Israel The Political Animal

The Mystery of Terrorism, Revealed

Cross posted at The Times of Israel.

When I wrote the other day about our dumbness before the phenomenon of terrorism – so often the wanton and random killing in large numbers of those who must by any non-self-justifying reason be considered innocents – I was invoking the mystery of the moral self that can rise to so horrendous an act. Most of us will never fathom it.

I hereby revise myself.

While I am no promoter of the “banality of evil,” the commonplace has its role. Evil, human evil, in its purest form surely is the vileness, the befoulment of human sympathy we imagine it to be. It is the general of the armies of moral ugliness, hatred, and corruption. But it has its privates, its clerks – its professors and attorneys too, like PR hacks and mob lawyers. It is so often, at the head of cutthroat guerrilla insurgencies in the jungle, some highly educated soul who lost himself in an idea, amid the complexity of ideas, and so chose the simple one, in order to clarify, of murder.

A couple of weeks ago at Electronic Intifada we had Linah Alsaafin‘s “How obsession with ‘nonviolence’ harms the Palestinian cause.” That is to say, as a magnification of the mind behind the work, not “concern” with nonviolence, but “obsession,” as if one were overly fixated on double-checking light switches or on pantyhose. Alsaafin is a young, recent college graduate – a major in English literature – born in Wales to Palestinian parents and mostly raised in the UK and the U.S., now living on the West Bank. According to her Twitter page‘s romantic ejaculation,

I starve myself for you to remain. I die for you to live. Stay with the revolution.

Having discovered, like some of her age and temperament, that the world began with her birth, and conflict – its intolerances and rationales, and the suffering they engender – truly, with her consciousness of them, Alsaafin writes at Electronic Intifada,

Nowadays, Israelis and internationals and unfortunately even some “enlightened” Palestinians champion “nonviolent resistance” and consider throwing a rock to be a violent act. The argument goes that throwing rocks tarnishes the reputation of Palestinians in the western world and immediately negates the “nonviolent/peaceful” resistance movement. This argument falls into the trap of western- (read, colonizer) dictated methods of acceptable means to resist.

Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.

So we begin with stock, ideologically reductive, historically obscurantist renderings of the world, in which a single senseless sentence undoes all Alsaafin’s education and all the ground for any of the ideas in which she herself believes.

Then we move on to an even more highly educated and older voice, Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Falk’s cognitive disability in the political area for which he was chosen by the UN to serve is well documented, and exemplified in detail by my analysis of the gross distortions of the Global Policy Forum, of which Falk is a former director. Relevant here is his further descent into ideologized cultural self-debasement and intellectual incoherence. Having read Alsaafin, by whom Falk feels instructed and further enlightened, he writes,

The posture of solidarity with the struggle of “the other” is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand, as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle.


The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be the purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimisation. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.


[Alsaafin] persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as “national interests”. In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.

Having, then, ceded the ground of reason and all ethical consideration to the calculus of grievance and rage – it is not explained how, other than by the whiteness Alsaafin invokes, or the Westernness that Falk does, one group’s victimized self-identification is weighed against another’s, preventing a free-for-all of unchallengeable forms of struggle – Falk confounds his tortured notions in incoherence. Now he asserts,

At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. Two of these truths are intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence, whatever the motivation, that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible, even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move towards any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

Is it too redundant to state outright that this completely contradicts Falk’s previous paragraph above? Falk will contradict himself several more times as he closes, including this reversion, in opposition to the above.

We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.

One need not wonder very much how this kind of thinking can produce the sense that anything is permissible – justified by the “historically, politically, and culturally conditioned,” in the name of the two-headed god of resistance and struggle.

What might be needed to complete this intellectual journey to terror? Only the answer to the question I posed above, about how to weigh competing claims. For this we need Glenn Greenwald, late, soon, of, on his way to an even more fitting home at the Guardian, in responding to the Burgas terrorism.

I have no idea who is behind the attacks. If it turns out to be Hezbollah and/or Iran, that will not shock me: after all, if it is perceived that you have sent hit squads onto a country’s soil to murder their nuclear scientists, it’s likely that the targeted nation will want to respond with violence of their own.

