The Politics of Victimhood

Victimhood has become a default position for Jews and Palestinians alike -- with bloody consequences for both peoples.

| Wed May 8, 2002 3:00 AM EDT

As the pictures of carnage in Israel stream into our living rooms, it's not as if American Jews lack reasons for desperation. If you suicide-bomb us on Passover, do we not bleed? Does that bleeding lead to a relaxed feeling toward suicide-bomb factories in the Jenin camp, a renewed trust in Arafat, a calm resumption of negotiations toward a Palestinian homeland? Who, having been victimized again and again, is in a mood to question the tactics of self-defense or care much about innocent victims on the enemy side?

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To feel victimized has become a default position for Jews, a plain human reaction for which centuries of anti-Semitism are the explanation. Even in the US, Jewish achievements aren't enough to erase Jewish fears. The fears are bad enough, but worse trouble comes when they crystallize into a politics predicated on victimhood. When the victim mentality takes the place of political argument, huge errors result. Feelings, whatever their sources, are neither moral nor political arguments. They do not justify tactics. The mind must always find a way to make sense.

Flooded with fear and rage, embracing the politics of victimhood, Israelis are hoping to simplify the world. That was the purpose for which they installed Ariel Sharon to run their Promised Land. Of course the Palestinians have their own wild fear and rage, their own furious penchant for simplification, their own feelings of victimhood.

But now America's Jews, in their own spasm of fear, anger and defensiveness, are circling the wagons and espousing a world view every bit as simplistic as that of Israel's Jews, and in some ways even more so. Damn the media, damn the Europeans, damn the UN -- damn everybody who didn't lose relatives to the Nazis. Damn even the Israeli majority who, even after the madness of recent months, amazingly still stand ready to dismantle settlements as part of a land-for-peace deal.

The hell-bent search for self-justification brings grails full of blood. For actions have consequences, however pure and justifiable the feelings that fuel them.

Such is the awful flaw in the desperado politics of victimhood embraced by Jews and Palestinians alike: The victim mentality, left unleashed, both leads to the crimes of the present and incites the murderers of the future, who might not hesitate to graduate from suicide bombs to suitcase bombs. At this moment, Palestinians who think with their blood are thirsting for the apocalyptic day when they will run the risk of rendering large portions of their wished-for homeland unfit for human habitation. Meanwhile, Jewish fundamentalists, cheered on by the leaders of America's Christian right, gird up to expel the Philistines once more. Self-righteousness has its reasons, but it murders the future in the name of an unsalvageable past.

Consider how the pure feelings have ratcheted up. Sharon's provocative expedition onto the Temple Mount in September 2000 ignited Palestinian violence, which fueled an Israeli crackdown, which led to Palestinian uproar, which resulted in Sharon's election, which in turn fueled Hamas's bombings, which in turn made Sharon's West Bank invasion palatable in Israel and the United States, which in turn gave Arafat new legitimacy, and so it goes, ad nauseam.

Again, Jewish nightmares of victimhood are not strictly paranoid. Nor are the Palestinians'. Anti-Semitism is far from a figment of Sharon's imagination. But some of the anti-Semitism now sweeping Europe and North Africa is a reaction to his bulldozing exploits. A vile reaction, but a reaction nevertheless. True, many in the Arab world use the plight of the Palestinians as an alibi for local autocracy, and attacks on Muslims brought down no wrath from the world when the victims were Kurds and the perpetrator was Saddam Hussein. But the truth remains: The Palestinians have gotten a raw deal -- they are victims as well, even if the autocrats say so. Moreover, Israel is no weakling, and democracies have responsibilities.

It bears repeating. Leave aside today's bloody passions and the outlines of a deal are still imaginable: (1) The establishment of a viable Palestinian state separated from Israel by the 1967 boundary and with its capital in East Jerusalem; (2) The removal of all the Gaza settlements and nearly all the West Bank settlements, allowing the settlers the right to return to pre-1967 Israel; (3) The stationing of foreign troops -- Americans prominent among them -- to help enforce the deal; (4) The abandonment by Palestinians of the right of return to Israel proper in exchange for compensation, as agreed during the Taba talks of late 2000.

Smart security demands political insurance. Which is why American Jews have a stake in getting the United States to intervene not as a bank or a cheering squad for Sharon but as a two-part power: a muscle and a brain.

It's good, for this one reason, that the Bush administration and the Saudis are consolidating their oil-soaked friendship. It's good that Washington finally appears ready to include the Europeans and the Russians in its diplomacy. The Saudis -- with help from the Europeans and the Russians -- should get the Palestinian leadership in line (and in rebuilding mode). The US should do likewise to Israel, as no one else can. Since some of the more than $3 billion annual aid to Israel goes to support settlements, the US should let Sharon know it is reconsidering a substantial portion of its support.

It's long past time for American Jews to rise above the politics of victimhood. And it's long past time for Sharon to stop taking American Jewish support for granted. He is not King of the Jews. In the real world of nations, no support should be absolute. Loyalty is not silence. Peoplehood is not a contract to gag yourself. Panic is not only a bad argument -- it's no argument at all. Enough.