Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Jewish Terrorist Attack in Galilee... and Bad Excuses for Terrorism

(Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog)

by Jeff Weintraub


(This is a slightly revised version of an open message originally sent to Juan Cole on August 8, in response to a post on his 'Informed Comment' weblog. It may be worth sharing here because some of the remarks to which I took exception exemplify very widespread but also fallacious bits of conventional wisdom about the alleged root causes of terrorism in general and of terrorism against Israeli civilians in particular. As I put it to Cole: 'I am sure you didn't intend this argument... to be read as a simplistic "explanation" and apologia for the long-term strategy of indiscriminate terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, which I know you do not endorse. But I'm afraid that it comes across this way. So you may want to refine or reconsider this "analysis".' I suspect that, on reflection, Juan Cole knows better - especially since he must realize that the historical and socio-political analogies he invoked happen to be totally incorrect. But many people who repeat similar arguments do not.)

An open message to Juan Cole

I wanted to share some quick thoughts regarding your August 5 item about the terrorist murder of 4 Israeli Arabs by a Jewish IDF deserter who wanted to derail the Gaza withdrawal, an attack that Ariel Sharon (with whom I rarely agree) correctly described as 'a sinful act by a bloodthirsty terrorist' (or, in another translation, 'a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens').

A soldier in the Israeli military who deserted over the Gaza withdrawal went up to a Palestinian-Israeli village in Galilee and shot up a bus full of innocent civilians. He killed four and wounded at least 12.
This was a horrible and indefensible act in itself, and the political goals that appear to have motivated it were potentially very destructive. So the one positive element (so far) is that this terrorist attack has been unequivocally condemned by all significant tendencies across the Israeli political spectrum.
The form of this attack was very similar to shootings undertaken by terrorists in Iraq who are deliberately attempting to provoke communal warfare in order to attain their ends. The similarity was not lost on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said, "This was a reprehensible act by a bloodthirsty Jewish terrorist who sought to attack innocent Israeli citizens... This terrorist event was a deliberate attempt to harm the fabric of relations among all Israeli citizens."
Right. More generally, this incident brings home the extent to which the ultimate 'targets' or objectives of terrorist attacks and similar outrages are often indirect. For example, al-Qaeda's terrorist campaign against western societies is intended above all to influence internal struggles within the Islamic world, not least by undermining and isolating political regimes in Arab countries (which were mostly able to crush direct attacks by Islamist radicals during the 1990s). In inter-ethnic conflicts, one major strategic goal of the massacre of civilians in other ethnic groups is to radicalize and manipulate one's own ethnic group by, in effect, 'terrorizing' it through fear of reprisals. And so on.

This particular terrorist attack was a classic example of such an indirect strategy (one which has probably failed in its aims, at least in the short run, and in fact seems to have provoked some backlash against the settler movement).

Note also that this act of terrorism was impelled by the Israeli government merely moving a few thousand citizens out of non-Isreali territory back into Israel proper. Imagine if a foreign power forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Israelis into refugee camps. Wouldn't that provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced? (Voila, you have the Palestinian radical groups).
I hope you didn't intend this argument to be taken seriously. I assume it was dashed off in haste, but it should be reconsidered (and repented) at leisure.

As you know, three decades ago the Turkish army expelled hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots from the northern part of the island, committing a fair number of rapes and murders in the process. Greek Cypriots certainly have a history that includes the use of political terrorism, but I don't recall any reports over the past decades of Greek Cypriot terrorist groups indiscriminately murdering Turkish civilians. (Did I miss something?)

