Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lord Of The Flies In Jerusalem's Zion Square

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu roundly condemned last week's attack on Jamal Julani, 17, in downtown Jerusalem.  Julani was assaulted in the early hours of Thursday morning by at least five Israeli youth who beat him nearly to death.  PM Netanyahu's remarks come on the heels of statements by President Shimon Peres, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.  

Both supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestinians have expressed shock at the attack.  Both sides have expressed a willingness to work to prevent such attacks in the future, much to their credit.  Yet comments over the past week on various media outlets indicate a sad truth: both sides remain addicted to politicization.  And its effects are now impacting the next generation in the Middle East.

Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian activists have become hooked on the very conflict they profess a desire to end, engaged to the bitter and petty end in a zero-sum war of words, snark, and outright offense.  Many in the pro-Palestinian camp paint broad brushstrokes in Jamal Julani's blood about a violent and hateful Israeli society.  Many in the pro-Israel camp tout the universal condemnation of the attack as if it were somehow special for leaders of a liberal democratic society to speak out when one of its members is assaulted and beaten in the heart of its capital.

Broad attempts to link this shocking attack to some greater point about Israel's presence in the West Bank or its history of conflict with the Arab World are tacky, ineffective, and dehumanizing.  The attack on Jamal Julani is tragic because he is a human being, not because he is a Palestinian.  The attack has returned universal condemnation from a wide swath of the Israeli and American Jewish community.  Just as Americans should not be considered "violent" based on the actions of gunmen in Aurora, CO or Oak Creek, WI, neither should we let the anomaly of a near-murder in downtown Jerusalem define Israelis.

At the same time, the politics of the situation are evident.  If Mr. Julani had been attacked just a few miles to the east in the West Bank, his fate and the reaction of the same individuals and groups would likely have been different.  Similar unprovoked attacks such as this one in 2008 by settlers show how easily politics can move decent people to silence in the wake of human suffering.  Israelis too have been the victim of similar violence (such as in this incident where a Palestinian drove a bulldozer over an Israeli woman in her car).  Yet the actions of the young attackers in Kikar Tzion on Thursday remain deeply disturbing of their own accord, and have rightly prompted serious self-reflection in Israel.

What matters is not the symbolic importance of Jamal Julani as a Palestinian, nor the admirable condemnations of these actions by Israel's leadership.  What matters is that a 17 year old kid was nearly beaten to death on the street in the heart of Israel's holiest city.  We need to talk about this and this alone.  Without spin, without snark, and perhaps, with a healthy dose of shame.

Until violence finally compels the self-righteous warriors on all sides to see the clear and stark reality of human suffering through the haze of politics, the story of Jamal Julani is one which will repeat itself.  The war for competing utopias in the Middle East is addicting.  But it is taking a toll in the real world.  Jamal Julani is its latest victim, but is unlikely to be its last.