June 27, 2011
Mormons, Empathy and Palestinian Nationalism: An Unholy Mix
In the past few weeks I’ve received a few dozen e-mails and calls from Mormons asking my opinion on whether a Palestinian state should be created in September. Most Mormons I know are against the idea, but a few support it. When I run across a Mormon who is more sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, I react in the same way that I do when I come across Jews who highlight Palestinian suffering: by giving thanks.
Both of our religious traditions promote kindness, empathy, and charity. When a Mormon tells me that her Palestinian friends’ stories have moved her to try to view things through their eyes, that’s a good thing. Ditto for a Jew who visits the West Bank and comes away questioning the wisdom of the ongoing occupation. The fact that Mormons and Jews value fairness and oppose injustice will inevitably lead some members of both faiths to embrace Palestinian nationalism. I would worry if this were not the case.
Truth be told, I was almost one of them. During my last two years at BYU, several of my good friends were Palestinians and Jordanians. We discussed politics a lot, and the Palestinians took every opportunity to tell me how brutal the Israeli occupation was and to describe their longing to have a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It was impossible not to empathize with their stories of suffering, though there was always a voice in the back of my head warning me not to rush to judgment. After all, I had had many positive interactions with Jews and Judaism, and the Palestinians’ perception of Jews didn’t square with mine. Everything became much clearer when I had the chance to live in Israel for two years and interview many Arabs and Jews about the reality of living there.
There is one interesting difference between Jews who side with Palestinians and Mormons who do so. Almost all Jews who openly side with Palestinians are secular, while their Mormon counterparts are often as religiously observant as Mormons who side with Israel. With the exception of a few fringe ultra-Orthodox groups, support for Israel is almost universal among Orthodox Jews. It has become an axiom that a good way to ensure that a Jewish child loves Israel is to teach it to love Judaism and to live an observant Jewish life. One way to ensure that a Mormon child loves Israel is to teach it to make basic moral distinctions among people and groups.
If I could herd all of these empathetic Mormons into a room for a tachles discussion on the Middle East, the following items would be on the agenda:
1) The fact that God loves all of His children is useless as a means of analyzing what is happening in the world. If we can’t criticize evil leaders or groups because we believe that God loves them, we can’t be a force for good in the world. God loved Hitler and Eichmann, but moral people still needed to oppose Nazi Germany in WWII. There’s no doubt that God has unbounded love for Syria’s President Assad, but I certainly hope that all thinking Mormons (and Jews) oppose the brutal war that he’s currently waging on his own people.
2) Just as it is wrong to stereotype individuals based on their race, ethnicity or nationality, it is also wrong to impute the positive characteristics of individuals to their governments or leaders. I recall reading a letter to the editor in BYU’s newspaper around the time of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008 to stop rocket attacks by Hamas, the ruling party. The writer’s argument seemed to be that BYU students shouldn’t automatically support Israel because there were nice Palestinian students on campus from Gaza. Well, those students may well be the nicest ones on earth, but their niceness has zero ability to influence the terrorist group Hamas. I too had nice Palestinian friends at BYU, but their friendship didn’t change Arafat’s support for terror.
3) Some Mormons fail to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They hear stories of hardship and tragedy from Palestinians, and they project these individual tales of woe onto the Palestinian nationalist movement as a whole. Because my friend Ahmad was humiliated at a checkpoint, that means that the Palestinian narrative is equally valid because both sides are doing bad things. This is the moral equivalent of saying that because my friend who survived the bombing of Dresden accused Allied soldiers of atrocities, that means that both sides were equally wrong in WWII. Instead of using Ahmad’s statements as an indictment of Israel, the smart question to ask would be why Israel feels the need to have its young soldiers man checkpoints in the first place. I know why, because I lived in Tel Aviv when buses and cafes were regularly blown up.
4) I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon prophets wrote about the Gadianton robbers (a secret band of robbers and criminals) just to fill space on the metal plates. There are evil groups and movements in the world, and it is irresponsible to pretend that we are obligated as Mormons to put on our blinders and pretend that everyone is equally moral and just. Just because there are competing narratives doesn’t mean that they are all equally valid.
Mormons who believe that their neutrality on the Israeli-Arab conflict will allow them to bring the two groups together are misguided. (I say this as someone who was asked by Jews and Muslims to conduct the memorial service for a Pakistani journalist). Why would Jews trust someone who can’t make basic moral distinctions in the conflict? It is for this reason that I do not refer to LDS supporters of Palestinian nationalism as “pro-Palestinian,” since true supporters of Palestinians would want them to live in a prosperous, thriving, peaceful democracy. There is no chance of that happening with Hamas and Fatah as their rulers, yet there is very little criticism of these groups from “pro-Palestinian” Latter-day Saints.
5) I have personally witnessed improper treatment of Arabs by Israelis, and think that this should be condemned by all thoughtful people. I have intervened more than once at an Israeli security checkpoint to prevent harassment of a Palestinian (most recently in Bethlehem), and will continue to do so. Moreover, I am under no illusion that Israelis are perfect or that they do not sometimes treat Palestinians abominably. On one occasion an Israeli settler in Kiryat Arba pointed a machine gun at me, an American diplomat in a suit, and demanded that I leave because I wasn’t Jewish. One can only imagine how he must treat poor Palestinians who cross his path. However, I no more view these unfortunate events as an indictment of Israel than I viewed Abu Ghraib as an indictment of all American soldiers in Iraq.
The old adage is still true: If Palestinians laid down their guns tomorrow, there would be no more conflict. If the Israelis laid down their guns tomorrow, there would be no more Israel. Unfortunately, the Palestinian nationalist movement has been headed for decades by anti-Semitic Gadiantons. This does not mean that all (or most) Palestinians are bad, but it does mean that we can—and must—make a moral distinction between a movement that has employed terror and led its people and the region into misery, and a modern state that produces Nobel Prize winners, leading universities, high-tech companies and world-class hospitals. We are free to love individuals of all nations, but I’m confident that Mormons (and Jews) who seek the power of discernment in the Middle East and elsewhere will not ultimately be deceived. As the good book says, by their fruits we shall know them.