Column

07.06.12

Where’s the Shame?

The video (below), captured last week in Hebron by a participant in Btselem’s Camera Project, opens with an Israeli border policeman ambushing a nine year-old Palestinian boy.  The policeman grabs the child, who curls up on the ground crying, and holds him there.  Another policeman wanders over and kicks the child, then casually walks away, after which the first policeman lets the child go.

Video screenshot

Writing in Maariv (Hebrew), Shai Golden examined some of the many reactions to the video on the Facebook page of Israel’s Channel 2 News (the post and comments, which all included names, have since been removed). The sample reads:

“Only kicked him? That’s a shame.”
“Right on! Border Police all the way.”
“Too bad he didn’t kill him.”
A string of filthy curses followed by, “I’d have murdered him.”
“That’s what needs to be done to all the kids there.”
“What a retarded soldier. Kill him, what are you waiting for?”
“Truth—I’d have fired like five bullets into his head.”

No amount of hasbara can explain or justify these images.

That video came out only days after a UK delegation issued a report on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian minors in the West Bank. The report concluded that Israel is in breach of several articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the articles dealing with discrimination, the child’s best interests, premature resort to detention, non-separation from adults, prompt access to lawyers, and use of shackles. The report concludes that Israel may well also be in breach of “the prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of children, specifically with respect to nighttime raids, blindfolding, binding of wrists, physical abuse, solitary confinement, and more.

That video also comes in the context of a stream of reports on the abuses by Israeli security authorities of Palestinian minors in East Jerusalem.  

Throughout all of this, American Jews remain shockingly silent.  Shockingly, because most people would assume that ignoring and defending the abuse of children would be a bridge too far, even for the staunchest partisan of the “Israel, right or wrong” approach.  The silence of our community shows that such an assumption would be wrong.

It’s not that our community is incapable of shame.  It’s clear that the American Jewish community recognizes that, at least in some cases, bad behavior by fellow Jews reflects on us all.  This is why most American Jews feel a visceral sense of shame over the Bernie Madoff scandal—a scandal that played to the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes.  We felt similar collective shame over the behavior of Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Jack Abramoff.

This sense of tribal responsibility is the reason why the first reaction of most American Jews to the news of the shooting of Trayvon Martin was almost certainly: “is George Zimmerman Jewish?” He’s not, as anyone can find out by googling that very phrase—a search that yields 2.8 million hits, including an article in the Washington Post which opened with the issue of Zimmerman’s non-Jewishness, and a piece in Tablet entitled, helpfully, “Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s Killer, Not Jewish.” 

Clearly, when it comes to financial misconduct, sexual peccadilloes, public displays of stupid or criminally arrogant behavior, and hate crimes, our community feels shame if the perpetrator is Jewish—and breathes a collective sigh of relief when he is not. 

Why is it, then, that more American Jews don’t seem to feel similar shame when confronted with the abuses committed by fellow Jews in Israel and the West Bank, or to the extent that they do feel shame, why is it that they don’t speak out? Jews torching mosques and terrorizing their neighbors cannot be justified. Jews exploiting power and manipulating the law to steal other people’s land cannot be contextualized. Jews abusing Palestinian children cannot be explained or rationalized away, even by arguing that other people, somewhere in the world, are doing something worse.

American Jews must recognize that they do Israel no favors by staying silent in the face of such behavior. The actions captured in this latest video aren’t those of a couple of bad apples or, as Golden observes in Maariv, this isn’t just a few “errant weeds.” That video is in truth a relatively mundane example of the kind of abuses and indignities routinely meted out by Israel against an entire population, including children, in the service of an occupation that is immoral and undermines Israel’s own interests. As Golden observes,

…We’ve turned into a nation that shoots at nine-year-old children, that kicks them with a military boot and which doesn’t understand what the problem with that is. On the contrary: it believes that kicking a nine-year-old boy is just the precursor of what truly ought to be done to him…

American Jews must face this reality: sometimes the Zimmermans of the world turn out to be Jewish and/or Israeli. Their actions bring shame to all of us and are a stain on our community, our religion, and the Jewish state. The shame and stain are only magnified when out of cowardice, laziness, or for reasons of political expediency American Jews look away or, worse yet, try to defend policies and actions that are by nature indefensible. 

Perhaps coincidentally, the same day the Hebron video surfaced, the IDF unveiled its newest weapon in the fight against Israel’s enemies: an online game called “IDF Ranks,” released under the headline: “Become The Ultimate Virtual Soldier!" The game encourages people to become new recruits in a virtual IDF—an IDF in which promotions to higher virtual ranks are earned by fighting in the IDF’s online hasbara war. As the promo page notes:

IDF Ranks promotes YOU for your activities around IDF-related material. Your every action — commenting, liking, sharing and even just visiting — rewards your efforts, as well as helps spread the truth about the Israeli army all over the world.

The release of this new game begs the question: why do some people—in the United States and Israel—still believe that hasbara is the answer? The problem today isn’t that people don’t know the truth about the Israeli army.  The problem is that some actions and policies of the Israeli government and the IDF are simply indefensible—  no amount of hasbara is going to change that.  And where in the past hasbaristas could simply deny the facts and twist the truth, this doesn’t work in an era when a video of an Israeli policeman kicking a nine year-old boy has almost 350,000 hits in the span of just a few days.