For that matter, as you also know quite well and have pointed out in the past, in the wake of the 1948 war hundreds of thousands of Jews fled or were expelled from countries in the Middle East and North Africa (many of them from communities whose presence in these areas went back centuries before the coming of Islam). Most of these refugees wound up in Israel, where they and their descendants formed a majority of Israeli Jews until the arrival of the Russian immigrants in the 1990s. So there's nothing hypothetical about the scenario of hundreds of thousands of Israelis being forcibly displaced into refugee camps. It happened. Similarly, in 1922-1923 about a million and a half Greeks fled or were expelled from Anatolia (with several hundred thousand Turks and other Muslims 'exchanged' in the opposite direction). Most of these people lived in refugee camps for a while, in both Israel and Greece, but I am not aware that they generated terrorist groups with a policy of systematically murdering Arab or Turkish civilians. Nor am I aware of any period in the history of Israel during which people who indiscriminately murdered Arab civilians, and boasted about it, were glorified as heroes (except perhaps by a small lunatic fringe). After World War II, some 12-15 million ethnic Germans were expelled from various eastern European countries. Did these expulsions 'provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced'? Not that I can recall. It would be easy to generate a lot of other relevant historical examples from the rather brutal political history of the 20th century, but these should suffice.

So the answer to your rhetorical question, based on historical experience, is clearly negative. That's especially true since what you're talking about here, it is worth reminding ourselves, is not just 'terrorism' in a generic sense (including, for example, the assassination of rulers, officials, or other powerful individuals), but the indiscriminate murder of ordinary civilians pursued as a systematic political strategy. No, it is not inevitable, or even common, for large-scale transfers or expulsions of populations (which, unfortunately, have been all too frequent during the past century) to 'provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced'.

I am sure you didn't intend this argument (with its closing 'Voila') to be read as a simplistic 'explanation' and apologia for the long-term strategy of indiscriminate terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, which I know you do not endorse. But I'm afraid that it comes across this way. So you may want to refine or reconsider this 'analysis'.

Of course, one crucial difference is that these Jewish, German, Greek, Turkish, and other refugees I mentioned and their descendants are no longer living in refugee camps as stateless persons. The fact that this is not true for many Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants is primarily the result of a deliberate strategy by almost all Arab states - with the strong support of Arab public opinion - to freeze Palestinians in the condition of stateless refugees in order to prevent any possible 'normalization' of Israel based on an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. In many ways, this strategy is analogous in its logic to the large-scale settlement programme in the occupied Palestinian territories carried out by successive Israeli governments after 1977, which was intended to render any negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. In both cases, alas, these poisonous strategies have been all too effective.

All religions can be a platform for fanaticism, but then so too can secular ideologies like nationalism and Communism.
Absolutely right.
Human beings are human beings, and don't differ that much from culture to culture. Everyone wants similar things, but they define intangibles like honor differently, and prescribe different paths to attaining them.
I think I see what you're trying to say in this passage - namely, that there is nothing uniquely or necessarily evil about religiously-based ideologies in general, or about Islam in particular. But as it's currently formulated, if you will pardon my saying so, the argument here strikes me as unconvincing and/or self-contradictory. You can't possibly be suggesting that culture (or religion) has no significant effect on people's lives, actions, and ways of seeing the world, since you obviously know otherwise. But if you're not claiming that, then in what sense is it plausible or illuminating to suggest that human beings 'don't differ that much from culture to culture', and how does the reminder that 'human beings are human beings' (which is certainly true) help us understand the implications and effects of different ideologies?

It seems to me more useful to approach the whole matter from another direction. This particular Jewish terrorist may have acted as a lone nut. But a number of Israeli Arabs have argued, with some justice, that his attack was in part the result of a wider atmosphere of hatred, demonization, and 'incitement' against them in some sectors of Israeli society and politics. The same holds, on a much larger and more virulent scale, for a half-century of increasingly pervasive demonization of Israel and Israelis - not just in Arab societies, but in the larger Muslim world and elsewhere - which has served to promote, justify, or excuse the systematic terrorist murder of Israeli civilians. (One result is that even many people who claim to condemn all terrorist attacks on 'innocent civilians' somehow make an exception, explicitly or implicitly, for attacks against Israeli civilians.) Both of these cultures of demonization need to be honestly confronted and condemned, not excused, justified, or explained away.
(Jeff Weintraub)

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