For decades, elected officials and pundits in the US have policed the borders of what is and isn’t legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies. The reason is straightforward: what if some legitimate criticism led to the conclusion that specific Israeli policies do, in fact, contradict those cherished “shared values”? How would Congress then be able to fulfill its (truly extraordinary) promise of eternal support?
This dynamic is clearly illustrated by studying a shared value at the center of the political and moral maps of Israel and the US: their unequivocal claim to oppose and condemn all “terrorism.” In the public and media discourse, this claim does not need to be proved. It is simply assumed to be obvious and, by definition, accurate. To use media critic Daniel Hallin’s terminology, it belongs squarely in the “sphere of consensus.”
Over the last year however, very credible evidence has surfaced that contradicts this claim in fundamental ways; evidence to which elected officials, pundits and other purported experts have responded with deafening silence. Such silences, coupled with repeated accusations of anti-semitism against critics of Israeli policies, have been central to the persistent campaign to ensure that the public debate remains safely within the boundaries of the Washington consensus.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a merger between the Jewish Home religious nationalist party and Otzma Yehudit, the successor to Meir Kahane’s Kach party. These maneuverings sparked outrage from an unusually broad section of American Jewry.
Kahane and his Jewish Defense League (JDL) resorted to “terrorism” in the 1970s and 1980s. Kach is considered a “terrorist organization” by the US and Israeli governments, and Michael Ben-Ari, the leader of Otzma, was denied entry to the US for that reason. Many critics of the Netanyahu’s deal have based their condemnation on a principled, absolute rejection of all “terrorism.”
New York Times writer Bari Weiss, for example, applauded a statement by the American Jewish Committee condemning Otzma. She added that this condemnation “exposes the strawman erected by anti-Zionists,” namely that “legitimate criticism of Israel is smeared as anti-Semitic.” “This is criticism of Israel,” she insisted. “No one mistakes it for something else.”
The “terrorism” denounced so publicly here was the “terrorism” that Kach and the JDL, extremists with no ties to the Israeli government, engaged in in the 1980s. Around the same time however, senior Israeli officials were busy creating and running a terrorist group that would, mostly with huge car bombs, kill hundreds of civilians in Lebanon. The existence of this secret “terrorist” operation was made public more than a year ago. It has not caused any outrage, has not led to any condemnation. Rather, these revelations have been met with absolute silence by elected officials, journalists, pundits and “terrorism experts” alike.
Without any explanation whatsoever, this extraordinary example of official Israeli “terrorism” has been treated as simply beyond the pale, as a fully illegitimate, unacceptable and (again per Hallin’s terminology) deviant form of criticism.
Between 1979 and 1983, dozens of car bombings in Lebanon (and a few in Syria) were claimed by the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners (FLLF), a mysterious group the true identity of which was never ascertained with certainty at the time. Many of these bombings were covered in the US and international press. Palestinians and their Lebanese allies (the main victims of these attacks) repeatedly insisted that the FLLF was a front used by Israel to wage a “secret war” against them. Such accusations were rejected by Israel, who argued that these bombings were instances of “Arab on Arab” violence.
In February 2018 Ronen Bergman, a respected Israeli journalist since hired by the New York Times, published Rise and Kill First. In this book, he revealed that the FLLF was created by very senior Israeli officials (Rafael Eitan, Meir Dagan and Avigdor Ben-Gal) in 1979 in order to “cause chaos among the Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon, without leaving an Israeli fingerprint.”
The Palestinians, it turns out, had been right all along.
After Ariel Sharon became defense minister in 1981, Bergman further explains, the FLLF bombs were used to “provoke Arafat into attacking Israel, which could then respond by invading Lebanon.” A RAND report from 1983 gives a sense of the scale of this secret Israeli terrorist campaign. In just a few weeks in late September and early October 1981, FLLF bombs killed more than 120 people, thus accounting for over 40% of all terrorism fatalities in the world for that year. By contrast, in 1980 and 1981 combined Palestinian attacks killed 16 people and wounded 136.
The FLLF bombs exploded in market places, on busy streets, in theaters and refugee camps, that is to say they were aimed solely at civilian targets. Several of these attacks are included in the terrorism databases compiled by START and the RAND corporation. As one Israeli intelligence officer told Bergman:
I saw from a distance one of the cars blowing up and demolishing an entire street. We were teaching the Lebanese how effective a car bomb could be. Everything that we saw later with Hezbollah sprang from what they saw had happened after these operations.
Remarkably, this secret terrorist campaign was under way just as Israeli officials (including Sharon) were engaged in a comprehensive effort to claim the high moral ground by re-framing Israel’s decades-long fight against the Palestinians as a principled struggle between the Free World and the existential threat posed by “international terrorism.” Central to this hasbara campaign was the Jonathan Institute, founded by Benzion Netanyahu and his son, Benjamin (the current Prime Minister), and which organized two influential international conferences on “terrorism” in 1979 (Jerusalem) and 1984 (Washington, DC).
