How should the left respond to the Itamar murders?

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Dimi Reider’s piece faulting the left for not condeming the murder of 5 settlers continues to generate responses. An earlier version of the following post originally appeared on Max Ajl’s blog Jewbonics:

Something I frequently reflect on from my time living in Gaza are a couple conversations I had with left-wing friends. When discussing armed resistance, they’d say that they abhorred any attacks on civilians, even though Israel freely massacres Palestinian civilians. What they were saying was that they had no desire to sink to the abyss in which their oppressors resided. There is something about those remarks that moves me and humbles me: their piquancy, perhaps, their nobility, a feeling that manifested in a different way when I read about children in Nil’in studying the shoah. 

Those recollections came to my mind as I read Dimi Reider’s short polemic, “The entire activist Left must condemn the murder of the settler family.” He recounts a recent incident in which a “Palestinian” “militant” killed most of a family of settlers: an 11-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl, a three-month-old girl, and their parents. The first two paragraphs of his account are a nearly pornographically visceral account of those deaths, oddly descriptive, graphically precise. What those paragraphs order us to do is feel the raw immediacy of pain and horror. What they aim to elicit is mechanic response: condemn the animals that killed those five people. No one should support the murder of children. But by what right does Reider tell us we must condemn? To what end?  

Let’s look at his arguments. 

First, he assumes that the killers were Palestinian. Not so fast. For one, Palestinian factions have rejected responsibility. Rumors are circulating about a Thai suspect – rumors that led the Israeli government to reportedly round up hundreds of Asian guest-workers, another ugly bit of racism swirling around this mess. But frankly, we have no idea who carried out the killing, and to simply assume that the killers were Palestinian is unacceptable. So while noting the presumptuous racism of Reider’s account, let’s consider the hypothesis. What follows? 

Well, Reider informs us that “our community has yielded to one of the most common afflictions of a conflict area, and dehumanized an entire community, consciously or subconsciously rendering it second-class, semi-legitimate target for brutal violence,” and goes on to refer to the killing of four settlers near occupied Hebron several months ago and the radical left’s “silence” as “even more deafening than today.” He notes that “two of them were spouses who left nine orphans behind.” Don’t soldiers, “legitimate” targets, leave orphans behind when they die? Is a crime worsened because its victim has children? Is murdering the sterile more appropriate? This is a reductio ad absurdum, but I carry it out for a reason: Reider orders that we react and not reflect.  

Can we do better than that? Perhaps. Let’s put things in their historical and political context, and ask some questions. Are there any differences between the 300 children massacred during Cast Lead and the three children killed in Itamar? Well, Reider casually refers to the illegality of the settlements, and then dismisses those who cite that illegality to defend the killings, which he considers illegal. Are things so simple? No.

First, Itamar is an illegal settlement. Most of the people living there are from the Gush Emunim bloc. Five years ago the settlers of Itamar had already stolen 6,000 dunum of Palestinian land. Two and a half years ago, settlers from Itamar apparently shot Yahya Atta Riahin, an 18-year-old Palestinian, at least 20 times from close range. No one knows exactly who did it, because no one investigated the case. The elected head of the Itamar town council once said at a funeral: “These Palestinians do not deserve any human rights. We cannot talk of human rights for people who are not human.”

Second, customary international law allowed for “belligerent reprisals”: when your enemy is targeting your population, you are permitted to target theirs. This is coldly utilitarian, and many states reject that doctrine explicitly, as do the Geneva Conventions. However, in this case, the issue of protected persons is a gray area, immensely blurred because the adult victims were illegal and armed settlers, effectively engaged in armed conflict. For Reider to frame the legal issue so simply is convenient – law isn’t something you can wave around willy-nilly because you think it strengthens your case. If he wants to raise international law he cannot do so selectively. Furthermore, some reports are circulating that we are talking about just two people, and many, including Reider, are using the rhetoric of “war crimes,” thus politicizing the killings. The corollary is that the settlements are by their very existence engaged in hostilities – which they are. The illegal occupation englobes these killings, and to forget that is to mangle history.

Third, the Israeli military leadership obeys even less stringent standards vis-à-vis its own armed operations. On July 22 2002, it assassinated Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh in Gaza along with eight children and five other adults, breaking a ceasefire and leading to the resumption of murderous violence. The IDF whitewash – I mean, report – stated, “Despite the outcome which resulted in this instance, the means of targeted killing was and continues to be a lawful tool in the war against deadly terrorism, provided that the operation is carried out in accordance with the principles and rules set out by Israeli and international law.” That is, in juxtaposition to the Bil’in statement on the killing of civilians, the Israeli army actually says slaughtering civilians is perfectly fine.

