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


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  • “We treasure moral ambiguity in art…”

    The response to “The Death of Klinghoffer” suggests otherwise, doesn’t it? Between the right-wingers and the social justice warriors, moral ambiguity in art will soon be a thing of the past. The choir wants to be preached to, not asked questions.

  • It has to be a right moral ambiguity. If the moral ambiguity shows those of the wrong of religious ethnic category, also known as native Palestinians, are suffering humans, then it is WRONG moral ambiguity.

  • “The land is for Jews” – Yahweh
    “The Land is for Islam” – Allah to the Muslims

    “Repent or you must die” – Christians to everyone else
    “Execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Can we just all get along? – Humanitarian Atheist

  • To undestand all does not mean to pardon all. For instance, somebody pardoned the civil war bethween Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? But were those who tried to understood the historic reasons of both parts that achieved peace.

  • Protestant vs. Catholic Ireland is the perfect example of why religion is useless garbage. It is just a tool for tribalism and killing.
    Religion is not only a lie, it is a tool for feuds.

    How much clearer can it be?

    “Forgive”, “love thy neighbor” – JESUS
    “Execute my enemies” – JESUS
    “Judge them, remove your peace” – JESUS
    “I come to bring fire” – JESUS
    “I come to bring division” – JESUS
    “I come to fulfill” the truth of God’s laws including stoning – JESUS
    “I come not to bring Peace but a sword” – JESUS

    Religion is a delusional nonsense. All of it is false, inhuman and an indecent way to live.

    Humanitarians would never come up
    with all that incoherent garbage!

  • I’m not sure about Humanitarians, but atheists can certainly be antisemites. Religion can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best in people too. This is not just theory. I have seen it in Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists.

  • I would like to add that I have heard from some Muslims and Arabs that Jews are just a religion and are not a national or ethnic group as well. That is just not true.

  • @Susan,

    I have no doubt that the Nation of Islam does a lot of good to get men off drugs. It is also a racist, crackpot organization. So I happen to think the price is too high if in return for getting kids off drugs it advocates racial or religious wars.

    Same for Hezbollah, Hamas, Zionism, Al Queda and Jesus Camp – I’m sure they all do good works to sell their brand of ‘revelations’.
    And I’m sure the Creationists also do a lot of good too, but the price we all pay is the complete abandonment of real science in public classrooms in many states: Tennessee, and Louisianna and Kentucky in particular.

    All Religion is evil.
    It begins with a lie and it ends with a lie; “I know what God wants for me – AND FOR YOU!”

    Atheists may not always be humanitarians.
    But religious people are guaranteed to be INHUMANE because their philosophy is fascist and inhumane at the core. “God’s will” is OPPOSED to human needs.
    Religion is ready to dictate its will and its claims on others.

    This is not true of the humanitarian.

    Most people are Good. And most Good people will do good – it happens every day.
    Religion steals the credit for the good. And rejects credit for the suicide bombers!

    “NO, They weren’t TRUE followers of _________ (fill in the hellish blank god of your choice)

  • @Susan,

    Ethnicities are nothing to value. Time goes by and cultures change.

    It doesn’t matter how Jews, Christians or Muslims see themselves. It is their religions that matter – it is religion that creates the all destructive, tribalist nonsense.

    All humans are Africans and we branched off from a very small group of hominids about 300,000 years ago. That is all any of us need to know about ‘ethnicity’ – we are all of the same “tribe”.

    We need to abandon all religion.

  • I was not including the Nation of Islam, which is a pseudo-Islamic cult, as an example. You purposefully picked bad examples of religion.

    Zionism is not a religion. Where do you think that the Jews that survived Hitler should have gone? Jews that stayed in Poland were massacred by their fellow Poles. Should they have stayed in Germany or France? America certainly didn’t want them. I just read that French Jews are now emigrating to Israel. Should they have gone to live in the Arab world which had supported Hitler? Tell me where besides Israel they could have gone.

    Yes, cultures change, but they continue, because they change and adapt. You seem to be suggesting that Jews should disappear. That is not a new idea. I think that the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion still has something to offer the modern world. You don’t.

  • @Susan,

    Israel is an excellent protectorate for Jewish people. Don’t put words in my mouth – I am not against Israel as it has that practical purpose.
    Pro-israel is not Zionism. Zionism is worse – it is the believe that all of the land BELONGS TO JEWS because of Yahweh. That is BS. There is no Yahweh. Grow up.

