Jul 14th 2014

The "Morality" of the Powerful

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
"...we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” 

                                   Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel (1969)

 "They are not like us. We sanctify life, they sanctify death."

                                     Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (2014)

"Though it may be of little solace, we must take comfort in the moral government, culture, and society we have created."

                         Yehoshua Oz, Israel Democracy Institute (2014)

 

More galling than Israel's brutal behavior toward the Palestinians is their determined effort to cloak their actions with claims of morality. There is, of course, nothing new in this. Throughout history, more powerful nations have always sought to portray themselves as more noble and their conquests as serving an elevated purpose.

As the Great Powers of Europe wreaked havoc on their weaker neighbors or on Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, they masked their own barbarism, at least in their own minds, as being dictated by a civilizational imperative. Tens of millions of dead Irish, Poles, Jews, Algerians, Africans, South Asians, Vietnamese, and countless others bear witness to the contrary.      

As Americans, we inherited this mantle— and we have worn it well. We celebrated what could only be described as genocidal campaigns against our continent's native peoples, as victories against savagery. And we portrayed our brutal Westward advance as progress and a fulfillment of our God-given destiny. Our utterly inexcusable use of nuclear weapons and refusal to inform the Japanese of the effects of radiation ultimately took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Despite this, we called the bombing "lifesaving" and heralded the role it played in ending the war. Much the same could be said of our use of napalm and carpet bombing in Vietnam and, more recently, our decade-long sanctions against Iraq, followed by our invasion and occupation. We called it "bringing freedom," but to the millions of dead, maimed, tortured, and homeless Iraqis other descriptions come to mind.   

Israel is no stranger to this game.

From the beginning, its founders saw themselves as the bearers of Western civilization. In "The Jewish State", Theodor Herzl described his ambition to create a colony that would be "a rampart of Europe against Asia...an outpost of civilization against barbarism." His colleague, Max Nordau, envisioned the Zionist enterprise as extending "the moral boundaries of Europe to the Euphrates." And Ze'ev Jabotinsky  wrote "we will always be on the side of the West, for the West has represented a more superior culture than the East...and today we are the most prominent and loyal bearers of that culture."  

The earliest European Zionist settlers in Palestine, then, saw themselves as colonizers bringing progress and civilization to a desolate land populated by a backward people. They even referred to the indigenous Arabs as "Red Indians"— mere obstacles, with no rights, to be removed in order to pave the way for a far nobler enterprise. Their mythic construct was captured in popular culture in Leon Uris' book and movie "Exodus", in which Israelis are portrayed as a moral people seeking only freedom and a future, forced against their will to confront a "savage culture" that only wanted to kill them. 

This powerful myth took hold in Israeli culture and has held fast for almost a century. Despite the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns of 1948, the documented massacres, the effort to obliterate Palestinian villages and history, the occupations and the attendant killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese, the forced expulsions of thousands, the use of torture and prolonged detention without trial or charges and the daily humiliation and degradation of an entire captive people— many, though not all, Israelis still see themselves as the moral nation in the Middle East.   

The stark contradiction between how they see themselves and the reality of what they were doing, has led the Israeli leadership to develop a rather bizarre form of denial. They cannot acknowledge that they do evil, and, therefore, they deny it or present themselves as victims of the duplicity of their enemies. When sleeping children or men watching a World Cup match are killed by "not-so-smart" bombs falling on Gaza, then Hamas is to blame— because they must have ordered them to be there. When reporters take pictures of destroyed homes and wrecked lives, Israel's propagandists insist that these photos have been recycled or staged. 

Given this mindset, Israel will admit no wrong. What they are saying and what they insist that we must also believe is that "Israel doesn't kill innocents. If they are dead, it is either because they were guilty or it was someone else's fault. And if you continue to insist that it is our responsibility, then it must be that you are under the influence of our enemies." 

Of course, the propaganda of the powerful and their self-delusion has limits. It may still control the way the Gaza story plays out in US mainstream media, but for much of the world's media and for independent bloggers here in the US, reality has broken through. This can also be seen in the witness of Israeli human rights groups and journalists who have long been sharp critics of their government's immoral behavior.   

As I write, the horror of Gaza continues. This is the fifth major assault in nine years. When and how it will end is unclear, but here's what we know for certain: no good will come from this madness; there will be no winners; the Palestinian people will pay the dearest price; and when the dust settles and the tears dry, Palestinians and Israelis will be more embittered and will feel less secure, with both waiting for the next round. In spite of this, Netanyahu and his ilk will continue to claim that they are the moral nation, all the while attempting to bully into submission anyone who dares to disagree. They will do so with renewed vigor, because myth and denial and, when that fails, intimidation are the means the powerful use to enforce their claim to morality. 

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