Fourth, settlers carry out pogroms. Regularly. They are doing so I as I write these words, throwing stones at Palestinians in Awarta, a nearby village, where reportedly hundreds of Palestinians have been detained and the villagers are under curfew. There have been reports of beatings. Furthermore, between 1998 and 2002, there were three other murders quite close to Itamar: in October 1998, Ahmad Suleiman Hatataba, 68, from Bet Furiqin was killed; in October 2000, Farid Nasasra, 29, also from Bet Furiq was killed; in October 2002, Hani Bani Manya, 22, from ‘Aqqraba was killed. B’Tselem notes, “In the first case, the person responsible was convicted of murder, but in the other two, the perpetrators have not been apprehended or prosecuted.” They harass Palestinian peasant olive harvesters, shooting them freely. In the West Bank and Gaza, non-violent activists are murdered regularly – 21 since 2005, 10 of them minors. How many pogroms must pogromists carry out before we hesitate before condemning their murders?

Reider is so busy accusing the radical left of moral corruption that he either omitted these facts or simply dismissed their relevance.  

Reider goes on to write that “On the larger scale, the settlers are not only beneficiaries, but instruments and, crucially, human shields of a cynical state policy running through all the governments, left, right and “center.”… there is just no reasonable way to keep the onus of the blame upon the parents.” Blame for barbarity is forever displaced onto structures, state institutions. It’s always someone else’s fault. 

Does Reider mean to say that the settlers are not illegally occupying land and thus carrying out a war crime, violating the Geneva Conventions? I hate to be the one to break it to him, but Zionism is consensual and hegemonic. At some point in history, blame for complicity in occupation and dispossession must be shared. Incidentally, in general I do not blame the settlers first, despite the brazenness of their racism, the shamelessness of their criminality. I blame the Ashkenazi soft left which wrings its hands in anguish and then treats David Grossman like a patron saint because he occasionally notices after the Israeli army has killed a few thousand Arabs that perhaps some of the dead were innocents. I doubly blame the Ashkenazi soft left which forgets how much blood its privilege is built on – including the privilege to feel superior to a killer of children (Zionists never, of course, kill children). And I triply blame the war-merchants in Israel and America making money off these deaths and the destruction of Palestinian society. But at some point, a society must take responsibility for the crimes of its state. In the case of Israel, with a huge percentage of the population in the army or the reserves, the distinction between society and state is simply evasive. No one is saying the killer of the children is not at fault for killing the children. But to say the parents and the society have no blame is unacceptable. Israeli society accepts the settlers, and the settlers choose to put their children in harm’s way. 

Reider’s next paragraph is more trouble: he writes, “To those of us saying that no Israeli has the right to criticize any political violence by Palestinians, no matter how abhorrent,” He demurs: “the inability to formulate your own opinion or criticize the party you generally support wins you no respect on either side of the conflict.” If he thinks criticism from the Israeli “radical” left will win it social support for de-Zionizing cis-Jordan, he is not thinking straight. It is one thing to hope that cracks in Zionism will eventually emerge amidst external pressure. But does he really think that the racists and war-criminals of Israeli society must be coddled and argued with until they are won over to anti-Zionism? A sick society does not heal so quickly. 

Reider writes, ripping into the radical left, “you imply by your silence that the brutal murder of a family of five is just as legitimate as engaging in combat with occupation troops or holding mass protests of civil disobedience in Bilin, Nialin and Nebi Salach.” It is stunning how silence speaks in such a way that lets Reider elevate himself over his comrades. Or demonize them as people who countenance the killing of children. 

Finally, Reider administers the last blow: “But killing innocent members of a civilian community in order to get the rest of the community to leave has one name and one name only in international law – ethnic cleansing. In fact, this is exactly the method used, to everlasting shame, by Israel to ethnically cleanse many of the Palestinian communities in the Nakba of 1948.” 

