The Hostage-Prisoner Exchange and the world of imaginative sympathy

This is cross posted by Richard Landes, who blogs at Augean Stables. Landes is the author of: “Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience“.

One of the supreme ironies among the European moral stances has to do with their discourse on the “death penalty.” It’s a standard trope of European contempt for the USA that it still has a death penalty, a sign of its cowboy nature and its retardation in the moral progress of nations. At least when it comes to the death penalty, America is still in the 20th century. “Moral Europe,” on the other hand, stands at the vanguard of the global community of nations and its appreciation of the value of human life undergirds its horror at the execution of criminals, no matter what their deeds.

And yet when that same moral entity turns its gaze on the Middle East, the country they have the most contempt for is the only country in the entire region to reject capital punishment, and they have the most admiration for a country that among a widespread political culture that extensively uses torture and execution for the maintenance of public order, shows perhaps the most contempt for the lives of its own peoples and its enemies.

Normally, this would not be even worth mentioning. Most people would just roll their eyes while others complain about Zionist imperialists trying to divert attention from their oppression of the Palestinians. But if you want to understand the “hostage-for-prisoner-exchange” that just took place in Israel and the Western media’s coverage of the event, then you need to pay attention to the issue.

Israel first outlawed the death in 1954, thus reversing the Mandate Law, which, in most other instances, Israel took over from the British. They based themselves both on rabbinic precedent (concerns for both respecting the image of God in man and the unattainable burden of proof) and modern liberal sentiment (Robespierre initially opposed the death penalty). In doing so, they became the first modern Western democracy after Germany (1949) to ban the death penalty, followed a decade later by Britain (1965), Sweden (1972), Canada (1976) and France (1981).

Note that Israel passed this law five years after the creation of a polity dedicated to equality before the law for all its citizens, a move that earned them the ferocious hostility of their neighbors in the Arab Muslim world. Normally, when countries attempt these egalitarian revolutions and find themselves surrounded by hostile enemies, they have, by year five, descended into mass executions of their own citizens (French Revolution in their fourth year, Russians, Chinese, Cambodians, almost immediately). Israel, on the other hand, outlawed the death penalty even for Arab terrorists who were captured while killing Israeli civilians. Israel has only executed one person, Adolph Eichmann, held responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

If the Israelis had hundreds of terrorists in their prisons, in some cases serving multiple life sentences, available to trade for Gilad Shalit, a soldier kidnapped from Israeli soil by Hamas combatants five years ago, it’s because of this attitude towards human life, both their own and those of the Palestinians. And that attitude was on full display throughout this exchange, with people agonizing over endangering future Israelis from releasing these men, and the profound commitment to getting Gilad Shalit back. Some Arabs recognized the unflattering light this shed on their own culture, while others reveled in it.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, represent almost the polar opposite. This is a culture in which killing daughters and wives and homosexuals for shaming the family with (even suspected and loosely interpreted) inappropriate sexual behavior is a regular feature of society, where “collaborators” are summarily executed, where official statistics for executions put the PA at a rate of formal, legal execution that cedes only to China, Iran, N. Korea, Yemen and Libya.

The trade of over a thousand Palestinians for one Israeli highlights the radical differences between the cultures, themselves outlined often in a triumphalist statement of superiority by the Palestinians (and others in the name of Islam):

“In as much as you love life, the Muslim loves death and martyrdom. There is a great difference between he who loves the hereafter and he who loves this world. The Muslim loves death and [strives for] martyrdom.”

As Hizbullah’s Nasrullah put it after a prison exchange in 2004:

“We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.”

These are not mere abstractions or rhetorical verbiage. Palestinian culture inculcates a culture of hatred, murder of enemies, contempt for life. In a chilling exchange at the height of the intifada, one sweet 12 year old girl told an approving TV interviewer:

“Shahada [martyrdom through suicide bombing] is a very, very, beautiful thing. Everyone yearns for Shahada. What can be more beautiful than going to heaven.” 

As one Israeli observer noted in commenting on a op-ed by Palestinian Bassem Nasser complaining that it’s inappropriate to depict those released as convicted “terrorist murderers” because they are heroes in Gaza.

The picture Nasser so proudly paints of Palestinian society, glaringly clarifies to all that the leaders of Gaza and its citizenry as a whole comprise one of the most despicable and detestable societies in the history of Man. No Hollywood studio has ever created a villain as evil as the likes of Khaled Mashaal, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Hassan Nassrallah.

No Hollywood writer has ever written a script about an entire society of evil, millions of devout clones of a murderous, deviant ideology and eschatology.