Embedded in this very brief but profound corruption of historical and moral review are two distinct failures of judgment. Greenwald first suggests a chain of events leading to Burgas, so that we not simplistically conceive of the bombing as an isolated and easily judged act of terror. It is a consequence, and thereby loses some weight of morally assignable blameworthiness. It is, you know, as always, understandable. (We ignore here that Greenwald’s whole post criticizes reliance on the unsubstantiated perception of Israel and the U.S. that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the attack, yet relies on a similar unsubstantiated perception – “if it is perceived” – to quasi-justify Burgas.) The chain of events is notably short, however, and stops at suggested Israeli acts. Could we trace a longer chain? Of course, we could, though Greenwald obviously wishes not to. So in the few links that Greenwald offers, the first and originally causative one is Israeli.

If, rather, we were to extract from those sentences a world-weary gesture toward the infinite regression of links and causes, the unending chain of grievance between opposing sides – as between Israel and the Palestinians – that seems always the foundation of irresolvable conflict, we could abandon the futile search for root fault and assess the parties in their present form. In that present form, too, Greenwald finds Israel wanting and Hezbollah and Iran just that uncertain step short of excusable we can call excuse-makeable.

Either way we consider the matter and the more general situation, Greenwald’s sympathies are not, as they never are, with Israel, even relative to Hezbollah and Iran. He observes the actors of the world in all of their worldly complexity and determines that Israel is one of the malevolent actors in it, whereas theocratic, anti-Semitic and repressive Iran is one of the state actors whose conduct needs to be understood – rationalized – in context. Greenwald does not actually sanction terrorist attacks; he simply understands their occurrence situationally. The situation is one in which Iran warrants our understanding and Israel does not.

Greenwald’s voice, then, is that of the lawyer, in these times most often prosecuting the Obama administration, while also making the defense attorney’s sympathetic plea before the jury for the perpetrators of mass-murder attacks. It is, rather, the passionate, youthful zealot, “starving” for her people, “dying” that they may live, who offers the intellectual rationale for murder and why no outsiders, including the  victims, have intellectual or moral standing to protest the justice of their ends. It is the aged professor, clinging to rhetorical habits, like a prayer recited by heart but in which all belief has been lost, who calls out weakly in his shame and doubt, ‘Thou shalt not kill,” but also, “We may not judge.”

And we have terrorism.


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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Single Conversation


The following is a partial transcript of a “discussion” on Democracy Now between Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin and Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada. In this brief exchange we see all of the essential characteristics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tobin makes the point that regardless of any opinion regarding the settlements, peace can be had. Legal settlements can be sacrificed for peace just as illegal might be. Abunimah fails here, as everywhere else, to be an honest interlocutor. Rather than respond to that idea, he dismisses it as a “talking point.” And even if it were? What about the idea behind it? However, Abunimah is not a man of ideas, but of postcolonial jargon. His rhetoric in a single brief conversation represents in nature the actions of the Palestinian and greater Arab world going back to 1947: refusal to engage and accept, a rejection of reasoned discourse just like rejection of a Jewish state. He slings historically and conceptually false lablels like slurs and stones: “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” “indigenous Palestinian people.” In his final dishonesty, he snows the sympathetic mind with reference to “Jim Crow tyranny,” as if two peoples in conflict over land and competing nationhoods are the equivalent of discrimination within a single nation.

But, ah! That’s the point. Abunimah’s unspecified solution in equality to his manufactured inequality is an unarticulated but implicit single nation – which isn’t Israel. Tobin, less driven and riven by hate and mental hackery, is too smart for him, and does not leave the inference unexpressed. Then Abunimah is reduced to scurrying into all the corners of his dishonesty to deny the implications of language.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Read.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to a statement made by Israeli President Shimon Peres. He spoke out Tuesday against settlements in the West Bank. He said, quote, “Israeli settlement in territories densely populated by an Arab population could bring about a threatening demographic change; that is, it could endanger the Jewish majority in Israel. It is doubtful that a Jewish State without a Jewish majority can remain Jewish.” Jonathan Tobin, can you comment on what Israeli President Shimon Peres said?

JONATHAN TOBIN: That’s a position that many Israelis hold. But it shouldn’t be conflated with the question of their legality. The problem here is that people like the people from The Electronic Intifada don’t really recognize legitimacy of Jewish life anywhere in the country, including inside the Green Line, including the settlement Tel Aviv. The problem here is that it’s not a question of whether they’re legal or not, because if the Palestinians wish to make peace, if they wish to compromise, if they wish to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, they can do so, and Israel has approved it will withdraw from territory, if offered peace. The problem is, the Palestinians won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, the legitimacy of Jewish life anywhere in that country. That’s why this is—the talk of war crimes, the talk of it’s criminal—Jews are not foreigners in the land of Israel.

