What could possibly explain the logic of the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who stunned the Jewish world on March 19 by lumping together the murdered Jewish children of Toulouse in the same sentence with Arab civilian war victims in Gaza? What conceivable morality could combine them in one thought?
As near as I can figure, there are three ways of understanding her comment. Let’s take them one at a time.
One possibility is that she didn’t intend to mention Toulouse and Gaza in the same sentence, but the words accidentally fell into her speech, sort of the way that Italian ship captain fell into a lifeboat and left his sinking ship when he was really trying to save it. This seems to happen a lot in Europe these days, so we shouldn’t rule it out too hastily.
A second possibility is that she was deliberately drawing a parallel between the premeditated murder of Jews and the accidental killing of Arabs, as a string of Jewish leaders have charged — including Israel’s prime minister and the head of the Anti-Defamation League, both of whom reacted with “outrage,” and several French-Jewish leaders who demanded her resignation.
If she was drawing such a parallel, this, too, could have two explanations. One is that Ashton thinks Israel deliberately targets Gaza children. The other is that she can’t bring herself to lament the deaths of Jews without simultaneously mentioning that Jews also do bad things. Either way, this sort of thinking seems to happen a lot in Europe, so this explanation, like the first one, shouldn’t be ruled out without further examination.
Then there is the third possibility: that Ashton was making another point entirely, but her remarks were either willfully or negligently distorted. This is where we’re going to end up after that further examination I just mentioned. Hold on to your hats.
For starters, it’s important to know where Ashton was speaking. She was delivering the opening address at a two-day conference in Brussels on the challenges facing Palestinian refugee youth, sponsored by the United Nations and the European Union together with the Belgian government. Much of the audience consisted of Palestinian youngsters from Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Ashton’s remarks were basically a 13-minute pep talk, saluting the spirit of young Arabs in places like Tunisia and the importance of helping Palestinian youth achieve a better future.
She closed on a somber note, however, pointing to the dangers kids face in today’s world. She ticked off a diverse list of tragedies, beginning with the bus crash in the Swiss Alps a week earlier that killed 22 vacationing Belgian middle-schoolers, including the child of a friend of hers. Next she recalled the murders of youngsters in a French-Jewish day school in Toulouse earlier that day and in a Norwegian socialist summer camp a year ago. Then she spoke of “what is happening in Syria.” Next, “what has happened in Gaza and Sderot. In different parts of the world, we remember young people and children who lose their lives.” And yet here in this room, she continued, “are young people who are asking not to be leaders of the future, but to be taken seriously as leaders of today. And it is to them we should look and to them we should listen and to them that I pay tribute.”
That’s right: Toulouse and Norway, where children were murdered because of who they were. Gaza and Sderot, where children die in grown-ups’ wars. A bus crash in Switzerland that killed kids returning from a ski vacation. The only common denominator is that children died. It’s a scary world for a kid. Let’s salute the young folks who still want to stand up and do their best.
If you watch her speech (I’ve posted it on the Forward Thinking blog), hear her tone and listen to the impassioned Arabic speeches that followed hers in rapid succession, you realize that she wasn’t trying to stir sympathy for Gaza children by comparing them to the murdered kids in Toulouse. This crowd was already sympathetic to children in Gaza. No, she was asking for empathy from her Palestinian listeners for the children of Toulouse and Sderot. She was asking her audience, Palestinian youngsters, to see themselves and their problems in the context of a larger world where children much like them are suffering in Belgium and Norway and, yes, Toulouse and Sderot. The kids she was addressing are taught that Palestinians suffer uniquely because Israelis are uniquely cruel. She was offering them a different way of looking at it.
How did that get turned into a false equivalence between Toulouse and Gaza? Well, to be fair to Ashton’s critics, the advance text of her speech that was handed out to the press and posted online by the European Union didn’t mention Sderot. That appears to have been her own ad-lib.
Now, she didn’t need to add Sderot. She could have made her point by listing Switzerland, Norway, Toulouse and Gaza and stopping there. Bringing up Sderot wasn’t going to win her any friends in that crowd. She mentioned it because she wanted to.
Of course, there was no way to know that if you simply relied on the published text. True, it did have the standard caution on Page 1, “Check Against Delivery.” Responsible reporters know the difference between an advance text and an actual speech. But this looked like a case of anti-Semitism. Who needs to be responsible when you’re yelling about anti-Semitism?
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).