A professor holds forth on Israeli paranoia

Peter Beinart, author of the widely discussed – but apparently less widely read – book “The Crisis of Zionism,” can’t be held responsible for what his admirers write in their reviews. However, if an author tweets a review and highlights its complimentary character, I think it’s fair to conclude that he welcomes this review.

The review in question is published in the June issue of The New York Review of Books (NYRB) under the title “Israel in Peril.” It is written by David Shulman, Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University;  as Shulman’s biographical note at NYRB adds, he is also “an activist in Ta’ayush,” a group that describes itself as “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership.”

Shulman begins his review by ridiculing Israel’s response to a planned “Air Flotilla”  organized by various supposedly “pro-Palestinian” groups adamantly opposed to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Ignoring the fact that the “Air Flotilla” organizers were hoping to bring some 2000 activists to Ben Gurion airport, Shulman asks why “a handful of harmless demonstrators” should “elicit so severe a reaction” and he then proceeds to answer his own question by claiming that there is a “logic—that of the endless war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness—[that also] underlies Netanyahu’s constant dwelling on the Holocaust in relation to Iran.”

Shulman then goes on to claim:

“Like many Israelis, he [Netanyahu] inhabits a world where evil forces are always just about to annihilate the Jews, who must strike back in daring and heroic ways in order to snatch life from the jaws of death. I think that, like many other Israelis, he is in love with such a world and would reinvent it even if there were no serious threat from outside.”

So here you have it, from a professor of humanistic studies, no less: Those Jews – at least most of those Israeli Jews – are paranoid idiots who just love to imagine a world full of terrible threats that allows them to fantasize about their “daring and heroic ” defense against these threats. Moreover, in their stupidity, those paranoids don’t realize that it is their own policies – specifically the capital O Occupation of the West Bank – that pose the greatest peril for Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

To be sure, I largely share the concerns about a one-state scenario that Shulman professes to have. However, it is not entirely clear if Shulman’s enthusiastic activism for Ta’ayush really reflects his commitment to a two-state solution. According to the organization’s own website, “Ta’ayush” is the Arabic word for “living together” and the group was founded in the fall of 2000 – that is to say at the beginning of the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada, about which I could find as little on the group’s website as about Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism in general. Indeed, it seems that Ta’ayush believes that its supposed goal of “constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership” is best pursued by focusing exclusively on denouncing Israel’s policies in the West Bank, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the group also counts among its supporters an extremely controversial activist like Neve Gordon.

There is absolutely nothing on the Ta’ayush website that would contradict the conclusion that “the walls of racism and segregation” which the group wants to “break down” are all Israel’s fault. It should thus hardly come as a surprise that most of the Palestinians presented by David Shulman in his NYRB piece are helpless and destitute victims of Israel’s “malevolent campaign” to make their lives “as miserable as possible.” NYRB readers encounter a desperately poor “Palestinian widow with nine orphaned children” who, on a “freezing, rainy day,” is left “standing barefoot, still shocked and traumatized, in a neighbor’s tent” because Israel cruelly demolished her “ramshackle hut.” Then there is a cave-dwelling friend of Shulman, who – thanks to “benevolent” and generous European donors whose projects are opposed by Israel – gets to use a light bulb in his cave. According to Shulman, this prompted him to declare gratefully: “For the first time in my life, I feel like a complete human being.”

The message is clear: Palestinians are wonderful, simple, innocent people whose struggle to eke out a meager living is cruelly sabotaged by a malevolent Israel.

