Monday, March 14, 2011

The Itamar Murders and the Culture of Victimization

The murder last Shabbat of a Jewish family of five in Itamar on the West Bank should not be allowed to slip under the radar, despite the needed attention given to the disaster in Japan. The Fogel family was laid to rest, accompanied by 20,000 people. It was a scene all too reminiscent of what was seemed a daily occurrence only a few years ago.

The fact that such grisly acts rarely happen now is of little comfort to the Fogels' friends and neighbors. And for the rest of us, it is disconcerting to imagine a return to that intolerable situation. Let's assume, for the moment, that this is not the beginning of a horrible trend. Then what's needed is for people everywhere to cry out against the cruelty that was perpetrated and to join together to mourn the victims. That is what we did here in Stamford at a Prayer Vigil on Thursday evening. We expressed our sadness, outrage and anger through unity and through prayer.

The other alternative would be to politicize this horror for maximum debating points, knowing that in the Middle East, to the victim belongs the spoils. Or at least, that's how it used to be.

Playing the victim has limited effectiveness these days. In the past, such horrible attacks on Israelis typically gave Israel’s defenders an opening, however brief, to appeal to the world’s conscience. Lately it’s been harder for Israel to position itself as victim. That’s in part because, thankfully, the rate of terrorism has dropped dramatically.

In addition, the revolution sweeping through the Arab world has been replacing the cult of victimhood with one of empowerment. Grievances and blood feuds are dissolving and violent cycles of protest and retribution are being shunned.

That experiment is still a work in progress and dangers abound, but the cult of victimhood is being discredited everywhere we turn; everywhere, it seems, but among some Jews. For Israel to survive in the post Cairo era, and for the next generation of American Jews to remain Jewish, it is essential that we shed this cloak of victimhood for good.

Instead, however, the victim’s cry has intensified, shifting focus from terrorism to anti-Semitism, arguing that, “While they may not be killing us as much, they really hate us.” We obsess over each off-color quote from Charlie Sheen, Julian Assange, Helen Thomas or John Galliano. Every swastika scribbled on a student’s locker is presented as proof that even 4th graders hate us.

It's been a long time since the world has seen Israel as the victim, and Israel's isolation has only increased - as a recent poll shows: the negative rating of Israel rose from 31% in 2010 to 41% in the US in 2011. Of course, it's much worse in Europe. So, for those who thrive on the cult of victimization, this horrible attack can provide needed evidence that the whole world hates us. We need to look the other way at these polls, and as I implored last Rosh Hashanah, fight hated with love.

With victimization comes the blame game. Israelis have demanded that CNN apologize over its attack coverage because the word "terrorist" was not invoked (which it should have been, but this is not new), and the official response of the government was to approve 400 West Bank housing units and to pin the blame on the PA for its concerted effrots at incitement. As Dore Gold has pointed out, PA incitement is largely ignored.

Incitement is most definitely a concern, expressed most starkly in Jeff Jacoby's column about the murders in the Boston Globe, Massacre of the Innocents. He asks whether the Palestinians have begun the long process of changing their culture, stating, "Human goodness is not hard-wired. It takes sustained effort and healthy values to produce good people; in the absence of those values, cruelty and intolerance are far more likely to flourish."

But that line of argument does not explain why this type of attack has not been the norm continuously over the past half dozen years. The security fence only partly accounts for the sharp reduction in terror. Nor does that argument account for the popularity of the non-violent protests that have been sweeping across the region. The Israelis are invoking pre-Cairo arguments in a post-Cairo world. Nor does it account for what, according to blogger Marc Schulman, was a clear condemnation of the killings by the head of the PA, in no uncertain terms.

Schulman continues, "Israel's Channel 10 sent their Arab Affairs correspondent to Shechem and Nablus, people there seemed to clearly condemn the attack; saying that it was against Islam to kill little children and babies. The horrific nature of the killings may have been too much, even for people who are not exactly friendly to Israel."

Look here for a collection of quotes from Muslim sources condemning the murders. The editor of The American Muslim wrote: The recent murder of the Fogel family who were West Bank settlers, was a criminal act of the worst order. Whoever carried out this brutal murder needs to be found, tried, and if found guilty, executed. There is no justification for such an act of brutality.

So why does Netanyahu remain so defiant, unconcerned about what anyone else thinks? To buy time, apparently. The politicization of these murders is a simple political smokescreen designed to relieve the increasing pressure on the Netanyahu government to make greater overtures for peace.

It is a short sighted strategy.

Now would be the time for Netanyahu to use his bully pulpit to unite the Jewish people and marshal the support of the world against a dastardly act. I too mourn the victims - and would never minimize the horror of the crime. But by linking this horror to the mindset of vengeance and defiance, the prime minister is almost reveling in the chance to paint a stark picture of "us" vs. "them," a strategy that invites escalation of tensions and further isolation. Through the sheer ineptitude of this manipulation, by playing to the far right, he is dividing Israel's supporters into enemy camps at a time when we all should be focused only on providing comfort to those grieving. By not uniting us at the moment of tragedy, he is robbing us of our empathy.

The paranoia of victimhood is threatening to flood our souls, a spiritual tsunami of fear that, if not avoided, could destroy us. Do we in fact take perverse pleasure in being demonized, because it allows us to demonize in return? Because it enables us to send out panicked emails, galvanize and raise money? Victimhood is toxic. If the mindset of the victim is allowed to color our self-image, we will lose our kids, we will lose Israel, and we will lose a tradition that for 3,000 years has left a beautiful legacy of love.

You can see why Ha'aretz' editorial says it all: A responsible government would calm, not escalate.

After the Tucson shootings, President Obama had the perfect opportunity to cast blame on his political enemies. He chose not to, and as result, the nation united behind him. Following Itamar, Prime Minister Netanyahu has done precisely the opposite, invoking pre-Cairo arguments in a post-Cairo world.

Golda Meir used to say that we will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.

Maybe peace will also come when we love their children too. And when we toss aside the mantle of the victim for good.

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