an agent of Moscow. When Arafat was invited to peace negotiations he was an international gangster and airplane hijacker, a man who not only tried to trigger a civil war in Jordan, but later did the same in Lebanon and Tunisia. Henry may not know that when Arafat ostensibly renounced terrorism and said that he recognized Israel’s right to exist, he told his people in Arabic that it was just a tactical ruse. Not only did the Palestine Liberation Organization never change its name, but it didn’t change its Charter, where it declared that the goal was to liberate Palestine from Jews, which means the extermination of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.
And who is the greatest enemy of the Palestine Liberation Organization? Israel? Israel only makes it harder to commit terrorist acts. The real enemy of the PLO is Hamas, whose Charter states more clearly than the PLO’s that they will fight Jews until the Day of Judgement, that they will never recognize Israel, and that those are Allah’s orders. The PLO side-steps negotiations, but Hamas openly states that any negotiations are a betrayal of the Palestinian and Muslim cause. And so the murder of hundreds of PLO members by Hamas in Gaza was just a demonstration that Hamas loves the Palestinian cause more, that thinking about meeting the needs of Gaza’s residents would be a betrayal, that the only goal of a Palestinian’s life is to murder Jews, i.e. to fight the ’occupation’, which does not have it’s military forces on Gaza’s territory, nor any power and reacts only to acts of terror. But what about the blockade? The blockade is meant to hinder deliveries of weapons to this terrorist base, and as there are many willing to deliver them, both Israel and Egypt think that removing the blockade would create a mortal danger to both those countries. Peace requires renouncing war.
Why does Henry seem never to have read about Palestinian dissidents who wish for peace with Israel? Why does Henry’s understanding of the Palestinian side seem to be limited to an acceptance of Hamas’s propaganda? Henry probably watches television and reads newspaper headlines. He wrote his comment under the article documenting the fact that a respectable British newspaper copies the propaganda of a terrorist organization. Henry does not deny it. He would like us to understand the other side, by which he understands people conditioned for decades in the role of dogs of war.
How is it that so many people in the West see only these Palestinians and do not see their leaders, their schools, imams, press and television that all teach hatred? Is it possible that they get their warped knowledge of Palestinians through the press, radio and television in their countries, that this empathy for Palestinians, whose attempts to kill Jews are hindered by Jews, is taught by people constantly shouting ’never again’, shedding tears over people murdered decades ago, and supporting with their whole hearts people who openly declare that they want to do the same today?
A few years ago an American newspaper, The Boston Globe, announced in huge letters in a front-page headline: ’Israelis arrest blind Palestinian’. The newspaper didn’t lie. An Israeli Arab was building a bomb which exploded in his flat, depriving him of sight. It’s true that he was arrested. When we get information fabricated in this manner we can with justification conclude that Israelis are cruel people and that they horrificly persecute poor Palestinians who dream only of a quiet, normal life. When a Palestinian terrorist is trying to kill a passer-by in Jerusalem and he himself is killed in the process, Western readers are told that Israelis killed a Palestinian. Somewhere, deep in the article, there is a note that it was a terrorist who was killed while he was attacking somebody. A comparison with news about police actions anywhere else in the world can cause astonishment. Where does such a different way of telling a story come from?
A fundamental question arises here: why is information about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict so often so grotesquely distorted in the media in democratic countries? There is no easy or simple answer to this question. The first question we have to ask is: is it really so and how can we check it?
