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Tel Aviv Journal: The Atrocity in Itamar

Most of this country is still grieving for the five people in the Fogel family who were murdered late Friday night in the religious settlement of Itamar, near Shechem (or Nablus) where, more or less, Jewish history began. This last assertion is probably thought by many readers—and maybe by you—to be reprobate. Still, it is a fact, and the one basic truth that you should remember is that Itamar, like other Jewish communities built deep in the West Bank, was actually started when there were literally no Palestinians who even mumbled the word “peace” but were vaguely enlisted in the kind of war called “terror,” either committing it or cheering it. Yes, of course, there were Palestinians who wanted to make peace with Israel. But they were silent for the reason that most good people are silent when the society is run by a tyrant or, as happened during the early years, a tyrant and a mob.

In any case, Itamar, again like the other Jewish villages in the area, is not a building site. Its residents may be hoping against hope that when (or if) Israel and the Palestinian Authority reach an agreement Itamar will be allowed to remain. But the fact is that, given any kind of understanding between the parties and not necessarily a formal peace pact, there will be no new construction in this settlement ever again. After all, there is none now. The construction now being done in the territories is only in the larger towns cleaving to the 1949 armistice lines which no one—yes, no one—believes will ever be a part of Palestine. Not Abbas, not Fayyad, not Bibi or Ehud Barak, not even Barack Obama who probably still wishes it was otherwise.

So the atrocity committed against Ruth, the mother, aged 35, Udi, the father, aged 36, and two children, Elad, aged 3, and Yoav, aged 11, was simply an atrocity, and it was claimed by the Al Aqsa Brigade, an armed rump of Fatah run until his death by Yassir Arafat. Hadas Fogel, the last of the victims, was three months old when the brave Palestinian freedom fighter slit her throat. Two other children went unnoticed by the fanatic, and the oldest wasn’t home.

I am now taking sides in one of those perfectly asymmetrical disputes that always rages around Israel. Recall these scenarios: Hezbollah continually bombards the Galilee with rockets and missiles. Hamas does the same but over a much longer period. And the liberal world immediately demands to know why Israel uses disproportionate power in retaliation. As if a country dragged into war by its tormentors should limit its retaliatory power to that which will give it no military advantage. This is the one really new ethical problem of our time. It is an issue that two people very close to TNR—Michael Walzer and Moshe Halbertal—have elucidated more than any other contemporary thinkers.

Israel has not taken any punitive action. But what it has done is release photos of the dead just as they were found. Here they are:

And the faint-hearted are up in arms. If you read Ha’aretz, the newspaper which the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, thinks is the last honest daily in Israel, you will find that the release of the pictures is thought by many of its writers to be a more heinous crime than the murders themselves.

(I have a different view of Ha’aretz than Remnick. In fact, I think that many of its columnists are intellectual psychopaths. From this cohort you have to exclude Aluf Benn and Ari Shavit. But if you like grim fantasies all you have to do is read Amira Hass, Akiva Elder, or Gideon Levy, now doing honest reporting from Tokyo, or Amos Harel. If you want one reason for why the international press is so hostile to Israel, it is because the only paper foreign journalists read is Ha’aretz in English. It is an exemplar of Jewish self-hate, full of ridicule, righteousness, and loathing. Its circulation is going down, down, down. It would have already gone broke if it hadn’t invested in a spiffy new printing press on which it produces Israel Hayom, a free right-wing daily owned by Sheldon Adelson who, from the casino business, was said by Forbes this year to be worth $23.3 billion, which makes him the sixteenth richest man in the world.)

