Despicable Jew-on-Jew and suspected Jew-on-Palestinian acts of violence were committed in Israel last week, producing much agonized soul-searching among Israeli and Diaspora Jews over how this could happen. Not surprisingly, the international media has been all over the story, supplying enough answers to the question of "how" to satisfy every taste.
Here's a quick summation of events:
Within the span of just a few days, right wing religious settlers clashed with government forces seeking to remove illegally built West Bank settler homes, an ultra-Orthodox man attacked a Jerusalem gay pride parade, knifing six and killing a teenaged Jewish girl, and suspected extremist religious settlers set fire to a Palestinian home, killing a toddler. (I say suspected because, as of this writing, no one's actually been charged with the crime, though all signs point to the involvement of radical Jews.)
Want more detail, including how the Israeli government has reacted to these events? Read this solid Washington Post piece published earlier this week.
Israeli Jewish civilian violence rooted in religious or political extremism -- or an unfortunate mix of the two -- is not quite the man-bites-dog story it's generally portrayed to be. Sadly, it happens too often for that to be the case. Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are no less immune to the darker human impulses than anyone else.
Still, the anguished "How could Jews do this?" trope carried the day.
My reading of the media landscape tells me that this is the case for several reasons.
One reason, widely shared within the Jewish mainstream, is that much of the world believes that Jews and their nation-state should somehow adhere to a higher standard than other ethnic-cultural-religious groupings. After all, don't they call themselves the Chosen People? Don't they tell us, repeatedly, that the Holocaust's great lesson is to treat others as you want others to treat you?
Hence, the man-bites-dog trope. The press loves a good toppled pedestal story.
To this strongly identified Jew, that smacks of hypocrisy and even anti-Semitism, both of the conscious and unconscious varieties.
Another reason -- also strongly believed in the Jewish mainstream -- is that the more pervasive Palestinian violence wrongly receives less overall media attention than does the less frequent Jewish violence. This argument holds that journalists by and large view Palestinian violence as an understandable if futile and perhaps even unacceptable reaction to Israeli domination.
Plus, Palestinian violence seems to be an historical constant, something to be taken for granted, thereby tipping it into the dog-bites-man category. It simply happens too often to receive extensive and sustained coverage unless it's a horrific, high-profile act that causes multiple Jewish deaths, and, better yet, prompts Israeli retaliation.
The more right wing the Jewish source, the more this point had been made in recent days. Here's one example published by the Israeli media-watchdog group Honest Reporting.
(I'm fully aware that Palestinians and their supporters would argue that Israeli military and police actions, and the deaths they cause, must be considered when discussing Jewish-Arab violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I'll leave that can of worms for another post.)
The left-leaning Israeli and Diaspora Jewish press, on the other hand, joined by centrist and even moderately center-right publications, have been tripping over themselves to publishing myriad pieces insisting that to save Israel's soul, if not its physical existence, it simply must tackle what has been called Jewish terrorism by nearly everyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down. (Again, I acknowledge that Palestinians and their allies have harped for years about Jewish terrorism, though too often hyperbolically and, I would say, hypocritically.)
This is another key reason for the man-bites-dog trope.
If members of the Israeli media and intelligentsia are saying that successive Israeli governments and Jews worldwide have preferred to minimize or simply ignore the existence of violently radical elements within Israeli Jewish society, that makes it news, news that cannot be ignored, and rightly so, even if this news has been in the news previously.
Because as much as the press loves toppled pedestals, it loves mea culpas by those it decides have fallen.
David Grossman, one of Israel's best-known novelists, contributed a piece to the debate, publishing it in Israel's leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz. Here's a key piece of it:
With each passing day, dark, fanatically savage forces are being released, inflaming themselves in a fire of religious and nationalist faith. They flout the limits of reality and the limits of morality and the rules of simple logic. Their spirit is associated with an extremist and at times thoroughly lunatic nature of the human psyche. The more dangerous and fragile the general situation becomes, the more they flourish.
No compromise is possible with these people. The government of Israel must fight them just as it fights Palestinian terror. They are no less dangerous to the wellbeing of the country. They are no less determined. They are "total" people, "all or nothing" people, and total people, as we know, are liable to make total mistakes, as well – for example, launching an attack on the Temple Mount mosques, an attack whose outcome is liable to bring tragedy to Israel and the entire Middle East.
Jew-on-Jew violence in contemporary Israel, as I've said, is not new. In 1948, the briefest of civil wars, known as the Altalena affair, pitted the fledgling government of David Ben-Gurion against a right-wing militia led by a future Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin. Less than 20 men died in the confrontation.
Who knows what might happen this time? But even with all else breaking in the Middle East, its a story to watch. Closely and carefully.