Yousef Munayyer writes: I’m a Palestinian who was born in the Israeli town of Lod, and thus I am an Israeli citizen. My wife is not; she is a Palestinian from Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Despite our towns being just 30 miles apart, we met almost 6,000 miles away in Massachusetts, where we attended neighboring colleges.
A series of walls, checkpoints, settlements and soldiers fill the 30-mile gap between our hometowns, making it more likely for us to have met on the other side of the planet than in our own backyard.
Never is this reality more profound than on our trips home from our current residence outside Washington.
Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport is on the outskirts of Lod (Lydda in Arabic), but because my wife has a Palestinian ID, she cannot fly there; she is relegated to flying to Amman, Jordan. If we plan a trip together — an enjoyable task for most couples — we must prepare for a logistical nightmare that reminds us of our profound inequality before the law at every turn.
Even if we fly together to Amman, we are forced to take different bridges, two hours apart, and endure often humiliating waiting and questioning just to cross into Israel and the West Bank. The laws conspire to separate us.
If we lived in the region, I would have to forgo my residency, since Israeli law prevents my wife from living with me in Israel. This is to prevent what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once referred to as “demographic spillover.” Additional Palestinian babies in Israel are considered “demographic threats” by a state constantly battling to keep a Jewish majority. (Of course, Israelis who marry Americans or any non-Palestinian foreigners are not subjected to this treatment.)
Last week marked Israel’s 64th year of independence; it is also when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” during which many of Palestine’s native inhabitants were turned into refugees.
In 1948, the Israeli brigade commander Yitzhak Rabin helped expel Lydda’s Palestinian population. Some 19,000 of the town’s 20,000 native Palestinian inhabitants were forced out. My grandparents were among the 1,000 to remain.
They were fortunate to become only internally displaced and not refugees. Years later my grandfather was able to buy back his own home — a cruel absurdity, but a better fate than that imposed on most of his neighbors, who were never permitted to re-establish their lives in their hometowns.
Three decades later, in October 1979, this newspaper reported that Israel barred Rabin from detailing in his memoir what he conceded was the “expulsion” of the “civilian population of Lod and Ramle, numbering some 50,000.” Rabin, who by then had served as prime minister, sought to describe how “it was essential to drive the inhabitants out.”
Two generations after the Nakba, the effect of discriminatory Israeli policies still reverberates. Israel still seeks to safeguard its image by claiming to be a bastion of democracy that treats its Palestinian citizens well, all the while continuing illiberal policies that target this very population. There is a long history of such discrimination.
It’s worth reading in full the 1979 report by David Shipler that Munayyer cites. The fact that Rabin’s account of Jews driving Palestinians from their homes at gun point was censored could be assumed to indicate that it was an account of unusual candor. But even if was such an account it was also an example of what is called in Hebrew yorim u’vochim — we shoot and we cry.
Rabin writes: “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action. Soldiers of the Yiftach Brigade included youth-movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness. The eviction went beyond the concepts they were used to.
“There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth-movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”
At a time when Israeli leaders and Israel’s supporters frequently bemoan the fact that Israel is subject to harsh criticism, we are told that Israel is unfairly being singled out in a world where injustice is pervasive. Even so, there truly is something unique about the sentiment that Rabin and others describe.
Their message to the Palestinians is this: when you hurt, we empathize with your suffering so much that it hurts us too. We are not guilty of unfeeling brutality. Our brutality is garnished with sensitivity. Indeed, we are so sensitive that it hurts us deeply when onlookers who don’t carry the same moral burden that we do, judge us harshly. That is perhaps the greatest injustice.
Contrast this with the brutality of those who shoot and don’t cry. Ostensibly that is a worse brutality because it is bereft of empathy. Sometimes so, but, I would argue, this unfeeling brutality is unfeeling for a reason: callousness is a way of protecting those who inflict pain from the power of their own conscience. They know that if they were to allow themselves to empathize with their victims they would cry and stop shooting.
What those who shoot and cry are expressing is a narcissistic form of brutality. Empathy, instead of serving as an antidote to cruelty makes cruelty easier. And this empathy is in truth no such thing; it is a form of vanity — a conviction of those who refuse to doubt their own virtue.