In these days of reality TV and other insidious intrusions into peoples’ lives—the watched and the watchers—I see no reason to censor intimate views of innocent victims of the death-hand of ideological murderers, or, for that matter, of any human beast of prey. The corpse is the imprint of the killer. This one wanted to end the life of one family in an especially macabre way, a gruesome way. Like the Jew-haters of the Nazi era succeeding in doing in the millions. (I remember arguments about whether we should let people see the mass deaths. Of course, we should, rather than leave it to description and statistics.) When the 9/11 eighteen struck, they wanted their victims to vanish as they planned for America itself. And vanish they did. No one published or otherwise showed a single body, skeleton, limb. It was all anonymous, so to speak, like the picture of the lonely silhouette flying through the skies at the World Trade Center: a great evocative image. Maybe it’s already in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the last sentence of his proclamation of complete disgust with the Jewish state, “A Man, A Plan,” one out of three articles he’s written recently on this subject, Remnick puts a particularly onerous burden on Israel and the world. They “owe justice—and a nation—to the Palestinians.” I am sorry to say this. But, alas, it is a stupid sentence. It is difficult to keep many nations together. And Israel did near-magic in reconstituting its nation from the ends of the earth, forgive the cliché. Yes, there are sundering forces in Jewish life and in Israeli life. But no one can say—I suppose some people actually do say—that the Jewish nation is nonexistent or that the nation of Israel is nonexistent.

It’s a sad fact to have admit, as Remnick does, that the Palestinians are not a nation. One of the great acts of Zionist statesmanship was when the Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the parsimonious cartography of their future state. Chaim Weizman, who later became the first president of Israel, said it with heavy heart: The Jews would take a state even if it were the size of a tablecloth. If the Palestinians were constituted as a real nation they would have long ago come to a similar conclusion and not go whining into the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth decade of Jewish state-building.

I want to say something about the politics of the settlers. Like every interest group and especially ideologically motivated interest groups, they want to create faits accomplis.And the settlers have. They are something of an impediment to Palestinian statehood. Nonetheless, since there is agreement in the wider Israel, a Palestinian state will at last be carved out of the old lines of Canaan. The settlers’ objections will simply be overlooked, and good money will be paid for their failed dream. 

But they are not an impediment to Palestinian nationhood. Palestinian nationhood is not a product built from outside. And it won’t be reinforced when and if the General Assembly will declare Palestine a state. This will be the third, fourth, fifth time that an Arab state has been declared in Palestine, the first time in 1947 when the G.A. sanctioned two states in the British Mandate: one, a Jewish state for which the Zionists has been preparing for a half-century; two, an Arab state (not by the way a Palestinian state) and nothing happened except that the surrounding states fought against Israel only on their own behalf. Where were the Palestinian nationalists? You ask me. I ask you.

Palestinian nationalism, such as it is, is a psychodrama. My God, there are probably a hundred states—most of them, by the way, also not nations—that recognize a country called Palestine. Maybe a half-dozen others will be added to the list. Mazel tov. Nothing will have changed.

Nevertheless, the settler issue nags at the Jewish nation. The settlers themselves are morally haughty, believing that they are what impedes Jewish alienation from God. There are many other religious Jews in Israel who do not care a fig about Zion. All that interests them is their relationship to the Lord Almighty. The Zionists run the police and the mail service, which is enough for them, although some still use United Nations stamps as a symbolic rejection of Jewish sovereignty.

I like neither of these groups. But, in the early arguments among Zionists, there was established the point of view that modern society must recognize the right to be different, a view furthered by Simon Rawidowicz, Mordechai Kaplan, Hans Kohn, and Horace Kallen, an early editor of TNR. (A new book, Zionism: The Roads Not Taken, by Noam Pianko, confronts just these matters.) The religious nationalists and the ultra-religious anti-nationalists now lay claim in Israel to that right; but, as sometimes with multiculturalism in Western societies, this right almost axiomatically intrudes and imposes on the majority. So the settlers are hijacking the politics of the state although they are a small minority in a parliamentary system that is dependent for a coalition majority on tiny groups of Knesset members willing to join up for exorbitant stakes.

A small Jewish minority will not and cannot rescue the Palestinians and their national dream. Nor are these troublesome Jews the great impediment to their arrival as a state, if even not a nation-state. The fact is that the Palestinian Authority is reluctant to go into negotiations where the difficult matters will be on the table: Israeli security needs (including protection from mayhem in the rest of the Arab world), refugees, borders, and the city of Jerusalem, where trust is more important than maps.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.