The problem is, the Palestinians don’t wish to share. What we have here is a question of disputed territory. Both sides have rights. All the rights are not on the sides of the Palestinians. Jews have rights, too. If the Palestinians wish to have peace, if they wish to have the Palestinian—independent Palestinian state that they were offered three times and rejected three times in the last 12 years, they have to start dealing with the reality that the Jews aren’t going away. And if they do, they’ll find that Israel is willing to withdraw from most of the settlements, whether they—whether they consider them legal or not. Let’s not conflate these two issues. Peace is possible if the Palestinians are willing to make peace. It’s not possible if they focus on fantasies about throwing the Jews out. Even the Obama administration, which has been the most sympathetic to the Palestinian of any in recent—in any recent light, understood that many of the settlements are going to stay. That’s what the talk about territorial swaps was about last year. So, to focus on the illegality of things, of places that everyone knows are going to stay Israeli, and where Jews have the right to live, is just a fantasy that breeds more terrorism and more rejection of peace, which is what we get from The Electronic Intifada.


AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah.

ALI ABUNIMAH: I mean, yeah, I see that Mr. Tobin studied the talking points very well this morning. Of course, let’s bring things back to basics. This isn’t a question of Jews. Jews have lived in Palestine since before the Zionist settler colony was imposed on Palestine. It’s not a question of Jews living there. It’s a question of settler colonialism, of apartheid, of the assertion that Jews have a right to superior rights than the indigenous Palestinian people and have a right to just bulldoze— literally bulldoze—their way onto Palestinian land and steal it for their own benefit. Frankly, I mean, I’m not surprised Mr. Tobin doesn’t care a jot about international law—

JONATHAN TOBIN: Jews are the indigenous people there, too. Jews are not foreigners.

ALI ABUNIMAH: —but you would think—you would think that Commentary, a conservative publication, would care at least about private property rights and the fact that vast tracts of these Jewish-only settler colonies are built on private Palestinian land, stolen by force by Israel’s Jewish sectarian militia known as theIDF.

Now, back to Shimon Peres’s statement, which was your original question, of course, his statement calling Palestinian babies a so-called demographic threat really reveals the Jim Crow-like racism at the core of this Zionist ideology that views the mere existence of Palestinian babies in their own native land as a threat to Israel. How can Palestinians ever possibly recognize or give legitimacy to an entity which views their mere reproduction as human beings as a mortal threat? It’s time for Mr. Tobin and all the fans of this apartheid, racist, Jim Crow tyranny to make good on their claimed liberal and progressive values and oppose Israeli apartheid and accept the inevitable, which is, just like in the Jim Crow South, just like in apartheid South Africa, one day there is going to be equal rights for everyone between the river and the sea, and all of this nonsense that Mr. Tobin is trying to sell us will be absolutely forgotten.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to the U.S. response to the commission’s report. The Obama administration criticized the findings of the report. Speaking Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, quote, “The U.S. position on settlements is clear. Obviously, we’ve seen the reports that an Israeli Government appointed panel has recommended legalizing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts.” Jonathan Tobin, can you respond to that?

JONATHAN TOBIN: Well, of course the administration isn’t going to—hasn’t recognized that position. It opposes it. But it also tacitly agrees to the fact that the Jews aren’t going away. I mean, what we heard from my colleague on the show was the Palestinian fantasy that some day Israel is going to be destroyed. All the calumnies, all the slanders about apartheid—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I never said that. I didn’t use those words.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Yes, yes. That’s what—

ALI ABUNIMAH: I said that the system of racism and apartheid is going to be ended.

JONATHAN TOBIN: That is exactly what you are talking about.

ALI ABUNIMAH: And that will happen.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is not an apartheid state. It is the only—

ALI ABUNIMAH: But don’t substitute your words with mine.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is a state where Arabs have equal rights, serve in the parliament. And that—that is exactly what they are talking about. They’re talking about the destruction of Israel, and which is why this whole discussion—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your words, sir. And it’s your fantasy.

JONATHAN TOBIN: It is your meaning. Don’t try to—

ALI ABUNIMAH: Your fantasy is the destruction of Israel.

JONATHAN TOBIN: Don’t try to—don’t try to lie your way out of it.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Was Jim Crow the destruction of Alabama and Mississippi?

JONATHAN TOBIN: You are fantasizing about the end of the Jewish state.

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