I have mixed feelings about former New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind. On the one hand, Hikind—a proud disciple of Meir Kahane—has a regrettable habit of saying and doing racist things. On the other hand, one of those racist things—his 2013 decision to dress up in blackface for Purim—inspired this sidesplitting, two-part, Jon Stewart segment about the “War on Purim.” From Hikind’s racism came Stewart’s comedic genius. So it’s a mixed bag.
Hikind’s views about me, on the other hand, appear less ambivalent. “Peter Beinart is as sick as they come,” he tweeted last week. If that wasn’t sufficiently clear, he added, “Beinart is also as pathetic as they come.” (It’s the old editor in me, but does “pathetic” really add anything once you’ve already employed “sick?” Hikind needs to learn how to be insulting without being redundant.)
What aroused Hikind’s ire was a tweet of mine suggesting that if the US were going to demand that UNRWA, the agency that serves Palestinian refugees, remove anti-Israeli material from its textbooks as a condition of receiving US aid, it should also require that Israel remove anti-Palestinian material from its textbooks. In a subsequent tweet, I noted that the most comprehensive academic study, conducted by researchers from Yale, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem Universities, found that Israeli and Palestinian textbooks weren’t dramatically different. It concluded that while “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the Other are rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books; both Israeli and Palestinian books present unilateral national narratives that portray the Other as enemy.” The researchers discovered more “negative bias in portrayal of the Other” in Palestinian than Israeli textbooks (with the exception of Ultra-Orthodox Israeli textbooks). But Palestinian textbooks were also more likely than their Israeli counterparts to show the green line.
On both sides, the textbooks could use improvement. That’s why, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2016 proposed an anti-incitement commission to review Israeli and Palestinian Authority curricula, I thought it was a good idea. (Benjamin Netanyahu did not; his government rejected the proposal).
But what astonishes me is the suggestion, which one encounters frequently in the American Jewish community, that textbooks, television shows and the like are the primary source of Palestinian animosity towards Israelis. It’s bizarre. For more than half a century, Palestinians in the West Bank have lived as non-citizens under military law. They can’t vote for the government that controls their lives. That means that the Israeli state can take their land, invade their homes, deny them access to water, imprison their children and even kill them, with virtual impunity. Under such circumstances, how could anyone think that the major factor motivating Palestinian anger toward Israelis is what they read in textbooks?
To grasp the absurdity of this logic, try applying it to another group of people denied basic rights. Imagine arguing that incendiary textbooks were the main reason that Black Southerners resented white Southerners during Jim Crow or Catholics resented Protestants in the 1980s in Northern Ireland or Tibetans resent Han Chinese. In those cases, most Jews would likely recognize the obvious: that when oppressed people hate their oppressors, it is less because of the books they read or television shows they watch than the injustice they suffer in their daily lives.
Jewish tradition makes this point in an intriguing way. In a commentary on Parshat Bo, a Torah portion in the Book of Exodus, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses God’s command that the Israelites “plunder” the Egyptians of their gold and silver as they flee during the final plague. He quotes a provocative reading by the German-born rabbi Benno Jacobs, who argues that the phrase “you shall plunder” (venitzaltem, in Hebrew) is better translated as “you shall save.” What were the Israelis saving the Egyptians from? Being hated. By taking payment for their hundreds of years of slave labor, the Israelites remedied the injustice that might have led them to resent Egyptians as a whole. It is this act of compensation, Sacks suggests, that underlies the Torah’s command, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the Israelites should “not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” It was only because they had received some measure of justice that God could realistically expect the Israelites not to hate.
As I was writing this newsletter, my friend, the anti-occupation activist Issa Amro, tweeted a video of a Palestinian boy in Hebron being shot in the eye by an Israeli sniper. I doubt the sniper was trying to shoot him. But that’s not the point. The point is that when people lack basic rights, such horrors can occur with impunity. “Where should the parents of this child go to get justice?” asked the scholar Khaled Elgindy. The answer is that, as non-citizens who live in a state that is utterly unaccountable to them, Palestinians in places like Hebron cannot get justice. They can’t get it in Israel, and, thanks in part to the Biden administration, they can’t get it in international bodies like the International Criminal Court either.
This is a photo of that 13-year-old-boy, Izz a-Din al-Batsh, in the hospital. If American Jews worry that children like him will hate Israelis, they should spend less time discussing textbooks and more time demanding justice.
This Friday, we’ll be holding a special Zoom call for paid subscribers, at our usual time, Noon EST, about how to define anti-Semitism. We’ll be joined by Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who drafted the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, but has criticized its misuse. Our second guest will be Professor Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum, one of the signers of the new Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism. Our third guest will be UCLA Professor of English Saree Makdisi. Subscribe and join us.
Speaking of anti-Semitism even more, check out this smart and provocative Jewish Currents Responsa that critiques the way some progressives are employing the charge against their right-wing foes. (And subscribe to Jewish Currents!)
Last week, I interviewed Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Diana Buttu and Orly Noy about the Israeli and Palestinian elections for the Foundation for Middle East Peace. The video is here.
Watch this video if you want to restore you faith in America.
Hope to see you Friday,