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Howard Schweber Headshot

'They Cry When They Shoot Us'

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"They cry when they shoot us. Now we must find a way to make them stop shooting."

It was one of the most affecting comments I heard during a stint as a human rights observer during the First Intifada in 1988. Those days seem so innocent now. Sure, people were getting shot and whole towns were being starved into submission and beatings were the currency of communication. But there were no suicide bombers, no rocket attacks, no tunnels. Only teenagers with rocks and IDF soldiers with orders from Yitzhak Rabin to "break their bones." I was collecting evidence in a proper, lawyerly way. I reviewed documents, examined medical reports, interviewed eyewitnesses, leadership figures, doctors, lawyers, victims... and a few perpetrators. The scary ones hoped for nothing but the chance to kill. But the others, the vast majority of normal Palestinians wanting to live and raise their children in something like a normal world, they clung to hope that ultimately the Israelis would listen, would care. "They cry when they shoot."

They're not crying anymore. When did they stop? It's hard to say, exactly, but today every Israeli eye is dry. Israelis are gathering on hilltops to cheer the bombs falling on cities. Their rabbis are issuing religious judgments explaining why the mass killing of civilians -- "crushing deterrent steps to exterminate the enemy" up to and including "the destruction of Gaza" -- is entirely appropriate under Jewish law. An Israeli university professor took to the airwaves recently to propose that raping Palestinian women was the best strategy for deterring future attacks. In the U.S. their supporters -- in the form of a senior fellow at NYU Law School -- are taking to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to publicly explain that there is no such thing as an innocent civilian because any member of a society that supports a government is a legitimate target for retaliation -- the literal language of justification for state and non-state terrorism. And on the streets of Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem they don neoNazi t-shirts and beat up any Arabs they can find as well as peaceful demonstrators, adding "burn the leftists" to the usual chorus of "death to Arabs." While the police watch.

Ignorant street thugs, settler rabbis, and academic monsters. Are they merely an aberration or is this the new face of Israeli culture? Look to the Bible. The founders of the State of Israel were not theocratic biblicists, they were secular and socialistically inclined Enlightenment liberal nationalists. You can argue that is an inherently unstable constellation of ideas, but it has nothing to do with the blood-soaked hatreds of the ancient world. For that you have to go to the texts. If you ask a modern Jew which book of the Bible is the source of our religion, more than any other it will be Deuteronomy. And Deuteronomy is explicit in its instructions for how the Israelites should deal with the occupants of the Promised Land: "leave nothing alive that breathes" ("col n'shama lo techayeh" -- Deuteronomy 20, look it up).

That was not supposed to be the Israeli way. It took decades of propganda and demagoguery to coarsen and harden the sensibilities of this generation. It took waves of immigration, of the gun-crazy American settler "cowboys" of the 1980s and the Russian barely-Jewish racialists of the 1990s. And in the 2000s it took the particular perversity of the nationalist religion of the new Zealots, a recrudescence of the ugliest forms of primitive tribalism.

I am not excusing Hamas, that partial creation of Israel's twisted sense of strategy. Netanyahu is not wrong, and the Israeli public is not wrong: The tunnels are a terrible indication of an absolutely genuine threat, and there is no formal logical argument against taking whatever measures are necessary to shut them down. Just as there is no formal logical argument against Hamas using every means it can to cause pain to Israelis, because what evidence is there that any other strategy has any potential for reducing the horror of life in the ghetto? David Cameron, no one's idea of a shrinking violet liberal, described Gaza as a prison camp. Today it is an abattoir. This happens periodically, like mowing the grass. Nothing to be concerned about. Of course the IDF has a right to shut down the tunnels. Of course the Palestinians have a right to violently resist a brutal blockade and effective ongoing occupation, economic starvation, constant harassment... of course they do, of course, of course.

But I don't really care about any of that, right now. That's not what I'm paying attention to this week. This week I'm watching Israel. I'm watching the thugs roaming the streets looking for victims without hindrance. I'm watching the sick, twisted perversions of the idea of a "rabbi." A few weeks ago I was watching Israelis reacting with shock and horror to the idea that Israeli Jews could have kidnapped a Palestinian boy and burned him alive. I was shocked by their shock: Have they really not been listening to themselves for the past 20 years?

The novelist David Grossman says he sees some signs of hope, some inkling of an indication that Israelis may have crossed a tipping point of consciousness and finally, finally, be willing to consider the possibility that endless brutal repression is not a long-term strategy. I wish I were persuaded, but I don't think I buy it. I think Grossman is reaching for an "Israel" that does not exist any more.

Even when they kill children they don't cry now. I don't think they cry at all. I don't think they are fully human, let alone "Jewish" in any sense of the word that I understand. They are Hebrews. Primitive tribal warriors engaged in a death struggle with other primitive tribes for control over the same wadis that primitive tribes have been killing each other over since the first humans made the first tools and then discovered that they could be driven into the skulls of their enemies with wonderful effect. Their "rabbis" are priests of local gods serving the primitive tribes of the valleys and the hills. Their leaders do not promise that they will join the nations of the civilized world as fellows: They promise victory over the tribe in the next wadi when we have killed everything that breathes. There is no reason to cry, here, because there is nothing left to be lost. On either side. Nothing left at all.