    And don’t pretend Israel can stay as it is. It may fail.
    The Jewish population is shrinking and the Muslim population is growing.
    It Jewish leaders are smart they might be able to insure Israel is always a protectorate for Jews.

    Zionism IS A RELIGION; The belief that Yahweh gave a certain tribe real estate.

    Israel should try to exist as a political solution – not as a religious or ethnic solution. Otherwise it will disappear.
    Because religion is garbage and ethnicity is an illusion.

  • “Zionism is worse – it is the believe that all of the land BELONGS TO JEWS because of Yahweh ”

    Well, no it does not not mean that at all for many Zionists. Some Zionists don’t believe in God or in Yahweh. As a matter of fact, some Ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t believe that Israel should not exist until God creates a Jewish state when the Messiah comes.

  • I’m not sure that moral superiority based upon religion will get anybody anywhere except into another war or wars. Nor am I certain that moral superiority based upon who suffers more from whom will get us anywhere except into another war. What interests me is a very practical, ho-hum question designed for those who like to wave flags in other people’s faces, risk nothing in the process and smile a lot. The question: “If I had a daughter, Where do I raise her?” Where do you raise your child, particularly and especially a girl child. Do you raise her in Saudi Arabia, where she can’t drive a car? Do you raise her in Iran, where she is subjected to threats if she can’t wear the proper clothes, think proper thoughts and feel proper feelings? How about Female Genital Mutilation – Egypt, Sudan, Mali, et. al., – are you hoping she’ll endure it so that you can feel good about yourself? Education? Professional life? Choice of a Partner? I can think of only one country over there where she’d be safe and have the possibility of a rich and fulfilling life, and that’s Israel. And don’t give me the cultural argument. Been there, done that. My child is entitled, yes entitled, to be the best person she can be, and the only country that would measure up in that region of the world is Israel.

  • You are delusional. Any country claimed as ‘god’s country’ is the one to abandon.
    You apparently learned nothing from studying Islamic countries.

  • Israel’s virtue is not its connection to Jews or Yahweh,
    It is exactly the abandonment of Theocracy that makes Israel a viable state.
    it is its dedication to democracy. That is why it appears more likely to survive.
    But there are good reasons to think it is temporary.

    There is no democracy in the Arab countries because they are THEOCRACIES.

    You are delusional. You don’t understand.
    Israel is not made of superior people – it is made of average people who have a superior system of government.

    Moses was a cancer to civilization just as Muhammed is a cancer today.

  • “Where do you think that the Jews that survived Hitler should have gone?”

    The Zionists refused any other prospect of offer, and insisted on going to the Middle East where the had ancient ties. Unfortunately, the residents (who also had similar ancient ties) objected the the influx of foreigners. Since the Palestinians did not cause the plight of these immigrants, they did not feel morally obliged to compensate or even tolerate them.
    One does wonder if the shoe had been on the other foot, that the Zionists would have behaved differently. As my father often preached “Two wrongs to do make a right.”

  • The Arab governments and the Palestinians supported Hitler. The Mufti of Jerusalem was a personal friend of Hitler and had been invited to Birtisgarden. You also ignore the plight of Jews from Arab countries. In 1941 there was an event that Iraqi Jews called the Farhud, the Iraqi equivalent of Kristallnacht.

  • @Susan,

    You keep going down the same road. You want to claim that Jews are different. They are not.

    There is no such thing as a Jew. Or an Arab or a Christian. Or a German. We are all one people – human. We all descended from the same group of Africans hundreds of thousands of years ago.

    Because of that, we are all equals. There is no Yahweh, no Allah, no Jesus.

    But….if you insist on the BS of religion
    to dictate to you who you are…
    Judaism is an infidel religion and you are deserving of being completely discriminated against by other religions. Is that what you want?
    You are worthless in the eyes of Muslims. You are nothing in the eyes of ‘christians’.

    Is that the road you want to go down? Do you insist on being Jewish?
    If so, you are part of the problem.

    wake up. You are a human like all other humans. There are no gods.
    Stop being a fool trying to separate humanity into certain groups.

  • I never suggested that Jews are not humans like all other humans. I do however, believe that the universal is found in the particular. It is very human to be part of a culture and a community. A universalism that denies this has no substance and no depth. Different is not better or worse than anyone else. This is true whether there is or is not a God.