In recent weeks, Arabs armed with knives and hatchets have struck at dozens of Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Afula, Beersheba, and elsewhere. Victims include children, women, and elderly men.
Imagine how the American public would react to a political group that incited supporters to knife people on the streets of New York, Cleveland, Denver, and Seattle. Fear, indignation, and anger would translate into furious insistence that the government put an end to the evil. No political grievance would be accepted as an excuse for the savagery.
Yet in this case, murders spawned by false, fanatical accusations from Palestinian religious and political leaders spawn still more foul words of a different kind: equivocation by U.S. officials who, having completely lost their bearings, sound like apologists for the murderers.
Obama-administration officials urged both sides to exercise restraint. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power invoked the “cycle of violence.” Using the passive voice to cloud the picture, she said that “mistrust has been exacerbated by viral images and videos shared on social media, which further polarize narratives and foster suspicion, and even hatred on both sides.” Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the murders with a hey-that’s-just-politics tone. Saying (inaccurately) that there’s been a recent “massive increase in settlements,” he then commented understandingly, “Now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.”
If Americans were being systematically knifed on the streets, no American official would be so morally blind as to excuse the attacks as an expression of political frustration. Not a chance.
President Barack Obama took a similarly cool and neutral line. He called on both Palestinian and Israeli leaders “to try to tamp down rhetoric that may feed violence or anger, or misunderstanding.”
Commenting on mindless evenhandedness, Winston Churchill once said he couldn’t be “impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire.” But the Obama administration’s failure here is worse than evenhandedness. It’s the insistence that normal standards of behavior — ordinary ideas of right and wrong — don’t apply to Palestinians attacking Israelis. Whether intended or not, this promotes a bigoted acceptance of anti-Jewish brutality, acceptance that is not extended when violence is inflicted on other people going about their daily lives.
The current rash of Palestinian stabbings exposes the ideological nature of the Arab–Israeli conflict. The perpetrators are not an organized force; they are individuals inflamed through indoctrination. Bloodthirsty anti-Israel preaching is a standard feature of Palestinian society, prominent in its textbooks, newspapers, TV shows, and political speeches. The knifings reflect its potency. They are ideology in action.
Palestinians grow up hearing from teachers, preachers, and officials that they should aspire to do away with Israel as a colonial outpost of people entitled to no respect as a nation and none even as human beings. Jewish nationalism is commonly described as inherently fascist and racist, and Jews are routinely denigrated in Koranic language as the “sons of apes and pigs.”
Dehumanizing enemies is a sin of many societies, including Israel, but in Israel it shows up chiefly on the fringe and embarrasses mainstream leaders. In those areas of the West Bank and Gaza controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, such extremism is mainstream, virtually universal, and promoted continually by the chief organs of authority.
For decades, U.S. officials have turned a blind eye to the ideology fueling the Palestinian war against Israel. U.S. officials have preferred to define the conflict in practical terms, as a dispute about a set of so-called “final status” issues. That way, resolving the problem through peace talks appears realistic.
But the conflict is what it is. Little wonder that U.S. diplomacy keeps failing. The Arabs now answering the call to kill Jews on public buses and streets are a rebuke to this self-delusion. They aren’t stabbing women and children in order to promote mutual accommodation on matters such as borders, security, settlements, and water use.
Israeli officials have sometimes matched American wrongheadedness on this point. During the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, officials debated whether they should care that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat persisted in speaking of Israel with hostility. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres belittled the criticism of Arafat, saying that what mattered were actions, not words. Defenders of the Oslo accords embraced the paradox that Palestinian leaders had to speak harshly against Israel to preserve their political credibility, which they could then use to make peace.
When critics of the accords observed that Palestinian Authority schools taught children to hate and kill Jews, Israeli prime minister Yizhak Rabin answered dismissively: What do you expect, we’re not making peace with friends, but with enemies. But Rabin’s remark was too clever by half. By instructing students along those lines, Palestinian leaders were showing that they intended the two sides to remain enemies.
Oslo’s failure and the current knifings teach similar lessons: The conflict is not about Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlements, or other issues subject to compromise. It’s about Arabs’ resentment, hatred, deep-seated convictions about injustice, and commitment to remedy the supposed injustice by eliminating the Jews and their state. In other words, it’s about ideas. So words matter a lot.