Killing a family of settlers is the same as al-Nakba, the great trauma of Palestinian history. I am not sure how to register the racist insult of this comparison, the casual contempt for Palestinians latent in equating their mass ethnic cleansing with the killing of a family of illegal settlers. Whatever one thinks about where on the moral spectrum to place the killing of the innocent baby, the toddler, the 11-year-old – and to be honest, I have yet to see anyone defend killing children; rather, the issue is where responsibility lies – anyone in their right mind can agree that this is not at the moral level of the Nakba, and to raise that analogy is disgusting. 

Reider continues: “We must find a way of loudly and unreservedly condemning atrocities committed in the names of causes we believe in.” 

Why? The default assumption must be our communal humanity. If you know nothing about someone, you have to assume that they are a good human being. Reider’s call for the “activist left” to condemn is the cant of the inquisitor. 

It’s good company. 

Hillary Clinton, an inhuman criminal, calls the actions an “inhuman crime,” presumably what she was advising Bill when he was presiding over the sanctions regime that killed 500,000 Iraqi children. Shimon Peres, who has done as much as anyone to make Jews ashamed of being Jewish, says that there is “no faith that permits such atrocities” – if only. The White House refers to this “heinous crime,” silent as a week ago its armed forces incinerated nine Afghani children. When such scoundrels speak, all you can hear is silence. 

But both words and silences speak, and as Reider knows, sometimes silences speak louder than words. Sometimes silence means confusion, sometimes shame, sometimes thought, reflection. Is it not the job of the left to reflect and remember? 

Due to the willful historical amnesia that we politely call liberalism, we forget that we paid for the weapons that tortured the society that produced the men that killed the children. We forget that we voted for the politicians that gave the diplomatic support to the country that occupied the land of the men that killed the children. We forget that we cleansed the villages that pushed the people into cities where they stewed in anger and from whence two of them came to kill the children. And we forget that we dispossessed the land and built a society on the suffering of the people two among whom – purportedly – committed the killings that we now condemn.

Look at how much we forget in order to condemn. Something else that we forget is that, being the historical beneficiaries of an unending chain of catastrophe, we now get to play angel: staff the ranks of B’Tselem and condemn “these horrific killings,” write for “progressive” magazines, ream out “our” comrades for not “condemning these killings,” and so on. It’s fun to forget these things. Maybe some of the more quiet sectors of the radical left are not so quick to forget and are choking on what would be hypocritical and vacuous condemnations. Sometimes choking is more graceful than speaking. What do the condemnations of the left add to a moral atmosphere already saturated with condemnations? What would such condemnations add to MK Orli Levy–Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu), comment that “These …who came to slaughter children in their sleep, have sealed their own fate. They are not worthy of a trial or of any other human process”? When a country’s politicians adopt the mentality of the lynch mob, is it really an act of solidarity for the left to add its voices to their frenzy? Meanwhile, while we condemn, Netanyahu prepares to commit more war crimes: expanded settlement construction, 500 units. More war crimes. Let’s condemn some more.

I remember Yitzhak Laor’s poem: “The moderates  who said let’s wait & see the party hack who fell over himself in praising the army… “They” shall not be cleansed.” Drenched in Arab blood, we piously insist on judging our victims. 

Some will say that all moral judgment entails hypocrisy. The solution is to start judging the conduct we can change: our own governments’. That means cutting off arms supplies. That means sanctions until the Israeli people stop destroying the Palestinian future. We know from history that if you occupy, torture, and humiliate a people, kill their children, destroy their homes, ravage their mosques, burn their olive trees, and degrade their hopes to dust, some of them will snap. You want my condemnation? You will not have it. No one should respond to such demagogic moral blackmail. We killed those children. There are those who will warp my words. Good luck. I do not want children to die, no child deserves to die or deserves such parents or deserves to be born into such a society or such a state. However, I don’t think judgment of the Palestinians is the best way to prevent such murders. I have a better idea: war crimes trials for those most responsible. They will be easy to find – they are all over the television, and we vote for them regularly. If we are interested in stopping the killing of Jewish children and Palestinian children alike, then let’s point our fingers at those responsible for creating the conditions that make those murders almost inevitable: the endless chain of military commanders-turned-bourgeois ahusalim sitting in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv clucking at the latest barbarity spawned by the barbarities they’d rather forget. We know names, we know who to blame: Netanyahu, Livni, Peres, Bush, Obama, Clinton. How convenient, for us to blame the victims. How pathetic and cowardly. How shameful.

About Max Ajl

Max Ajl is an activist with the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network and an editor at Jadaliyya and Viewpoint. Follow him on Twitter: @maxajl.

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