The crime of indifference – in Israel and the US
Elie Wiesel is a worldwide personality. Through his powerful descriptive writing about the Nazi concentration camps, he has come to personify the suffering of the holocaust. Among his many insights is this famous observation: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”
Wiesel has repeatedly put forth this idea. In a 2011 commencement address at Washington University in St Louis he told his listeners: “The greatest commandment – to me – in the Bible… is ‘Thou shalt not stand idly by’. Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by.”
After a Boston lecture in 2012 Wiesel told Boston University students: “I think that is the greatest danger, ignorance, which leads to indifference and therefore to detachment… If somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.”
Unfortunately, Wiesel has identified himself with Zionism and by doing so has inevitably been caught up in contradictions and dilemmas that challenge his reputation as a moral icon.
For instance, in May 2010 he made a public appeal to President Obama not to put any pressure on the Israeli government over the issue of Jerusalem even as the Israelis evicted Palestinian residents. In doing so he revealed his own indifference to the real nature of Israeli objectives and behaviour. As a result a hundred Israeli intellectuals and activists wrote him a public reply expressing “frustration” and “outrage” at his attitude and actions.
Nonetheless, his comments about indifference and insensitivity are important and insightful and can be used as a standard to judge some of his fellow Zionists, many of whom have been “standing idly by” for decades and thus are examples of Wiesel’s dictum, “if somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.”
Recently, there have been several articles calling attention to the fact that, as Uri Avnery puts it, “We [Israelis] have become so accustomed to this situation [an occupation “going on only a few minutes drive from our homes”] that we see it as normal.” Ethan Bronner, the New York Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief, confirmed this pervasive indifference to the suffering that Israeli policies and discriminatory practices cause. “Few [Israelis] even talk about the Palestinians… Instead of focusing on what has long been seen as their central challenge – how to share this land with another nation – Israelis are largely ignoring it.”
More specifically, they are ignoring such revelations as the fact that since September 2000, when the second Intifada broke out, Israeli forces have killed over 1,500 Palestinian children. According to the Middle East Monitor, that means “one child killed by Israel every three days for almost 13 years.” In the same time the number of children injured has reached 6,000 and the number under the age of 18 arrested is about 9,000. The suffering of Palestinians, documented by the United Nations as well as private non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, is ongoing yet apparently unnoticed by the average Israeli.
Nor is any improvement in the situation likely. While Israelis display indifference to Palestinian suffering, the Israeli government has indicated its intention to keep the regime of suffering going indefinitely. According to the Israeli trade minister Naftali Bennett, “a rising star in the Israeli cabinet”, the idea of a Palestinian state is “dead” and Israel should annex large portions of the West Bank. Danny Danon, the deputy defence minister, agrees. “We are a nationalist government, not a government that will establish a Palestinian government in the 1967 lines.” Meanwhile, a significant number of Israelis, whether they think about it or not, are profiting from the expanding, and illegal, occupation of Palestinian land.
The role of ignorance
Thus, we can ask, using Wiesel’s words, what is wrong with the Israelis that they care little or nothing for the Palestinians’ 65 years of suffering? Wiesel himself has part of the answer when he observes that “ignorance… leads to indifference and therefore to detachment.”
Ignorance? Is the average Israeli really ignorant in this matter? At first this assertion appears ridiculous. After all, as Avnery notes, the suffering of the Palestinians is never more than “minutes” from most Israeli backyards, and it now and then violently boomerangs back on Israeli Jews. Nonetheless, a kind of contrived, willful ignorance does come into play. One can be raised in ignorance and educated to a view of history that eliminates others’ suffering as well as one’s role in causing it. Entire populations can be psychologically shaped this way, with those doing the shaping being the truest of the true believers. Such conditioned ignorance lays the foundation for indifference to the fate of others. The Israelis have made an art of this process.
Yet, this scenario did not originate with the Israelis and Zionists. In fact, many Zionists learned how to see the world this way from Americans. Some years back I published a book, America’s Palestine in which this legacy is explored. As it turns out, one of the Zionist themes of the 1920s was that the native Palestinians were the Arab equivalent of hostile American Indians, violently resisting the forces of civilization and modernization. What was the average American’s attitude to the fate of these Indians – to their brutal dispossession and ethic cleansing? It was indifference which has grown greater with time until most Americans do not give the Indians or their fate much thought at all.
Several years ago, at a debate held at the University of Pennsylvania, I tried to explain this connection to an Israeli vice-consul from the Philadelphia consulate and his coterie of Zionist students. I suggested to them that the long-term Zionist strategy was to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and then count on the world to, over time, get used to and then forget this crime. In a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, who would cry over the Palestinians? About the same number as bemoan the Apache or Cheyenne today? However, I also told them that in our post-imperialist world, this historical scenario was unlikely to repeat itself. The reception to all of this from the consul and his hangers-on was negative. They walked out.
The indifference, leading to detachment, that Wiesel so fears can quickly become a habitual part of our lives. After all, so much of our lives are just “a stream of habitual actions” that can be either “rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation.” It is in the latter case that we get into trouble. When Israelis ignore Palestinian suffering they act in a way “irrationally unfit for their given situation” and that means, in Wiesel’s terms, “there is something wrong” with them. As Americans, we should recognize the symptoms, for we too have repeatedly behaved in this fashion. Having modelled this insensitivity for the Zionists, it now stands as a mark of our “special relationship” with the land of Israel.