A lot of people (not least my editor, Ali Gharib) have been writing this week about Muhammad al-Dura, a 12-year-old boy killed in a fire-fight between Israeli and Palestinian forces early in the second Intifada. They’re writing about him because the Israeli government decided to stir up the hornet’s nest of his horrible, horrifying death and (once again) insist on its own innocence. Along the way, they smeared Israeli-French journalist Charles Enderlin, accusing him of, among other things, "inspir(ing) terrorists and contribut(ing) significantly to the demonization of Israel and rise in anti-Semitism in Muslim countries and the West."
Such tactics, intended to silence or at the very least delegitimize those who might criticize the Israeli government’s policy or actions, are old hat, and their use is of course widespread. Advocates for a two-state peace, from Israeli-born/Israel-living Rabbis to never-stepped-foot-in-the-Jewish-State Gentiles, are routinely subject to slights on their character, attacks on their professional credibility, and/or physical threats—whether by the Israeli government (see above), organizations devoted to supporting the Israeli government (except if the Israeli government happens to support two-states), or the various and many self-appointed Jewish Purity Czars.
This is not a phenomenon born in the age of comments sections and Twitter. It has always been thus, and if you doubt it, you can look into the history of, for instance, Breira, founded in 1973 by the late great Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf to advocate for positions nearly indistinguishable from those of J Street today, and hounded out of existence within four years. Breira member Rabbi Michael Paley remembers: “Jobs were threatened. The financial supporters of B’nai Brith and Hillel came to the directors and said, ‘Stop this, we’ll fire you.’”
You might also consider the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. In the weeks and days before Yigal Amir shot Rabin in 1995, a vicious hate-and-fear-mongering campaign had gripped Israel, a venting of fury with which the current Prime Minister took no issue at the time (click here to see Netanyahu smiling beneficently while a churning right-wing crowd waves posters with Rabin’s head pasted onto Heinrich Himmler’s body—no Photoshop necessary—and screams that their Prime Minister is a traitor).
On the other end of the significance scale, you might consider someone as irrelevant as, say, me: A year and a half into the second Intifada, back in the States for what my husband and I assumed would be a temporary, academia-related stay, I slipped back into my old gig of writing about Israel. I ran a heartbroken essay in the Chicago Tribune in June 2002, and six weeks later an op-ed about how many Palestinian kids had been killed by Israeli forces since the second Intifada began. Among the children I mentioned was Muhammad al-Dura.
I also mentioned Israeli children who had been killed, including ten-month old Shalhevet Pas, and wrote something that I’ve since written countless versions of:
Withdrawal from the territories will not put an immediate halt to the violence or, of course, the hatred, particularly not if the terms are, as in the Oslo accords, patently unbalanced in Israel's favor. That is the excruciating price we will have to pay for subjugating another people for 35 long, brutal years.
It was this piece that got me death threats, led someone to send letters to every member of my synagogue labeling me an inauthentic Jew and menace to Israel, and inspired a communal leader to tell me that I had “put weapons in the hands of the enemy.”
I relay this tale not to complain (much…) but to make the following point: To whatever extent Rabbi Wolf, Yitzhak Rabin, or some random commentary writer in America’s Middle West offered any kind of threat to a maximalist Israel or the idea that the Jewish State need not take any responsibility for its actions—we seem to have been thwarted.
Whereas those who spread smears both public and private, threatened financial ruin and violence, and the man who murdered a democratically elected national leader—they all won.
Muhammad al-Dura was killed 13 years ago. I’m fairly well convinced that it was an Israeli bullet that pierced his skin, but even if it wasn’t, Israel has been responsible for the deaths of 1,376 Palestinian minors in the years since; in that same timeframe, Palestinians have been responsible for the deaths of 129 Israeli minors.
Also in that same timeframe, the population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has doubled. Israel has erected a barrier of electrified fencing and 26-foot-high cement slabs stretching more than twice the length of its recognized, international border, 85 percent of it inside Palestinian territory. Israeli settlers regularly carry out “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, with near total impunity. Children as young as 6, 7, or 8 are often arrested, assaulted, and/or simply prevented (like every other Palestinian) from getting where they need to go, like school, or the doctor. In the years since the killing of Muhammad al-Dura, Israel has tightened restriction of movement in the West Bank so much that organizers couldn’t find 26.2 miles of contiguous land on which to run the first annual Bethlehem Marathon.
So it works. The constant disinformation, distraction, misdirection, confabulation, and endless stream of threats actually works. In the 40 years since Breira, the nearly 20 years since Rabin’s assassination, and 13 years since al-Dura’s death, nothing that peace advocates have advocated for has been achieved (the goal never having been talks, or talks about talks). On the contrary, it could be argued that peace is now farther away than ever.
The only thing that changed is the sheer number of American Jews who have understood the danger of being shouted down, and have stood up to and stared down the intimidation. They have carved out a space for both loving Israel and criticizing it, and that is a tremendous thing.
But when I recall poor Muhammad al-Dura’s death, and all the events leading up to this week’s report, I honestly don’t know if our love is going to be enough to shift the tide. Israel appears wholly dedicated to seeing that it isn’t.