The reality of Gaza today, and most of the Arab world, is too strange for fiction.

If a European, concerned about the nature of the aggressive Islam that has begun to crop up in and around his or her cities, claiming for example Sharia-zones, wanted to understand the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he might spend a moment visiting the sites of Palestinian anti-Zionists, where this profoundly perverse culture teems.

But of course, that would be politically incorrect. To spend any time pointing out the problems here constitutes the highest level of politically-incorrect Islamophobia. How dare one essentialize an entire culture as morally repugnant? How demeaning to Palestinians, how insulting to Islam. Little matter that they openly embrace these values. After all, “who are we to judge?”

So instead of helping Europeans understand what’s at stake here, most of the media and the NGO community (like Amnesty International) have done their best to spin this story as one of violations of human rights on “both sides” with a heavy focus on Israeli misdeeds. The prisoners were considered as “equal,” and Israeli primarily held accountable by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of enemy combatants when, in reality, the only one protected under these conditions was Shalit, a uniformed soldier kidnapped on his own soil in non-combat situation, and the thousand Palestinian prisoners where convicted in a court, primarily of crimes related to terror attacks on civilians (an, alas, necessary redundancy in these days of sophism).

Thus, the NYT’s Robert Mackee could speak glibly about the “joy of parents on both sides” at the return of prisoners, and the UN could voice its concern that the prisoners Israel released might be subject to illegal forced transfer.

“Returning people to places other than their habitual places of residence is in contradiction to international humanitarian law.”

The UN’s exquisite concern for the full exercise of free will by convicted mass murderers illustrates the problem. Humanitarian discourse has been turned on its head to protect the ugliest players in this particular game, threatened by ugly forces within their own society, all the while implying that Israel, in its haste to get its own soldier back, trampled their rights and violated humanitarian law. Not surprisingly this led Ban Ki Moon to a moment of moral vertigo where he denounced the violation of everyone’s rights.

Of course, in order to present the moral equivalence (if not inversion) of all the “prisoners” in the swap, one has to play down the heinous nature of the crimes and personalities of the Palestinian prisoners released. BBC Correspondent Jon Donnison showed the extent of ignorance and laziness among the supposedly professional news media by interviewing a man in prison for organizing and abetting several suicide bombings. (Because the attacks only injured but did not kill, he did not receive life sentences.)

You are 31 years old, 10 years in prison, serving a life sentence for being a member of Hamas, I mean, how do you feel today?”

BBC viewers could be excused for sympathizing with a political prisoner, inhumanly incarcerated for belonging to an opposition party, free at last.

A still more disgusting example concerns the Sbarro Pizza bombing, one of the most revolting of all the suicide attacks because it explicitly sought to kill as many little children as possible (and succeeded). Palestinian students celebrated its anniversary with an astonishing exhibition, recreating in papier mache the moment of detonation so viewers could savor their Schadenfreude.

The parents of one of the girls killed in the attack, Malki Roth, objected to the release of Ahlam Tamimi, who not only planned the attack meticulously as an attack on religious children, but, in prisonshowed not only no remorse, but real pleasure at the news that she had killed 8, not just 3 children.  Many in the media preferred “driver of the suicide bomber,” thus making the Roths look petty for objecting to her freedom. Meantime, the “moderate” Jordanians celebrated her release with a ceremony at the Family Court in Amann.

So, if one might ask the question, “Will the world ask: ‘Why do Palestinians celebrate murder?’” the answer is, “no.” Even those who know that’s what they’re doing, will have had any moral indignation bleached out of their awareness long before they’ve had a chance to ponder the variables.

In acquiescing with a Palestinian narrative in which hatred and child mass murder are considered legitimate expressions of “resistance” to “occupation,” Western human rights activists – including too many journalists – have degraded humanitarian language at the same time as they have allowed into the public sphere a discourse of genocidal hatred, they have excluded any sympathy for Israelis who defend themselves from the onslaught they have shut out from their, and their audiences’ consciousness. As Leon Wieseltier put it in a different context, this all reflects “the new heartlessness toward Israel. A whole country and a whole people have been expelled from the realm of imaginative sympathy.”

It may seem cost-free to Westerners who, for one reason or another, don’t like pushy Jewish overachievers, but it’s not. In misreading the nature of the threat Israel faces, in adopting a degraded language of human rights to protect the greatest enemies of human rights on the planet, in adopting a  that masquerades as empirically accurate, they embrace  all the kinds of techniques that put them in danger when faced with the same enemy.

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