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No, Israel Isn’t at Fault For Toulouse

In ‘New York Review,’ William Pfaff blames the victims

Marc Tracy
March 29, 2012
The Toulouse school earlier this week.(Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)
The Toulouse school earlier this week.(Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)

Were the four Jews murdered in Toulouse, France, killed because of Israeli oppression and occupation of the Palestinians? The question, along with an uncharacteristic amount of righteous indignation on my part, is prompted by a really risible post by William Pfaff at the New York Review of Books. The editors supplied the headline, “The Middle East Conflict Comes to France,” and allowed Pfaff right off the bat to refer to “the war … between Zionism and the Palestinians,” a locution that intentionally denies the right of Israelis to exist. (Later, the war is between “the Muslims and the Zionists,” which undercuts Pfaff’s argument that the problem is Israel’s treatment of one particular majority-Muslim people and instead, again, suggests that the problem is Jews living in the general vicinity.)

But the question Pfaff raises is important, even if he completely, embarrassingly, and disturbingly bungles it. Were these Jews murdered because of the Mideast? Is the Mideast conflict responsible for murders of Jews by anti-Semites? Those are two distinct questions, and answering the first makes it apparent that this is a very poor test case for answering the second. First, literally: did the late Mohammed Merah shoot and kill four Jews, three of them children, at the Ozer Hatorah school in this peaceful city in southern France as some sort of misguided and displaced revenge for Israeli atrocities? Pfaff runs through all the evidence that he did not: that Merah had already killed three French Muslim soldiers; that while Merah claimed that this prior act was revenge for the Afghanistan invasion, given that he was not particularly religious or politically active, his claim of a political motive is tenuous; that, alternatively and more plausibly, Merah was a troubled soul from a broken home, with a psychological profile similar to Timothy McVeigh’s. Generally, with these things, “the nature of the motivating grievance varies with the times and the prevailing politics of a given period,” Pfaff concludes, “and usually is otherwise of no serious importance since the fundamental motivations are individual, and usually incoherently articulated and held.”

Did I write “concludes”? Actually, Pfaff has decided that Merah is the exception to this rule—that his “motivating grievance” (not the war against the Taliban, but the Palestinian conflict) is of very serious importance. “Merah’s cold-blooded killing of Jewish schoolchildren—quite apart from his fury against the French military—fit a distinct pattern,” Pfaff argues. “Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.”

And not only is the Israeli-Palestinan conflict the culprit—Israel, specifically, is the culprit. Israel started it, according to Pfaff, when it touched off the latest round of deaths in Gaza with the “‘targeted killing’ of March 14 in reprisal for previous rocketing from Gaza.” (Actually, the targeted killing in question was not vengeful, it was preventive: the terrorist leader it successfully targeted was reportedly planning another attack. Nearly all Palestinian casualties during the course of the skirmishes were terrorists. Pfaff mentions none of this, and his editors didn’t insist otherwise.) And Israel is to blame for its continued unhappiness: “The stigmatization of Israel could be much mitigated, if not ended,” Pfaff writes, “by an Israeli government (unlikely to be this one) or by the United States government (again unlikely because of the intimidation of both Democratic and Republican administrations and of most of the Congress) or by Palestinian leadership (yet again unlikely because the most popular party, Hamas, denies Israel’s right to exist),” except I added that last part about the Palestinian leadership. Pfaff blames only Israel and America. (At least, as the poet said, blame Canada! But that would require not being ignorant.) Anyway, perhaps those Oklahoma City workers would still be alive if the federal government didn’t levy taxes?

I’m pretty sure there’s a word for blaming some Jews for the actions of some other Jews. And you heard the man: “Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention.”

I don’t know why Merah killed those children: I tend to subscribe to the thesis, controversial with many who heretofore have been cheering me on, that the main cause of jihadism among European Muslims are material factors like socioeconomic immobility and discrimination, which cause angry young men to latch onto ideologies of hate. I think the straightest line between killing French Jews to a French Muslim killer is French Muslim anti-Semitism, but I suppose Israel could have played a role; I suppose also France’s stifling, illiberal, official secularism, or laïcité, which causes the country to ban the veil in schools, also factored in, as did the anti-immigrant, at times xenophobic rhetoric in the current presidential campaign (Merah also cited these things, as Michael Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine; they are unmentioned in Pfaff’s piece). I do know that it is presumptuous and unrigorous to chalk this one up to Israel because of a past “pattern,” and I certainly know that it is getting one’s values mixed up—or, more troublingly, not getting one’s values mixed up—to afix blame exclusively on Israel, its American patron, and the nameless indirect Jew-killers who “intimidate” both.

