Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"We Call Them Terrorists", Part II

A "price tag" attack by suspected Jewish extremists on an Israeli mosque has drawn condemnation from across the Israeli political spectrum. As well it should -- it is a despicable act that is an insult to Judaism as much as it is vicious to Muslims.

But the fact remains, the attack happened. And it is not a one-off: the "price tag" campaign is just that -- a campaign, promoted by extremist Jews who have decided "there are no innocents" and view the entire Muslim world as their targets. Jewish Hamasniks, in other words. And, like Hamas, they view themselves as authentic representatives of the faith and of their people. So the question is how to disabuse them of that notion.

A few years back, I wrote in defense of hate crimes laws that the perpetrators of anti-gay violence are morally indistinguishable from terrorists. Both are attacking not just to harm the particular victim, but also to send a message of hate to the group the victims are a part of (Jews, Muslims, Americans, or what have you). And part of the reason we have anti-terrorism laws is our recognition that this motivation is particularly malign and dangerous, and needs to be countered in the most forceful way possible.

In that post, I also talked about another reason why hate crimes laws are important: preventing the perpetrators from believing, even post-incarceration, that they were really speaking for the silent anti-gay majority. I drew the analogy to lynch cases, where, even if the perpetrators were prosecuted (and that was rare enough),
nothing was done to breakdown the notion that the motivation, too, was immoral. In such a context, it is so important to be very explicit in sending the opposing message. The South needed to be told--in the clearest possible way--that not only was murder wrong, but that the entire desire to force Black Americans into submission was reprehensible and rejected by the broader community.

Crafting special legislation for that problem (the ban on lynching that failed so many times in Congress) was such a signal.

So returning to Israel. It is clear that the extremists who enact "price tag" policies are willing to go to jail. That, indeed, is something they're proud of -- something they say with strength. But what if, instead of just calling them criminals (which they are), Israeli political leaders also called them terrorists?

It's a perfectly apt descriptor: surely, if a Palestinian set fire to a Jewish synagogue with the stated desire for vengeance against Israel's Palestine policy, nobody would hesitate to append the label. But in Israel, "terrorist" has a particular moral weight -- it represents the crystalline distillation of the threats and perils Israel and Israelis face on a daily basis. It is the emblem of all it means to be "against Israel". One can go to jail and still be a civil disobedient, boldly defending the silent Israeli majority via one's courageous acts of arson. It is difficult to maintain that sense of communal backing when the community has given you the label terrorist.

UPDATE: I see the "terror" label has in fact started to come out amongst Israeli institutions: the Shin Bet referred to it as "Jewish terror", and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar also called the attack an act of "terrorism".

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