The Murder of 500 Children: A “Moral Dilemma” for Israel

Roger Cohen calls for Israeli self-scrutiny in his New York Times op-ed today, bemoaning the “moral dilemma of the modern Israeli condition.” It’s tough, he says, because the “terrorists” in Gaza forced them to take action and now Israel has the blood of 500 children on its hands.

Although Cohen calls for Israelis to take a hard look at their own share in this summer’s massacre, he makes no attempt to scrutinize Israeli spin—the claims that Israel was acting in self-defense, that Hamas is “bent on the destruction of Israel” and that “Palestinians have made a profession of failure.” He takes all these self-serving catchphrases as established facts.

It seems that Cohen’s call for self-scrutiny has not inspired him to review the evidence that refutes each of these claims. He has apparently never read Larry Derfner’s analysis of how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked the war this summer, nor research showing that Israel is a serial breaker of ceasefires, nor anything about Hamas’ willingness to accept the 1967 borders, nor any of the numerous reports (see here and here) showing that Israel deliberately undermines Palestinian efforts to develop their economy and hang onto their resources.

Cohen is explicit in naming the sins of Israel’s enemies, but he is vague when it comes to stating just where Israel has gone wrong. He manages to say that the problem is “the denial of…humanity to the stranger,” adding, “When that goes so does essential self-interrogation.”

But even here Cohen can’t say that this is an Israeli problem. Instead, he states that this denial is “the terrible thing about the Holy Land today.” Is he implying that this is a problem for both sides? This is never made clear.

And who is “the stranger”? In Cohen’s view, it is the indigenous Palestinian, the steward of the land over many centuries, who is now a stranger in the Holy Land. “Palestinians have joined the ‘community of expulsion,’” he writes, a term that once defined the Jews, and so Jews must obey the biblical admonition to “treat the stranger as yourself for ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

This raises a question for knowledgeable readers. Is Cohen acknowledging the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of 1948, when Jewish forces expelled 750,000 Palestinians and sent them into exile to make way for the State of Israel? He gives us no clue, avoiding details and staying within safer boundaries—the abstract concept of a “community of expulsion.”

Cohen claims that the failure to see the humanity of the other has come about “as mingling has died” and “separation has bred denial and contempt.” The lack of a causative agent is telling here. It is Israel that has built the separation barrier, created distinct legal systems for Jews and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, adopted laws enforcing separation and cut off Gaza by land and sea, but Cohen can’t bring himself to address these facts. He prefers a vague statement bemoaning a state of affairs without apparent cause.

The result of all this is a tortured expression of denial, self-justification, regret and handwringing in place of actual self-scrutiny. Cohen buys into Israel’s self-serving claims and excuses, but the deaths of 500 children are impossible to deny. The knowledge of this remains in his sight, but, he says, he still believes in Israel through it all.

Barbara Erickson

5 thoughts on “The Murder of 500 Children: A “Moral Dilemma” for Israel

  1. Hey Barbara,

    Thanks for your analysis and the good links you include. I’m sure you probably read Henry Seigman’s July article in Politico entitled “Israel Provoked This War,” similar to Derfner’s – though I enjoyed reading Derfner’s take as well.

    Regarding Roger Cohen, I have been following his op ed pieces for a while now and in the course of that time, have observed a measurable shift in attitude. By that I mean, he is a man who clearly is very, very uncomfortable criticizing Israel, but you can just see that he is becoming more and more aware that Israel is just not so great these days. Cohen doesn’t express these feelings with very direct or specific language, because old habits die hard and criticizing Israel is still very hard for him. But he’s evolving, and grappling with a terrible disillusionment, and I think some of the soft, ambiguous language he uses reflects that moral discomfort and confusion.

    Listen, there are some Jewish people out there whose brains literally short circuit if you say anything critical about Israel or Israeli state policy, and that phenomenon is not normal or healthy, but it exists. And it occurs to me that maybe Cohen is addressing that touchy audience, and knows that the only way to get across his ideas is to communicate them as gently, as softly as possible, and in a way that’s calculated to not raise the ire of his audience. Just a thought.

    Anyway, keep up the good work! Somebody’s got to keep the Gray Lady honest. Or at least encourage her to get off her knees. I mean, Jesus, it’s embarrassing.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments about Cohen and his apparent struggle to come to terms with what Israel is doing. Let’s hope he can make that final leap to full recognition before long!

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  2. Dear Barbara Erickson: You are doing a wonderful service in these analyses of the NYT coverage. Warm congratulations, and thanks.

    Edward S. Herman ________________________________

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