The Right Coast

October 04, 2004
Letter From Haifa
By Maimon Schwarzschild

A European on the staff of one of the UN agencies recently met with a small faculty group at the University of Haifa in Israel. Menachem Kellner, one of the Haifa professors, had an exchange of letters with the UN man afterwards. Here is part of Kellner's letter:
    I think you may misconstrue the nature of Israeli reactions to European criticism. I know of no one here who thinks we should be given a pass for our failings because others in the world are worse. As a Jew, I believe that I have an obligation to demand of Jews a higher moral standard than I demand of others. That, in a nutshell, is what the ancient prophets of Israel commanded. On the other hand, when non-Jews demand of Jews a vastly higher moral standard than they demand of others, my antennae do quiver with the vibrations of anti-semitism. Over the last four years, they have been quivering non-stop. Israel has been subjected to a barrage of criticism, from Europeans in particular, much of it based on an uncritical acceptance of false Palestinian propaganda -- the most blatant, but hardly the only, example being the "Jenin massacre" of two years ago: and this from Europeans who view with apparent equanimity half a century of Chinese outrages in Tibet, horrific Russian crimes in Chechnya, and much more of the same.

    This is why so many Israelis like me are unmoved by European criticisms of Israel. It is hard not to impugn the motives of these critics. Moreover, such criticism only weakens those among us in Israel who are amenable to some sort of negotiated settlement; it lends great credence to those here who say, "The world is against us anyway, so why listen to them?" In short, the hysterically exaggerated nature of European criticism of Israel works against those forces in Israel (among whom, it is safe to assert, may be counted everyone in the room when you spoke) who earnestly want Israel to be guilty of fewer sins of commission and omission.

    I want to respond in detail to one specific paragraph in your letter. You write:

    "I do not think it is necessary, or realistic, to lump all Palestinians into the group of 'morally bankrupt and undeserving of their own state'. Having spent the last five years throughout the Former Yugoslavia I believe it to be dangerous to transfer the undesired attributes of a small percentage of a population to an entire people. Secondly, I don't know how many Palestinian kindergartens you have seen, but I can give you a couple images I have in my mind from visits I have made: children unable to attend schools because of military closures; children having to go kilometers out of their way to reach schools because of a wall or Israeli settlements; children waiting at gates for hours to reach their school, if they can reach it all; children forced to learn without the bare necessities, such as books, paper and pencils; children being harassed by settlers without any chance of assistance from Israeli police or soldiers; and smells so bad all I could think of was showering. This isn't every kindergarten, but enough of them. I think there is suffering on both sides.

    My replies:

    (1) I know of no Palestinians of stature who have unqualifiedly condemned the bombings and shootings of Israeli civilians. Even Hanan Ashrawi and Sari Nusseibeh, alleged moderates, have done no more than condemn the murders as counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. By every indication available to me, the vast majority of Palestinians appear to support the murder of children, as long as they are Jewish. Unless you can adduce convincing evidence to the contrary, I think that I have every right to continue seeing the general run of Palestinians as "morally bankrupt and undeserving of their own state". I am, of course, aware of the fact that not all Palestinians are made by the same cookie-cutter, anymore than all Jews or all Israelis are, but exceptions to generalizations do not invalidate the generalizations.

    (2) About the misery of Palestinian kindergartens:

    (a) Do you really compare inconvenience, delays, harassment, unhygienic conditions -- none of which I deny, all of which I regret, and where it is really our fault, condemn -- to murder, mayhem, and dismemberment? If you do, we should stop this discussion right here, since you and I live in different moral universes.

    (b) Yasser Arafat's autonomous Palestinian regime is grossly kleptocratic, quite apart from its terrorist proclivities. Untold millions have disappeared into the private foreign bank accounts of Palestinian "leaders": money which could have built hundreds of spectacular kindergartens for Palestinian children. So I reject your implication that Israel bears major responsibility for the sorry situation you describe in Palestinian kindergartens.

    There is indeed plenty of suffering on both sides. When enough Palestinians learn to love their children more than they hate mine -- to paraphrase the late Golda Meir, not a woman I am usually given to quoting -- that suffering can, perhaps, be brought to an end.

    -- Menachem Kellner

    PS I write this letter under the impress of two events today: the bomb attack in Jerusalem a few hours ago, and my visit this morning to a hospital here in Haifa. In order enter the hospital, staffed both by Jews and Arabs, and serving both Jews and Arabs, I had to pass through two circles of security. When Palestinians begin raising their voices in condemnation of the fact that Jews and Arabs in Haifa have to fear being blown up in a hospital, I will begin to revise my estimation of the moral necessity of a Palestinian state. When Europeans begin to condemn Palestinians for targeting schools and hospitals with the same enthusiasm with which they condemn Israel for targeting terrorists, often humiliating Palestinians, and building settlements, I will begin to take your criticisms more seriously.