The Editor Strikes Back
I REALLY like letters to the editors of The Crimson. Since my mother doesn't write me very often, these letters are about the only correspondence I get. Twice a year or so, I get fan letter. But more often, I get angry retorts to my opinion pieces.
Two weeks ago today, I wrote a piece called "Israel's Worst Best Friends," in which I argued that Israel's morally unsavory actions against Palestinians in the occupied territories create an intellectual crisis for a certain group of American Jews.
I defined this group, the "Zealots," as those Jews who support Israel merely because it is a Jewish state, and for whom Israel's status as a democracy is ancillary. Because the majority of American supporters of Israel--myself included--do not share this unqualified support for Israel, the Zealots are forced into intellectual dishonesty when Israel commits acts unbefitting a democracy.
Zealots are loathe to admit that they would support Israel even if it weren't a democracy, so they invent excuses when Israel strays from the liberal democratic path. Sometimes they deny, sometimes they rationalize, and sometimes they impute the motives of Israel's critics.
In the letters to the editors that followed my piece, I saw case studies in each of these reactions, (although I wouldn't claim that all of the authors were Zealots by my definition.)
FIRST, the denial. One reader prefaced his reference to daily human rights abuses in the occupied territories with the word "allegedly." Another explicitly disputed the routine nature of such abuses.
I'll let the facts speak for themselves. Since the intifada began just over two years ago, almost 600 Palestinians have been killed, about 2000 imprisoned without trial and 58 deported in violation of international law. Divide those figures by the number of days and you see just how routine Israeli human rights abuses really are. Denial is not a good option for the Zealots.
When confronted with undeniable evidence of abuses, Zealots sometimes turn to rationalization. "Human rights violations must be taken in context," read one response. Granted, Israel is a threatened nation. Granted, Jews have endured incredible suffering in the past. Granted, Israel's Arab neighbors are, in general, much less observant of civil liberties than Israel.
But none of that automatically justifies human rights violations. Such abuses must be condemned unequivocally--even when they occur in the Jewish state.
Perhaps most disturbing to me were the letters that attributed sinister motives to my criticism of Israel. One reader informed me that he could not brook criticism from anyone "whose political purpose goes beyond that of Palestinian nationalism and human rights."
Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz accused me of launching a "campaign of vilification against [Israel]." This despite my explicitly identifying myself as a supporter of Israel.
I FOUND Dershowitz's letter most interesting. In his response, the noted civil libertarian challenged my accusation that he was an apologist for Israeli human rights abuses who defends the curtailment of civil liberties in the occupied territories.
In retrospect, the choice of the word "defend" was poor. But I stand by my accusation that Dershowitz is an inveterate apologist for Israel. My point was not whether Dershowitz approves of human rights violations, but whether he rationalizes them. And indeed he does.
Dershowitz, who labeled me a "careless and mendacious misreporter of truth," challenged me to "read the published record," to see what a good guy he is.
So I did. I checked the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and the indexes of eight major newspapers for the period since the intifada began. I found precisely one article on the subject by Dershowitz--an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times that ran under the headline, "Given the Full Picture, Few Can Fault Israel."
It is possible that I overlooked some of his other works. After all, the Reader's Guide doesn't index Penthouse, and the Harvard library system is notoriously weak on smut.
When the piece ran, the intifada was two months old and the death toll was 54. Dershowitz argued that--shootings and tear-gassings aside--the Israeli judiciary had "reacted magnificently." That's nice. If you're shot and killed, you can always sue.
And if that option doesn't satisfy Arabs who oppose Israeli oppression, Dershowitz graciously suggests that they are "entirely free to leave."
Israel, love it or leave it.
On the topic of letters to the editor, I cannot resist quoting from Jean Paul Sartre's response to a letter to the editor written by Albert Camus in 1952.
"Unfortunately, you have deliberately put me on trial, and in such an ugly tone of voice, that I can no longer remain silent without losing face....
"Your combination of dreary conceit and vulnerability...[has caused you to] become the victim of your own self-importance, which hides your inner problems....
"For what mysterious reasons may your works not be discussed without taking away humanity's reasons for living? By what miracle are objections to you suddenly transformed, within the hour, into sacrilege?"