This one-dimensional view betrays not only hostility towards Israel, but also a profoundly patronizing attitude towards the Palestinians. A story posted by Shulman on the Ta’ayush website in April provides an excellent illustration.  After a detailed account of a day spent helping Palestinians to challenge Israeli restrictions on the use of land near a settlement, Shulman concludes his post by describing an encounter with some “village boys:”

“We linger in the wadi together with the sheep and the village boys. […] The village boys are into theology. “What’s your name?” they ask me. “Da’ud,” I say. “Named for the Prophet Da’ud! Are you a Muslim?” “No, I’m a Jew.” “Do you know how to pray?” “Maybe a little.” I can recite the Fatiha, the opening to the Qur’an. This makes a positive impression. “Sing it,” they say to me, “like the Mu’ezzin does.” I try. They correct me. It’s not so easy to get my voice to the upper register you need for the second phrase, but they seem happy with my efforts. “So why don’t you become a Muslim?” they ask me. “I don’t want to,” I say; “I already told you I’m a Jew.” “But on the Day of Judgment, yaum al-qiyama, only Muslims will go to Paradise, Al-Jannah, Firdaws; the rest will be burned in fire.” “I like the fire.”

They laugh. This has to be put to the test; they borrow a cigarette lighter and hold it to my finger. I fail the test. “Well, maybe we Jews won’t be thrown into the fire,” I say. “Maybe it will be cold there in Hell.” “No way!” They’re very certain. “Fire means fire. The believers and only the believers don’t get burned.” “OK,” I say, “but couldn’t a Jew also be a believer of some sort?” “Absolutely not.”

Now again: “So why don’t you take on Islam?” I’m having trouble explaining, in halting Arabic, the rationale of my choice. […] One thing we can all agree on: on the Day of Judgment, the settlers will be sent to the fire. The boys laugh again in the relief that certainty brings. Sinners are sinners, and God knows right from wrong.

I hope He does, though sometimes I’m not sure. Or maybe this is the definition of God, which we’ve arrived at together, gently teasing one another on this hill of rocks and thorns. It’s midday: a fierce sun offers a slight, still bearable taste of hellfire. I promise them that, infidel that I am, I’ll be back here next week or the one after.”

Just imagine what Shulman would write about an encounter with a group of Jewish village boys who would be “into theology” the same way these Muslim village boys are… Well, actually, there is no need to imagine much: if the boys came from a village in Judea or Samaria, Shulman already agreed with the Muslim village boys that “on the Day of Judgment, the settlers will be sent to the fire.”

That should count for something, coming from the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University…

It’s really a pity that the readers of Shulman’s piece in the NYRB will not know that this fierce critic of Israel reacts with amusement – and even seems enchanted – when he meets Muslim village boys who “are into theology” and are absolutely certain that non-Muslims deserve to burn in hell. Outside the Ivory Tower, many understand that millions of Muslim youngsters are brought up with this certainty, and that this has grim implications for minorities in the Muslim world and the well-documented endemic Muslim hostility towards Jews.

In stark contrast to Professor Shulman’s baseless assertions about the supposed eagerness of many Israeli Jews to indulge into paranoid fantasies about living in a hostile world, most Israelis dream of the day when Muslim youngsters will be brought up to accept Jews at least as believers “of some sort” who don’t deserve eternal hellfire.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

4 responses to “A professor holds forth on Israeli paranoia

  1. Some years ago I had the following conversation with a Palestinian Arab “village-boy”, who seemed a bit less patient waiting for judgment day:
    -Once you have your own State, what would you like to do?
    -Kill the Christians!
    -The Christians??? You mean the Arab Christians?
    -Yes.
    -Why, what have the Christians done to you?
    -They drink wine. They are heretics.
    -But Christians, according to their belief, are allowed to consume alcohol!?
    -According to the Holy Koran, NOBODY is allowed to drink wine. It is a sin, they must be punished …

    • Over the past year+, it has certainly been very depressing to see that not even the Copts — who are as Egyptian as can be — are not safe from persecution and discrimination.

  2. Amazing how Shulman cannot recognize his own orientalist position vis a vis the ‘natives’.

    • I’m totally in disbelief that when he reads his own stuff, he doesn’t realize just how patronizing he comes across. But to be “”fair”, he seems to feel similar contempt for Middle Israel. Of course, also about half of Israelis are definitely Mideast natives…

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