Pfaff should heed these words: “It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life.” Such was Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad’s response to the Toulouse massacre.

So the Merah incident is a really poor example. Because here’s the thing, if I may pivot here: Israel’s actions do affect anti-Semitic activity elsewhere in the world. For example, during and after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, when Israel invaded Gaza, causing (in my opinion) an amount of destruction and death not justified by the provocation or the threat or the situation, anti-Semitic acts around the world ticked up. Moreover, one ought to be able to separate the judgment of whether an attack on a Jew in Caracas, Venezuela, is justified by an Israeli attack in Rafah—which, as is clear to most people not named William Pfaff, it is not—from the empirical fact that this dynamic is a documented phenomenon. And one ought to be able to ask further: should Israel take this dynamic into account when pondering operations—say, an attack on Iran?—likely to lead to such anti-Semitic “reprisals”? Acknowledging the existence of anti-Semitism need not mean granting it intellectual respect.

In the context of Toulouse and the talk surrounding an Iran operation, I found myself thinking about these issues, and earlier this week spoke with Moshe Halbertal, a leading Israeli and Jewish ethicist. (This should hardly matter, but Halbertal is known to frequent the regular Friday protests against the occupation at Sheikh Jarrah. In case Pfaff and the New York Review editors are reading this, Sheikh Jarrah is a Muslim neighborhood unjustly occupied by Zionism.) I wanted to know: should Israel feel responsible—not culpable, but obliged to look out for—the interests of Jews around the world who might be threatened by anti-Semites who use Israel’s actions as a pretext to kill Jews?

Personally, as I’ve written, I think it should: a war launched in the name of saving Jewish lives should take into account all Jewish lives.

While noting that the Jews in the world most likely to be threatened in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran are, in fact, Israeli Jews, Halbertal offered a careful, nuanced opinion that agreed with mine:

In principle, the state of Israel, as a state defining itself as a Jewish state, has responsibility of solidarity with the Jewish people as a whole. And therefore, if some of its actions impact the Jewish world, it really relates to its very political essence—it’s not a minor political consideration—and it will have to factor in and weigh what the repercussions are.

He added, “It is a serious consideration that cuts to the very essence of what Israel is.”

And then he turned things around, and made a profound argument about the relationship between Jews and Israel. “But you,” he told me, “like the Israeli Jews, have a responsibility of solidarity with Israeli Jews.”

You have to take into account their risks. You’re not a bystander in that respect. The same expectations you have of Israel, you should have of yourself. If you say, “Israel ought to have solidarity. If the deputy foreign minister of Israel puts the Turkish ambassador on a lower chair [note: yes, this happened], he has to think about the Jews of Istanbul, as an Israeli official,” that should relate to you as well. You’re going to have to assume that minor sacrifice for the well-being of your brethren in the state of Israel.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As a supporter of Israel, I am obliged to think of the repercussions of all Israeli actions in all direction; otherwise I am like a meat-eater who lives in denial of the sometimes inhumane methods of preparing my meat. This is precisely why I go out of my way to keep myself knowledgeable about Israel. But I also believe people should be free to make their own choices in defining their identities. Jews who refuse to identify with Israel are, in my opinion, shirking a valuable and rewarding commitment, and I’d implore them not to; but shirking that commitment doesn’t make them not Jewish.

You can find alternatives to Halbertal’s philosophy, such as Haaretz columnist Carlos Stenger’s imprecation that, “at a moment where a man who has also killed a number of French soldiers has murdered Jews, we must remember that bigotry, fanaticism, and extremism, of which neo-Nazism and Islamic Jihadism are two forms, are worldwide problems. Jews, as part of the global community, need to find ways to address and fight violent fanaticism in all its forms, rather than arguing that the world should be re-partitioned into tribes.”

And I’m willing to dole out a modicum of blame specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu, for casting Iran as Amalek. Amalek must be killed because he wants to kill all Jews and can kill all Jews; Iran’s leaders, by contrast, may or may not want to kill all Jews with their nuclear program, but as of now they cannot kill me with it. A lowering of the rhetorical temperature would do everyone a lot of good. But this is not what Merah had on his mind, and it’s not what Pfaff did, either.

Speaking of Pfaff! Though I didn’t know at the time I asked this question that somebody as high-profile as he would be so hateful to make this argument, while speaking with Halbertal I wondered if when Israeli actions provoke anti-Semitic crimes elsewhere, Israel becomes not just connected to but, like, actually guilty of those crimes. “An individual, innocent Jew, and, God forbid, kill him or harm him because he’s a Jew?” Halbertal responded. “That’s just racism.”

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Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.