Let’s start with the United Nations. News from 15 October 2018 (which was absent in both television and newspapers) that the special commission of the UN General Assembly in one session presented nine resolutions condemning Israel without paying any attention to hundreds of victims of violence in other countries. Israel was condemned, inter alia, for the bad treatment of Syrian citizens on the Golan Heights. These accusations are completely absurd, but they work perfectly well to divert attention from the fact that two days earlier the civilian population of Israel was for two days under rocket fire from Gaza (in total over 460 missiles were fired at Israel). You could say that it is useless to pay attention to the UN because their bias is documented - they’ve done it for years, almost every day. In 2006 the UN Human Rights Commission was dissolved because of its outrageous hostility to Israel. In its place a Human Rights Council was created where countries such as China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia call the tune, so members of this UN Human Rights Council are mainly busy diverting attention from crimes committed in their own countries, and the best way to do it is to call attention to Israel, because everybody will accept this. Theoretically this institution is supposed to guard the morality of the world, and among the guards are such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are over one hundred thousand child-soldiers, where there is ongoing civil war, and where all sides are accused of genocide, mass rapes, torture, and even cannibalism, where during the last four years over two million people were killed. The institution which is supposed to stand guard over the morality of the world is busy almost exclusively with Israel. Is this a reason to be astonished? Yes, it is, but nobody is shouting about it.
Henry could say, however, that Israel is condemned by even respectable newspapers, famous organizations defending human rights, like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, religious institutions: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches and even the noble Quakers, as well as various Islamic denominations, both Sunni and Shia. Can they all be biased? And there is more. Among Israel’s critics who say that aggression breeds aggression, that if only Israel would make some concessions, Palestinians would undoubtedly reach out with a peaceful hand, there are many Jews from the Diaspora and even from Israel itself. In the face of all this, Henry could think that suspecting such select company of presenting the Israeli government’s actions in a biased and unfair way must be a kind of insanity.
A call for checking every scrap of news is naive. Who has time for it? It requires skills to go to the relevant sources, methodology, and primarily just plenty of time. Maybe we should start with the question: Why would the world systematically lie about the conflict between Arabs and Israel?
Israel is a state of Jewish refugees. Over half the population consists of refugees and descendants of refugees from Muslim countries (there were more Jewish refugees from Muslim countries than Arab refugees from Israel, and they left behind property and real estate significantly larger than the whole area of Israel), the rest are refugees from countries with a Christian tradition. Christianity and Islam in a similar way treated anti-Judaism as a unifying force, an idea that unified a community of believers with the Jew as a symbol of anti-neighbour, an outlaw. Lies about Jews are a firmly established tradition in both these religions and are an intrinsic part of the education of clerics. Christian hatred of Jews survived the Enlightment and was reborn in a more secular form of racism full of inhuman hatred, which found its zenith in German Nazism, but had earlier flourished in Tsarist Russia. It lasted through Communism and it put down deep roots in the leftist movements in democratic countries. Israel was created as a country of refugees, and we are the descentents of those they sought refuge from. Those Jews who didn’t leave often feel a duty to criticize Israel in order to gain the acceptance of those from whom Jews escaped. Antisemitism is a dehumanising idea. It’s convenient, because it allows us to shift our guilt onto a scapegoat; it’s awkward because we have to find somebody who is a victim of Jews in order to justify our baseness. Compassion for Palestinians (but only those Palestinians whom the despicable Israelis hinder from killing Jews) gives a feeling of righteousness and nobility.
Jews fought to create an independent country for Jewish refugees on the exceptionally inhospitable soil of their ancestors, on sandy deserts and malarial marshes that they transformed into blooming gardens. An old Egyptian professor in conversation with a Polish Muslim said that Arabs would forgive Jews all their victorious wars - they actually do not care for Palestinians - but they can’t forgive the Jews their success: the creation of a flourishing, modern state in a barren desert. Who knows, maybe this envy acts as well on the inhabitants of Europe and pushes them towards a bizzare empathy and support for Palestinians in their fight against the existence of Jews. Anybody can find documents confirming that this indeed is the goal of the Palestinian ’resistance’; it’s neither as difficult nor as time-consuming as checking every lie about Israel. It’s possible to break free from the clutches of bizzarely understood empathy. And it’s worth it. Not only because of Jews, but primarily because of oneself, of one’s own humanity.
Translation from Polish original Małgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson.