Selective Sympathy in Israel/Palestine

The mainstream U.S. media often reveals its bias by selecting some personal tragedies for saturation coverage while downplaying or ignoring similar horrors to “others,” such as the massive attention given to the search for three kidnapped Israeli teens, as Lawrence Davidson observes.

By Lawrence Davidson

The display of anxiety and aggressive agitation in Israel, triggered by the kidnapping of three young men from an illegal settlement on the West Bank, seems to be accompanied by a near total denial of any legitimate relationship between government actions (the occupation) and Palestinian reactions (the kidnapping).

No matter what the Israelis do to the Palestinians, the Israelis insist that those actions are justified, and no matter how the Palestinians react, the Israelis insist those actions are never justified. By objective standards this Israeli attitude borders on the pathological.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are multiple tragedies that result from this disconnect. The tragedy of the three Jewish kidnap victims is the one that is foremost in both Israeli consciousness and also in the Western media, accompanied by speculation that the young men were taken as hostages to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

As if to put out the message that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu will not play that game, the Israeli military is arresting hundreds of Palestinians, including some who had been released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The military is also destroying Palestinian property in a wholesale manner, wounding scores and even murdering a steady number of Palestinians in the search for the kidnap victims.

But all this mayhem, which only deepens Palestinian hatred, may be based on an Israeli false assumption. Quite likely this kidnapping was not carried out to set up some future exchange. Quite likely it was an opportunistic act of revenge, striking back against exactly the kind of repression that the Netanyahu government is again carrying out.

Many Zionists cannot fathom the fact that there are literally millions of Palestinians desiring vengeance for Israeli acts of abuse. That blindness is part of their denial that their own actions define much of the Palestinian reaction. This denial is reinforced by the gambit of labeling nearly all Palestinians as “terrorists.”

Another tragedy, which gets much less media attention, is the tragedy of the collectively kidnapped people of Palestine. That is the phrase used by Avraham Burg, a disillusioned Zionist who, apparently, is slowly but surely replacing his old ideology with contemporary disgust.

As Burg puts it, “All of Palestinian society is a kidnapped society … many of the Israelis who performed ‘significant service’ in the army … entered the home of a Palestinian family in the middle of the night by surprise, with violence, and simply took away the father, brother or uncle .… That is kidnapping and happens every day.”

No doubt some Israelis deeply resent the fact that much of the world has come to agree with Burg. More and more, those on the outside know that the Israelis have created the context for this latest kidnapping. These people across the globe no longer believe Zionist justifications for Israeli behavior. The result is that the Israelis are increasingly isolated in a misshapen world of their own.

For instance, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post dismisses the world’s principal human rights organizations as hypocrites because they did not express “immediate outrage, demand action, and even demonstrate at the United Nations demanding the immediate release” of the “three Israeli teens.”

Alas, the major human rights organizations, which have in fact expressed disapproval at the kidnapping, cannot do as the Jerusalem Post editorial wishes because they understand the degree to which Israeli policies have contributed to these tragedies. This fact makes very difficult, for many people, the otherwise natural sympathy that they feel for the personal plight of the three teens, the sentiment that the Israelis insist upon.

This may help explain the frustration of M.J. Rosenberg, a liberal American Zionist commentator who now takes to task American supporters of the Palestinian cause for what he calls their lack of humanity when it comes to the fate of the kidnapped Israelis. Rosenberg tries to lay out his objection in absolute moral terms:

“There is no justification for harming kids [the ages of the victims are 19, 16 and 16] no matter what the cause. Never. …. The test of your humanity is whether you condemn the harming of children without caveats and quasi-justifications. If not, just shut up.”

Idealism Destroyed by Reality

Perhaps Rosenberg’s rather harsh demand brings to the surface yet another tragedy inherent in the present situation – the tragedy of insisting on moral ideals which, while admirable, are just not realizable under the present circumstances.

To be succinct: There is the world as we say it should be (the ideal) and there is the world as it actually is (shaped in large part by state practice). The rule of law and most principles of morality seek to move the world in the direction of the ideal. However, if a state demands the sympathies of those who take seriously the ideal, it must at least demonstrate national behavior that does not purposely contradict the ideal.

Thus, in the hypothetical case of an Israel moving in the direction of an inclusive society based on genuine democratic behavior, we would condemn out of hand not only this kidnapping but all the prior instances where Israelis – men, women and children – had suffered and died due to communal violence. However, there is no such Israel. If anything, we have the real Israel moving away from genuine democratic practice and toward the status of an exclusive apartheid state.

But what about the children? After all, children “have no agency” and therefore should not be held responsible for the conditions created by their elders. But again, the Zionists cannot demand such an exception while agents of the Israeli state regularly arrest and incarcerate Palestinian children. This is a sad truth of the world as it actually is: double standards make ideals impossible.

This moral predicament may be tragic but it is quite consistent with how ordinary people act and react all of the time. People usually do not act with sympathy toward bullies, overtly egocentric individuals, or those who threaten their neighbors. By extension, whole groups of people who support such behavior, either because of a distorted perception of history, the improper teachings of religious ideology, or simply because they are conditioned to “follow orders” cannot be readily sympathized with either.

