The horrifying murder of Dafna Meir, an Israeli who was stabbed to death on January 17 while fighting off a Palestinian assailant in her West Bank home, posed a moral and political test to both the right and the left in Israel. Judging from my social media feeds and email inbox, it was a test we all failed.
This is just the latest illustration of a sad fact: We all seem to be finding it increasingly hard to rise above our usual sectarian positions — even, or especially, when tragedy strikes.
Responses from the right were wretchedly familiar, somehow managing to combine the perpetual sense of victimization with a pretense to moral superiority and a measure of threat. “Are you satisfied now?” someone said to me in a twisted Facebook message, not only accusing me of not caring about Meir’s death, but blaming me for willing it.
“Are these the people you think you can make peace with?” asked another, as if the Palestinians were somehow people of a lesser God, forgetting that most Palestinians don’t commit vicious acts of terror and death.
Populist opportunist Eli Yishai, who was badly routed in the last elections, tried to make it back onto the political stage by posting on his own Facebook page that human rights groups B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence were responsible for the murder of Meir, “may God avenge her blood.”
Political leaders made their usual declarations. Incitement by the Palestinian Authority is the reason for the violence, warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that security forces would catch the terrorist who committed the dastardly act.
They have caught him — a 15-year-old from a nearby village, who, according to the security forces, was indeed prompted by incitement on social media.
Most likely, we’ll catch the next terrorist, too. And the one after that. But then what? Our right-wing government offers us no hope. All they have to offer is more fear and a promise to use more force. They have no vision for a better future, only the promise to respond to violence with violence, and the guarantee that we will eternally live by the sword.
Meanwhile, the left offered condolences and condemnations, but, in too many cases, they were qualified with “Yes, but…”
“Yes, Daphna Meir was the victim of a terrible crime, but…she chose to live in the occupied territories” — as if that choice turned her into a combatant instead of a civilian.
“Yes, the murder of a mother in front of her children is heinous, but…Palestinian children lose their mothers all the time” — as if grief and sorrow can only be felt on one side.
“Yes, terrorism against civilians is a crime, but…what can you expect from a people who have lived under occupation for nearly half a century?” — as if the occupation caused the teenager to pick up the knife.
Yet most Palestinians, including many who have suffered much more than this teenager apparently did, do not choose to murder.
This left-wing argument is tainted with what we might call the “racism of lowered expectations.” It suggests that individual Palestinians, by virtue of their collective identity, are not capable of better.
The arguments from both sides bear disturbing similarities. Both the right and the far-left deprive individuals of any sense of agency. They depict Palestinians as robots motored by incitement and settlers as people who blindly risk their lives in the service of ideology or, worse, as mere pawns of governmental policies. Both sides generalize about an entire community on the basis of one individual or a handful of individuals.
Both sides bandy about terms like “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” and each side applies the term only for its own use. Both sides have abdicated any pretense to a sense of absolute morality and, in this relativistic moral abyss, some mothers are more worthy of life than others, some children are purer victims than others, some civilians are entitled to safety and others aren’t.
These similarities point to one of the most pressing reasons that the occupation must come to an end — because it is eating away at us from within. It doesn’t matter if we prefer Jewish life over Palestinian life or vice versa. Once we begin to distinguish between the worth of individuals, we have started to slip down a very steep and very dangerous slope.
We are all, Palestinians and Israelis, responsible for creating a better future and a sustainable peace. I am not claiming that an end to the occupation will bring about a kumbaya-like peace, or that extremists will not continue to attack our civilians, or that anti-Semitism will disappear from international arenas. But as an Israeli and a Zionist, I can only take responsibility for my own side.
Of course, we have the right and obligation to defend ourselves and to challenge every attack on Israel’s legitimacy as the national home of the Jewish people. But we must also come to terms with disturbing truths, including the realization that there can be no benevolent occupation, and that there is no way to be a moral occupier.
Some would argue that the Israeli military behaves better than other armies do. Still, there is no way to be a moral army in an immoral situation. Handing power to uniformed men with guns will inevitably lead to abuse of that power and those guns.
Establishment of a Palestinian state is not a “prize” that we will “award” the Palestinians “if they behave.” Political self-determination is an inalienable right for individuals and groups. I claimed this right for myself and for my people — so there is no moral or pragmatic way to deny this right to others.
The occupation must end because regimes based on suppression and oppression cannot last forever. And it must end because it is in our own best interest, as a society, to bring it to an end, so that we will not be ripped apart by dehumanization, demonization and the racism of lowered expectations.
Until then, we need to remind ourselves that when someone — anyone — is killed, we can and should mourn that human being fully and publicly. No “but” about it.