By the standards of contemporary atrocity, Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner’s striking Andreas Ias in the face with the butt of his M-16 was a trifle. Eisner was the deputy commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade of the Israeli army, and Ias was a Dane on a bicycle who supported the Palestinians. The video of the incident depicts Eisner screaming in Hebrew to a group that does not understand Hebrew to go home, and holding his rifle horizontally, like an instrument of crowd control. Suddenly there is a pause in the confusion and he finds himself face to face with Ias, and without any provocation, and without a word of warning, he slaps the man with the weapon. The white kippah on his head did not make his outburst of violence any prettier.
Neither did the assurance by a rabbinical friend of the colonel’s that his action was (as The New York Times reported) “instinctive, not intentional.” The instinct is precisely the problem. Eisner was dismissed from his post. Prime Minister Netanyahu was said to be shocked. I wonder why. For many years he has been schooling his compatriots in contempt for the world, and treating pro-Palestinian sentiment as an anti-Semitic hallucination with no basis in any of Israel’s actions. I do not mean to say that pro-Palestinian activists are all sterling peace-loving souls who dream only of two states living idyllically between the river and the sea. In Europe especially, the criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians has spilled over into a poisonous denial of the Jewish state’s legitimacy. (And not only among Europeans in Europe, as proven by William Pfaff’s revolting comment on the blog of The New York Review of Books in the wake of the murder of Jewish children in Toulouse by an anti-Zionist maniac that Jews “invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.”)
But Israel calls itself a democracy—most recently in a sardonic letter to the pro-Palestinian activists who made it to Israel despite the Israeli government’s idiotic attempt to bar them from the country, in which the prime minister rightly observed that “you could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people [or] the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent. Instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy.” A democracy does not fear, or close its borders to, dissent, or paint dissenters as “provocateurs,” or require visitors to sign an “Obligation Form” that reads: “I undertake that I can’t be a member of any pro-Palestinian Organizations and not be in contact with any other Members of any pro-Palestinian organizations, as well I will not participate in any pro-Palestinian activities.” The intention is as coarse as the diction. Banning Günter Grass from Israel over his contemptible and widely excoriated “poem” reflected a similar misunderstanding of the liberal dispensation. A ban is not an argument. An open society should be an open society. There is a Putinist strain to Netanyahu’s rule. It is unworthy of his country.
BUT I DO NOT COME, like some others, to speak prophetically to my people. My own bitterness at certain trends in Israeli politics, and at the Israeli government’s refusal to press relentlessly and imaginatively for an answer to the most difficult question—Netanyahu’s supporters exult in his success at driving the Palestinian question from the agenda: an achievement!—my own bitterness is not all that I need to know. More precisely, it is not occasioned only by Israel’s part in the thwarting of peace. Intellectual honesty always requires that one be unhappy for many reasons.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
The above article will be published in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine and is available at www.tnr.com.