The Zionists can complain about the unfairness of this situation, but the only thing that will make a difference is a change in their own behavior.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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10 comments on “Selective Sympathy in Israel/Palestine

  1. Joe Tedesky on said:

    I have said for a long time how the Zionist would be wise to consider public opinion. My fear is that the average Jew will suffer, and as things usually go it will be the innocent ones who will bare the hardship the most. I know that if America were to be punished for what the Neocon’s have done I would only hope that it would not affect the average U.S. Citizen. Already we are seeing a worldwide backlash against Israel. Netanyahu would be wise to show the Palestinians some honest compassion, but then that doesn’t seem to fit the matrix…does it?

  2. W johns on said:

    The only way to stop this injustice in Palestine is for the one and only country in the world the USA to stop it,s support of Israel. If your presedent could show leadership and inform Isreal they must give the Palestinians there own state based on the Oslo pease agreement by a set date all aid and protection provided by the USA will stop and Isreal will be cut loose.

  3. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    Hate and fear are institutionalized by centuries of irrational belief in the authority of of the herd. We are herd animals who have evolved from small family and tribal groups that relied on success survival behavior for ethnic identity.
    That worked for millennia until technology put mass destruction in the hands of tool making primates.
    We are one species of life on a planet of limited resources who act as if each group has the right to decide the fate of the universe by simply believing that survival of the fittest means the survival of the last survivor.

  4. Martin Edwin Andersen on said:

    Please see “Common Lands, Common Ground” @ http://goo.gl/XZIKoa

    • The Jewish and democratic state of Israel is also one of the world’s first modern indigenous states; Palestinian demands center on their own tribal indigeneity. Both peoples require a set of specific rights based on their historical ties to a specific territory, and that their cultural/historical distinctiveness from other populations, including the politically dominant, is recognized.

    • To date, both Israeli and Palestinian publics have been left without real, practical building blocks leading to a shared understanding what the Arab-American Institute calls the “near-universally recognized need for a two-state solution” can offer.

    • Thomas L. Friedman, in his From Beirut to Jerusalem, (Revised Edition), provided the perhaps the best synopsis of the tribal imperative for the still-stateless people when he wrote of the continuing legacy of Yasser Arafat: “Long before Arafat came on the scene, there was a clearly defined Palestinian nation, but it was a nation to whom history had said no. … As Arafat himself liked to say, the Palestinians were being treated like “the American Red Indians,” confined on their reservations—shafted by the Arabs, defeated by the Jews and forgotten by the world. Arafat brought this people back from the dead … and transformed them in the eyes of the world from refugees in need of tents to a nation in need of sovereignty.”

    A comprehensive and realistic alternative to continuing an ever-more dangerous militaristic solution is needed. The Israeli bottom line is the protection of its homeland; that of the Palestinians, the right to a nation state that provides for freedom and justice on ancestral soil. In order for both to feel that a two-state solution is feasible each side needs to encounter a common platform of thought and belief that replaces “constructive ambiguity.”

    That program is one in which narratives of “The Other” are understood for what they are, and how they are essential to any possible civilized solution.

  5. Joseph Brant on said:

    The US media bias results from substantial Jewish control of the mass media. About 60% of US newspapers (for example) were controlled by persons of Jewish surname thirty years ago, and that was steadily increasing. A similar percentage of large circulation magazines were so controlled. They were abetted by opportunists seeking personal gains. There is no cause to suppose that TV and radio are different.: all coverage is black and white, the people are terrorized against criticism.

    Election campaigns have long been controlled by Jewish people as well. Those who will not investigate need only observe the constant promises of nearly all politicians to AIPAC, and their nearly universal failure to recognize or do anything for the Palestinians. And of course the mass media abet this.

  6. The Media bias in favor of Israel is not only restricted to companies owned by people with Jewish surnames. A simple look at today’s headlines at npr show the gross negligence on the part of almost all mainstream media.
    There is an article on npr today and the headline states that a “Palestinian [bold]man[/bold] was killed…”during Israel’s search for the suspects purportedly involved in the recent kidnapping case. Further reading in the article shows that this Palestinian “man” is only 16 years old?! That is the same age of two of the Israeli kidnap victims that the same article refers to as “teens” (and most media sources and govmt officials refer to the kidnap victims as “kids”).
    That sort of obvious media bias does nothing but proves the blatant slant in favor of Israel among the leading media companies throughout the world.

  7. Strangest on said:

    So it is all the fault of Israel for pushing the Palestinians into violence. There is no fault of the Arabs for their never accepting Israel I guess you never noticed that before 1967 there was no occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and what was the Arab excuse then? A biased article (“murdering” Palestinians in their search for the kidnapped boys). with comments that are pure racism. (The Jews control the media). I guess this site is blinded by its own agenda and attitudes.