These efforts were extraordinarily successful. Since the mid-1980s, the American and Israeli discourses on terrorism have been virtually indistinguishable. Israel is, by definition, opposed to all “terrorism.” It is the victim, never the perpetrator of, “terrorism” and its uses of force are therefore to be understood as justified because in self-defense against this “terrorist” threat. Palestinians, by contrast, are always the perpetrators of “terrorism,” never its victims. The idea that they may have the right to use force to defend themselves against Israel’s “terrorism” is, in such a rhetorical context, absolutely nonsensical.
As Bergman’s revelations demonstrate, this discourse has, from the beginning, been pure ideology. And elected officials and pundits are the guardians of the ideological temple. Indeed, Rise and Kill First has been extensively and very positively reviewed in the US press, and its author interviewed on countless occasions, but the FLLF revelations have been systematically absent from these public discussions.
The debate around the book has proceeded as if the FLLF bombing campaign never happened, as if the Palestinians were never the victims of a widespread campaign of “terrorism,” and as if this campaign wasn’t directed by some of the most senior Israeli leaders of the last decades. Remarkably, this debate has been informed by the usual assumption that Israeli uses of force are to be understood, self-evidently and by definition, as part of that country’s ongoing fight against terrorism. And yet, the revelations about the FLLF highlight precisely how incredibly tenuous the claim that states have the right to use force against “the terrorists” truly is once the term “terrorism” is applied in a descriptive, non-ideological manner.
After all, would any elected official, in Washington or anywhere else, accept the notion that the Palestinians (or Lebanon or Syria) had the right to use force against the “terrorist threat” posed by Israel’s FLLF? Or the right to target Eitan, Ben-Gal, Dagan or Sharon for assassination (targeted killing) because of their direct role in this “terrorist” campaign? Or the right to target the kibuztim where, according to Bergman, many of the FLLF bombs were manufactured? Can one imagine a columnist in a major US newspaper claiming that civilians accidentally killed in the process should be considered mere “collateral damage,” or insisting that such uses of force should be celebrated as courageous, determined actions in the moral fight against the scourge of “terrorism” around the world?
On what basis then can Israel, the United States, or any other country claim the right to target terrorist leaders, bomb terrorist bomb making facilities or use deadly force against demonstrators because of an alleged connection to a terrorist organization?
Acknowledging that Palestinians have been the perpetrators of “terrorism” against Israel but also the victims of Israeli “terrorism” thus threatens to upend the entirety of the hegemonic discourse on “terrorism.”
Over the past few weeks, pundits like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens have repeatedly condemned Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s allegedly anti-Semitic remarks while proclaiming their readiness to accept “legitimate criticism” of Israel that is based not on slander but on a “foundation in truth.” Yet, they have not written a single word about the extraordinary revelations contained in Rise and Kill First, a book written by their own Times colleague and based on accounts from Israeli sources who were involved in the operation or knew of it at the time.
On August 8, 1983, Thomas Friedman described on the front page of the New York Times how a Peugeot car packed with 200 pounds of TNT “detonated around noon, when the surrounding stores and vendor’s stalls were jammed with shoppers.” The bombing killed 33 and wounded 125 and, he added, “appeared to have had no other immediate objective than to kill as many civilians as possible.”
Bergman’s book finally answered a question the Times reporter (and countless other journalists) repeatedly asked at the time: who was behind this extraordinarily violent campaign of terrorism against Palestinians and their leftist Lebanese allies? And yet, over the past 13 months, Friedman has not written a single word about the topic. He has, however, found the time to condemn Representative Omar’s “anti-Semitic” tweets.
A radical critique of the discourse on terrorism and, specifically, of repeated Israeli and US claims to moral superiority in the fight against “terrorism,” is profoundly legitimate and of the utmost importance. Such a critique is the exact opposite of anti-Semitism. It attempts to hold Israel but also the US and any country who has embraced this dangerous rhetoric not to higher but to precisely the same standards these states regularly apply to other actors around the world. “Terrorism” is a method. The term should be used regardless of the identity of the perpetrators or of the justness of the cause they claim to be fighting for. Or it should be discarded altogether.
Such a critique would bring to the fore the extent to which this rhetoric has, for decades, been used to delegitimize, dehumanize and otherize Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims and to justify the use of force against them. It would complement current attempts at understanding (and fighting against) Islamophobia and right-wing “terrorism” of the kind just witnessed in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Finally, opening such a debate would indicate that there are no taboos regarding Israel and its policies, thus nipping in the bud precisely the kind of conspiracy theories that fuel and nourish the all-too-real rise of anti-Semitic sentiment around the world.