Culture Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Israeli-Palestinian conflict all about denial of moral legitimacy

Temple Mount
Temple Mount

Temple Mount

In March, Mohammed Dajani, professor and head of the American Studies Department at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, took 27 students on a field trip to Auschwitz as part of a joint project with a German and an Israeli university to learn more about the Holocaust and to teach tolerance and empathy. What followed was a campaign of campus riots, death threats, and intimidation by some other teachers and students at Al Quds, and members of the Palestinian public.

Last week Dajani tendered his resignation as, he said, “a litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim, or not.” Not. The administration accepted the tender.

It would be impressive if the American Studies Association, which passed that resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions because “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” acted to support Dajani, especially since he’s one of their own. I’m not holding my breath.

What’s the take-away? Calling it “another victory” for “the mighty Arab ignorance and stupidity brigade,” Hussein Ibish — hardly a running dog of Israeli imperialism — wrote:

[T]he whole squalid affair is redolent with Palestinian, and broader Arab, collective neurotic symptoms about others. What, after all, do Palestinians have to gain by insisting their students remain ignorant of the Holocaust? Prof. Dajani argued from the outset that it is essential to understand the Israeli mentality and the Jewish experiences, especially in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, that inform it. It’s an unassailable argument.

Unassailable yes, but there nevertheless needs to be an answer to his question. The point of preventing Palestinian students from learning about the Holocaust is to deny the Jews whatever moral legitimacy the Nazi genocide confers on the State of Israel. It’s similar to Palestinian insistence that there never was a Jewish Temple on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. No Holocaust + no Jerusalem Temple = no legitimate State of Israel.

Of course, the denial of moral legitimacy to the other side in the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the exclusive property of Palestinians. Most recently, there have been widespread Jewish complaints about the the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which dramatizes the story of the Jewish passenger who was thrown overboard to his death by Palestinian hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.

By putting classic anti-Semitic slurs in the mouths of the hijackers and allowing a chorus of Palestinian exiles to plead their cause, the opera has been deemed anti-Semitic by some Jews. While rejecting the charge, Met general manager Peter Gelb has cancelled the opera’s scheduled simulcast though not the production itself.

“I think the people that are inflamed and upset about its production are people who are intent about trying to control their message,” a disappointed Adams told the New York Times today. “When Klinghoffer finally sings, he sings an aria of absolute indignation…How could that be construed as making fun of the Klinghoffers?”

We treasure moral ambiguity in art but in life not so much. Years ago, I heard the literary critic George Steiner give a lecture in which he attacked the efforts of historians to explain how the Third Reich came about. Such efforts undermined the view of Nazism as radically evil, he said, leading down a slippery slope to “tout comprendre, tout pardonneri” — to understand everything is to pardon everything.

But making peace requires recognizing where the other side is coming from. Refusal to do so is a guarantee of perpetual war.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service