Faulty Comparisons

Should Americans Identify With Israel After Boston?

Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer says the Boston bombings will boost U.S. support for Israel. That prediction relies on a faulty comparison, writes Sigal Samuel.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

On September 11, 2001, Benjamin Netanyahu told the press that the day’s attacks would likely heighten American sympathy for Israel by giving the U.S. a taste of global terrorism. As the New York Times reported:

Asked tonight what the attack meant for relations between the United States and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, replied, ''It's very good.'' Then he edited himself: ''Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.'' He predicted that the attack would ''strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we've experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.''

Now, a dozen years later, the U.S. has gotten another taste of terror—and the response coming out of official Israel is exactly the same. Last Wednesday, a mere two days after the Boston Marathon bombings killed three and wounded many more, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser, told a closed meeting of American Jewish leaders in New York that the bombings would boost American support for Israel:

I’m pretty bullish about the prospects for strengthening cooperation with the United States… The bulk of the American people stand firmly with Israel and identify with Israel. If you look historically, there was a big change after 9/11, and I am sure that after the tragic bombing in Boston, people will identify more with Israel and its struggle against terror and we can maintain that support.

While Dermer acknowledges that the Boston bombings were “tragic,” he also expresses optimism about their implications for Israel. There’s a disturbingly exploitative undertone to his remarks. But let’s leave that aside for a moment, and note that Dermer’s certainty that Americans will now identify more with Israel turns on a hidden assumption: the assumption that we’ll all agree to more or less equate the sort of terrorism inflicted on Boston with the sort of terrorism inflicted on Israel. If equation has its roots in comparison, Dermer has good reason to feel bullish: the past week has seen a flood of articles, op-eds, blogs posts, tweets and other internet ephemera comparing the Boston bombings to Palestinian terror attacks endured by Israelis. But, so far, there’s nothing conclusively proving that the two types of terrorism bear much more than a superficial resemblance.

Palestinian terrorism—as condemnable as it certainly is—exists within the context of Israeli occupation; living under Israeli control, lacking many basic rights, the Palestinians are clearly in need of a political solution. The same cannot be said of the Tsarnaevs, who lived in America and enjoyed the same rights enjoyed by every immigrant to the U.S. Exactly what political solution does an immigrant already granted full U.S. citizenship require? The answer’s not at all clear. And, given the way these tenuous comparisons bolster Dermer’s agenda, it’s worth asking: who benefits—and who loses—when terror in Boston is likened to terror in Israel?

Before I go any further, I should stop and say: to compare is human. It’s natural. If you’ve ever experienced a terrorist attack in Israel, it’s absolutely normal for memories of that experience to flash through your brain when reading news or viewing images of the Boston Marathon post-bombing. This past week, many Israelis—and American Jews who’ve spent time in Israel—had exactly that reaction. But because the impulse to draw comparisons can go on to breed both positive and negative results, it’s vital that we apply a critical filter to that natural response.

Chief among the positive results yielded up by such comparisons has been the tremendous outpouring of Israeli empathy and expertise. In the wake of the Boston bombings, many Israelis processed what happened at the marathon through the lens of their own decades-long experience with terrorist attacks. They then attempted to share the “expertise” gleaned from that experience with Bostonians. Many wrote, for example, about the need to return quickly to daily routine after an attack—about the psychological importance of reestablishing normalcy. In a piece entitled “Boston, Bombs and Lessons from Israel,” NPR’s Greg Myre wrote that “compared to Israel, the U.S. still has relatively little experience in dealing with terror” and that “after decades of terror, Israelis have figured out how to live with this contradiction: Something terrible could happen at any moment and there's no reason to let fear dictate how you live.” He noted with admiration the Israeli penchant for “going back to a favorite cafe after an attack,” the friendly suggestion being that Boston should try to do the same.

Yaakov Katz at the Jerusalem Post and Chemi Shalev at Haaretz also expressed concern over the way Boston was responding to the attacks, but they were more worried about what terrorists might take away from that response. Katz wrote that “there is symbolism when one of the U.S.’s largest cities paralyzes itself in face of terrorism. Is this the message the U.S. wants to send around the world: That a single terrorist can disrupt so many lives and possibly more important—the American way of life?” Shalev’s article, equally concerned with the terrorist takeaway, stated: “The whole world is watching the gripping drama of U.S. security forces invading an American metropolis and shutting it down. Terrorists around the world couldn't ask for anything more.”

Another type of Israeli expertise—the medical expertise developed over decades of treating the victims of terrorist attacks at home—was able to make a very real difference on the ground in Boston. Because that expertise was shared with American specialists well in advance of the bombing, it actually helped save lives last week. As JTA reported, Israeli doctors and nurses had traveled to Massachusetts General Hospital to teach the staff there the trauma treatment methods pioneered in Israel. Alastair Conn, the hospital’s chief of emergency services, acknowledged the value of that knowledge-sharing on the day of the attack, telling reporters, “About two years ago in actual fact we asked the Israelis to come across and they helped us set up our disaster team so that we could respond in this kind of manner.”

These are some of the ways in which drawing comparisons can yield positive, helpful results. But likening terror in Boston to terror in Israel can also generate much more calculating and self-interested results, as Dermer’s remarks—with their governmental knack for profiteering even from terrible tragedies—show all too clearly.

When Americans automatically associate the Boston bombings with terror in Israel, or with words like “Arab,” “Muslim,” and “jihad”—as they were gleefully doing, sans evidence, well before the Tsarnaev brothers were ever identified as Muslims—that serves the interests of the Israeli government. Not only does it implicitly map the Palestinians onto the Tsarnaevs, whose names will be synonymous with evil just as soon as Americans can learn to pronounce them; it also ups the ante on the American commitment to fighting Israel’s radical foes in the region, by virtue of locating the Tsarnaevs’ motives within that larger geopolitical context.

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Ultimately, the thing about Dermer’s remarks is that they speak of a spike in terrorism on U.S. soil and a spike in U.S. sympathy for Israel as if the former logically, almost necessarily, entails the latter. But it doesn’t. We can choose whether and how, with what nuance or with what lack thereof, we draw comparisons between terror in Boston and terror in Israel. And we can remember that comparisons, like all speech acts, are not morally neutral: somebody always benefits, and somebody always loses.