Fear Trumps Morality

Hasbara (Israel education.) San Francisco, January 2009.

Fear truly is the mind-killer. It has a way, when intentionally stoked and directed at some enemy, of killing a lot of people as well. In Israel, the bombardment and invasion of Gaza over the summer demonstrates what can happen when a populace is fed a consistent diet of fear, no matter how safe the society is and how meager the threat to them is. A similar dynamic could be taking hold in the United States, as the specter of the Islamic State becoming strong enough to threaten the US is being pushed harder and harder all the time, despite how unrealistic it is.

One of the more powerful lies that feeds public panic about IS is that the global Muslim community is silent about them, whether out of fear, or sympathy. With a billion Muslims worldwide, this combines with widespread Islamophobia to raise the specter of a fierce and huge Muslim army to install a global caliphate, complete with beheadings of enemies and infidels, and the subjugation of all to a reactionary form of Islam. Of course, it’s a phony image, and few subscribe to such an extreme illusion, for now. But the accusation of silence from the Muslim world about IS sticks, despite a tidal wave of Muslim condemnation of the group, and that feeds an ominous fire.

The power of the accusation isn’t only in the specter it raises. It also lies in its demonization of all Muslims, who are framed as being the “good people” who “remain silent” in the face of atrocity. We, the very good and righteous Christians and Jews of the monotheistic world routinely call out the “evil” in our midst. Or do we?

This summer, as Israel rained unprecedented destruction down on the Gaza Strip, the level of hatred directed at Palestinians in Israel and the West was equally unprecedented. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convinced many people that Israel was the victim, and was merely responding to Hamas aggression when in fact he had manipulated the inexcusable murder of three young Israelis to launch a campaign against Hamas that swept up hundreds of innocent Palestinians; caused a number of casualties; set off a wave of anti-Arab racism in Israel; and culminated in what Israel called “Operation Solid Cliff” (it was translated as Protective Edge for public relations purposes in the West).

One can understand the Jewish community, and much of the far larger community of conservative Christians in the United States standing behind a claim of Israeli self-defense in Gaza. Hamas is widely reviled for the explicit anti-Semitism in its charter and for its Islamic fundamentalism. Israel is the world’s lone Jewish state. Despite its military prowess, there is a desperation to its self-portraits as a David standing against an Arab Goliath, when it is actually the giant, subjecting slingshot-bearing youth to occupation, dispossession, and, military violence.

Anti-racism demonstration. Tel Aviv, May 2012.
Anti-racism demonstration. Tel Aviv, May 2012.

But what happened this summer went well beyond anything we have seen previously. There are always hateful and angry statements during violent conflicts, but in the past, Israel has always made sure to keep the worst of it  quiet. This time, though, the tide of racism was so strong, and came from so many directions, in and outside of government, there was no hushing it up. Here are just a few examples:

  • Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has frequently labelled supporters of boycotts against Israel as anti-Semites, called on Israeli Jews to boycott any business owned by Israel’s Arab citizens if those businesses closed for brief periods in protest of the assault on Gaza.
  • The Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, called for concentration camps for the people of Gaza, and for the extermination of any Gazan who even supported Hamas or other militant groups.
  • Israelis sat on hilltops and cheered as bombs rained down on Gaza. Lest you think this is understandable in light of war, they also threatened reporters with violence if they reported on it. You don’t do that if you feel your actions are acceptable.
  • Right-wing Israelis ramed the streets of Israel’s cities in packs, assaulting Palestinians and Israeli “leftists.” In some instances, police tried to intervene, in some they stood by and did nothing, and occasionally even helped the right-wingers.
  • Amidst regular chants of “Death to Arabs” that could be heard all over Israel, one Knesset member, Ayelet Shaked, made statements which cannot mean anything other than a call for genocide. She said, “This is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. The reality is that this is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people.” And a week later, she added “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.”

Where was the outrage? Where were the condemnations, calls for resignation, clear statements about how un-Jewish such ideas and sentiments were? Where was a statement like this one, issued by the New York branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in response to anti-Semitic graffiti having been spray-painted on buildings and cars back in May of this year:

“The New York Muslim community stands in solidarity with the Jewish community in condemning this attack. We denounce all acts of anti-Semitism and hate when anyone is attacked based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, race, or sexual orientation.”

Where is the Jewish, Christian or American equivalent of such a statement regarding Israel’s behavior, which went far beyond offensive statements into calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing and, in practice, took the lives of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians? It was nowhere to be found.

Palestinian Israeli protest. Ramleh, December 2006.
Palestinian Israeli protest. Ramleh, December 2006.

This is not just a matter of principle, or accountability. The deafening silence with which this violence and blatant racism was met encourages its continuance. That is especially dangerous in an atmosphere where a barbaric, Khmer Rouge-style group like IS is being treated as a global threat, with doomsday rhetoric around it that is reminiscent of Cold War propaganda about the Soviet Union, a somewhat more significant military adversary.

