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The Suicide of the Palestinians

From the March 25, 2002 issue: Beyond barbarism in the Middle East.

10:00 PM, Mar 15, 2002 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Everything has changed, including (for many of us) our ideas about Islam. We ought to have paid more attention to the latest developments. We now learn that suicide bombers are told to expect a heaven full of comely virgins as their next assignment. To the suicide-murderers, those waiting virgins are real as dirt. The killers call themselves "martyrs," but in their own minds they are the next thing to sex criminals. "Pardon me, sir or madam, do you know why I plan to murder your child? Because the authorities are offering me great sex--and, after all, I don't get many opportunities."

People who think this way are shielded from view, up to a point, by their own sheer evil. They are painful to contemplate. We instinctively look away, as we do whenever we are confronted with monstrous deformity. Nothing is harder or more frightening to look at than a fellow human who is bent out of shape. And moral deformity is the most frightening kind by far. How can Muslims of good faith allow such people to call themselves Muslim? But they do allow it. What does that mean? And is it possible that we have located here, in this inspiring vision of heaven as a whorehouse, the most loathsome idea in the history of human thought? This is the civilization that condemns "licentious" America?

And what is Israel to do? Kill terrorists? Lock up incipient terrorists? Fine, but not enough. Develop the Palestinian opposition also. People who say there is none can't be serious. Among all those mothers and fathers of children who have become suicide-murderers, not one? Not one who believes: "The 'leaders' who did this to my child must be stopped"? Of course you don't dare say such things in the territories. But surely (one optimistically assures oneself), Israeli intelligence could locate a few such families if it tried, and if they were removed to safe ground and protected. . . ."Safe ground" couldn't be Israel or America, or the credibility of this new opposition would be fatally compromised. But it could be Europe. (Khomeini preached the Iranian revolution from France.) Those few families would be mere people, not "leaders," not politicians. But prospective leaders and politicians would come. Being (as a rule) without passion themselves, they are drawn by passion. The Palestinian leadership would try hard to silence these families and their followers, but the message would get through: Our barbaric leadership is destroying us.

But what of Europe? Not long ago I picked up a copy of Le Monde, which reports on the recent meeting where work was started on a constitution for Europe--the goal being to allow Europe to campaign, as the equal of any great power, "pour affirmer ses valeurs," to assert its values; and you can't help but wonder, exactly what "valeurs" are we talking about? Indifference? Complacency? Spiritual exhaustion? "European values" (certainly "French values") has come to sound like "Palestinian moderates"--a contradiction in terms. To any instance of Western man--American or not, Jew or gentile, male or female--Europe's spiritual collapse is heartbreaking. It is strange but true that the only European country one can picture (by the remotest stretch of the imagination) cooperating on the sly with Israel to help create a Palestinian opposition is Germany--or maybe, if the United States made an issue of it, Britain.

THERE ARE LARGER questions about Israel's role in the world that have been pressing for years, but nowadays seem to grow more acute by the hour. The axioms that underpinned Zionism have been turned inside out. Modern Israel was conceived as a safe haven for Jews. It had other reasons for existing--but safety, and the dignity that only comes with safety, were Zionism's emotional mainsprings. In recent decades, though, especially since the end of Soviet tyranny, the safe-haven idea has lost cogency like an unwound watch running down. In the last few years, Israel has started to look (on the contrary) like the most dangerous place for Jews in the world--if we exclude the small Jewish communities that still exist in Arab countries. Israel must change the way in which it explains itself. (Yoram Hazony made essentially this claim in his seminal "The Jewish State" of 2000.)

When we look at Israel today, it is crucial that we not allow Palestinian barbarism to distract us from another part of this picture: the everyday heroism that lights the whole place up from end to end. A large proportion of Israelis have relatives or connections abroad, mainly in the United States, and they could run to safety if they wanted to. Who would blame them? Who would even have the theoretical right to blame them? But overwhelmingly they have chosen to stay and stand fast. The whole population, man, woman, and child, is holding (is refusing to abandon) a dangerous forward position under fire. It's hard for Israelis to praise Israeli courage, but Americans ought to.