    • John J on said:

      Strangest: When Zionism first raised it head, the few Jews already living in Israel didn’t want these European trouble makers coming. Jews had lived in peace and with political power with the Arab peoples.
      Palestinians were not consulted over Balfour, and the British soon learned that they couldn’t control Israeli terrorists who began targeting them with the aim of making Palestine a Jewish land. Excuse me but don’t make me laugh if you don’t think displacing 750,000 people from their homes, property, family and friends doesn’t make a fair proportion militant. Jews had passed laws not to hire Palestinians on properties bought from absentee landlords, lands upon which many Palestinians lived and worked.
      The creation of Israel was never actually decided in 1948 as it had only passed through the General Assembly , not the Security Council, something Israel the US and a few other are demanding must be done for a Palestinian state recognition.
      The ’67 war was begun by Israel with unilateral diversion of international waters of the Jordan river. Egypt was in poor shape having just lost a war to its south and in a round of short sightedness, closed the Straits of Hermoz hoping the Americans would intervene and stop the slide into war. You can read documented statements in several books and papers where top Israeli military and politicians state they knew Egypt didn’t want war but Israel took it to them. Why, to fulfill the idea of Zionism and a Greater Israel. Ben-Gurion had told fellow Zionists in 47-48 not to be greedy and accept partition and gain the rest later. This was also a reason for the 1982 exercise in southern Lebanon, to grab what was considered Greater Israel, land between Israel and the Litani river. They also wanted to destroy the best chance for peace with Palestinians by killing Arafat or removing him from the region. From that stupid action they created Hezbolah, a nationalistc Lebanese group to support Shia Muslims who whilst in majority had not been given any political power by the West by design. Well Israel eventually got chucked out.
      As for the press, there are many political commentators who have quietly admitted fear of losing their jobs for being critical of Israel. Where I live several TV and newspaper consortiums refuse to criticize Israel. The owners have openly stated it. The brave commentators try to make a living writing books and selling articles to more open press outlets.
      If you deny the transfer of 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland, their exile in refugee camps today (some have escaped and do well working around the world), the loss of right of return or compensation in exchange, your universities are closed, your crops rot at border crossings, your off shore gas and water is exploited by an occupier, your children on their way to school are heckled by occupiers, your churches are painted with “Mary the whore”, your Mosques are likewise defaced and cars burnt, farmers in remote areas are shaken by nighttime visitations from occupiers, farmers are shot at trying to pick their crops, their olive trees are burnt and on and on. I think any society exposed to that kind of behaviour would be prone to have some very radicalized members.
      As I’ve said before, you reap what you sew, and Israel has no idea what seeds it is sewing.
      Most Palestinians want peace and equity and have lived in peace before Zionism came along and exploited the Jewish / fundamentalist Christian concept that Jews must return to the Holy land for end times, yet ignoring the part where they have to convert to Christianity to be saved. Each uses the other for their own ends and Palestinian Christians and Muslims suffer for it. The true meaning of religious belief is lost along with any semblance of humanity.

      • Strangest on said:

        John J. Well stated and not the usual ignorant Zionist murderer apartheid rant. Good for you. I do think you overstate Jewish control of the press and politics but that is your view. As to your points. In 1967. The Arabs massed their armies on the borders and stated the intent to destroy Israel so Israel did throw the first punch. They believed they were fighting for their very survival. I think they were correct as I saw the Arab propaganda that led to that conclusion. As for the security council approval, it is not relevant to the fact of the existence of modern Israel. It is as legitimate as any country in the region. There was nowhere else for Jews to go at that time. They were denied entry everywhere else and could not go back to their German or other European neighbours who had just wiped out the majority of them. The 750,000 you quote were not all forced out. There is much evidence of that including the fact that 160,000 stayed and became Israeli citizens. In addition an equal number of Jews were also forced or fled from the Arab countries. The same happened on a much larger scale at the same time between India/Pakistan and there is no call anywhere in the world for them to be repatriated. The difference being the Palestinians have been used by the Arab world as a stick to beat Israel when they should have been made citizens of the Arab countries where they fled. Why was there no cry from the Palestinians for their own country between 1948 and 1967 when they were citizens of Egypt and Jordan? As for being militant, I think the Israelis could say that the 1948 war to eradicate them could have made them militant, but it did not. That came later after militants blew up everything and everyone they could during the intifadas. To this day over half of all Palestinians say they intend to claim it all. There were Jews there long before the Arabs came along so their claim is as valid as the Palestinians. As to your assertion that Zionists want a greater Israel, that flies in the face of the fact that they have given back Sinai twice (a territory of great size) and pulled completely out of Gaza. The Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates thing is unrealistic nonsense. This was a chance for peace that was destroyed by rockets. Are they too brutal sometimes? Maybe, but i can’t imagine the brutality that their enemy would unleash if it could. This is evidenced by the hatreds and brutality that is playing out in the Arab world as we speak. I too want peace. I just don’t think Israel can walk out of the West Bank and let it turn into another Gaza. Not until the Palestinians are ready for peace. I’m not saying all Israelis are ready for it but they are closer to it than Hamas. As to quotes by Israeli politicians, there are just as many from the Arab side to counter this. Including the then head of the Arab league who clearly stated the Palestinians were told to flee by their own Arab governments. I’m sure we can go around this all day but I still believe this is a biased article and certainly the comments are.