A stunning example of how such bigotry flourishes when it is unchallenged was presented just outside of Atlanta, Georgia in a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) sermon. It was delivered by Rabbi Shlomo Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, and it was vitriolic and murderous. Lewis preached that the very existence of Western civilization was in dire peril, not just from Islamic State, but from Islam more broadly.

Lewis tries to come off as reasonable, but his speech reads like something David Duke might write about Jews. And, like Ayelet Shaked, it takes some serious linguistic gymnastics to see this as anything other than a call for genocide. Consider what Lewis says, as he starts with the tired lie (which he is surely aware is a lie) that Muslims have not condemned IS: “Where are the other 950 million Muslims…I want to believe they are out there for their sake and for ours….but where are they? A silent partnership is no partnership. Sin is not just in the act of commission – it is also in the act of omission. Most Germans were not Nazis – but it did not matter. Most Russians were not Stalinists – but it did not matter. Most Muslims are not terrorists – but it does not matter.”

All the world’s Muslims are to blame in the mad rhetoric of Shlomo Lewis. And what are we to do about this dire threat to the very existence of the world we know? Lewis has an answer to that: “We are in greater peril today than we were in World War II. We made no apologies then, and crushed the Nazis and the Japanese utterly. It was an unconditional surrender. A powerful American military is a critical part of the solution. We must advocate for a military second to none. We have seen what happens to the planet when we retreat. We must support politicians, regardless of party, who understand that we are at a tipping point in Western civilization…Know absolutely, that they are evil and wrong and that we are moral and right in this war.”

That’s nothing less than a call for annihilation. And how did Lewis’ congregation respond? With a standing ovation. Once his speech got out on the Internet, there were angry responses, but none from any source that Lewis cared about. According to the rabbi, all the critics are “the evil-doers in this world, the terrorists, the savages in this world.” Indeed, the Jewish response is mostly silence, and where it is not, any Jew with a conscience would wish it were.

The Jewish Daily Forward reports that “Michael Horowitz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, said the sermon did not seem to stir a debate in the community, which he described as having a “wide range of views and backgrounds.” Horowitz wouldn’t say anything about the sermon’s contents. One wonders what Horowitz would have had to say about a rabbi who called for an investigation into Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Jewish Defence League placard. Toronto, April 2011.
Jewish Defence League placard. Toronto, April 2011.

The concern seemed to be about the image Lewis was projecting. According to Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Maryland, “It’s a fine art of balancing between speaking your mind and making sure it doesn’t fall on deaf ears…He raises important questions, but there was a harshness to it that made it very discomforting.” That’s as close to criticism as the mainstream Jewish community got. The ray of hope may be that reader comments on The Forward article were overwhelmingly opposed to Lewis’ racism.

But in the end, who cares about a hate-mongering rabbi in Georgia? True, he doesn’t matter by himself. But the lack of response, the receptiveness of many, and the atmosphere of fear that is being generated by American leaders over IS is a recipe for some very frightening things, because the response it engenders tends to kill a lot of innocents for every target it hits. Over the summer, a disproportionate number of Israelis rejoiced in killing, and that joy included, for many, the deaths of civilians. The country became very dangerous for any Jewish citizen who expressed opposition to the war. The permissiveness about people like Lewis forebodes something similar.

On the one hand, President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed that IS does not represent Islam as a whole, and that Muslims cannot be held responsible for the actions of a comparatively microscopic minority in their midst. Yet at the same time, in order to justify the Washington’s reentry into the Middle East fray, Obama has also portrayed IS as a grave potential threat to the United States. We should recall the frequent Israeli claims of fighting “Hamas, not the Palestinian people,” despite their repeated targeting of Palestinian civilians and the fact that the United Nations conservatively estimates that two-thirds of those killed in Gaza were civilians.

Lewis is very much of Benjamin Netanyahu’s mind. In fact, he paraphrased Bibi when he said that “Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They are all the same. Hezbollah. Islamic Jihad. Al Shabab. Muslim Brotherhood. Boko Haram. Al Qaeda. Taliban. Iran.” That’s a lot, and his solution is to crush them as we did the Germans and Japanese. Let’s recall that the bombing of Dresden claimed the lives of some 25,000 people, just about all of them civilians. And of course, we crushed Japan by becoming the only country in history to use nuclear weapons, annihilating some 250,000 people, again almost all civilians.

As horrifying as those acts were, they were, at least, designed to end a war that had gone on for six years and had devastated most of Europe, much of Asia and some of Africa as well, and had claimed between 60 and 85 million lives. Lewis wants to see that same level of destruction, based on what he fears might happen sometime in the future. If Americans continue to be consumed by the irrational fear of an enemy that can’t mount a serious threat to the United States, the idea that Lewis might one day see his dream realized becomes more and more possible. Because without a strong response, there will be more and more Lewises; not just rabbis, but from all religions and walks of life.

One of the most obscene moments in Lewis’ sermon is when he recited the phrase that Edmund Burke coined: “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” A cliché it may be, but it is nonetheless correct. If good people do not challenge and overcome the racism of ideologues like Lewis, the future holds some pretty horrifying possibilities.


Photographs courtesy of D.C.Atty,  Sasha Kimel. Hanan Cohen and Daily Extra. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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