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Why Western 'Liberals' So Easily Buy Into Hamas' anti-Semitic Blood Libel

The story of a Gaza baby's death illustrates how symbols are constructed from a narrative that ignores the facts

Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub
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Leila al-Ghandour's mother holds her at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, May 15, 2018.
Leila al-Ghandour's mother holds her at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, May 15, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP
Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub

The Onion is, by far, the best satirical publication out there. Few are as funny, and none are as shrewd at telling moral truths from moralistic lies. It was therefore surprising to see how, on the subject of the Gaza Strip, they too fell in line with what was obviously a very old blood-libel archetype: Jews are killing babies again. “IDF Soldier Recounts Harrowing, Heroic War Story of Killing 8-Month-Old Child,” read one of their headlines.

The dark satire was based on a bulletin circulated by the wire services on May 14, when the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem and the Gaza riots reached their peak. The bulletin said an 8-month-old baby had been killed by tear gas that the Israel Defense Forces had used against the rioting crowds. The story immediately became a sensation, and the baby herself, Leila al-Ghandour, was on the verge of becoming a new Palestinian symbol.

But almost immediately, the story turned out to be questionable. The IDF Spokesman’s Unit suggested that there were doubts as to the claims that the baby died from inhaling tear gas, and in a report on May 15, the Associated Press, citing a Gaza physician, claimed she had died as a result of a congenital heart defect. On May 16, New York Times reporter Declan Walsh explained that despite the questionable nature of the story, the green-eyed baby girl was becoming a symbol of the struggle against Israel.

Finally, on May 24, the Guardian reported that Hamas had removed Leila from its official list of martyrs, pending an autopsy. By this time, Hamas too, it seems, had given up on making her a symbol.

Why Hamas would want such a symbol is fairly obvious. What’s less obvious is why the “liberal” Western media rushed to cooperate with the organization. It seems that many find it difficult to resist the temptation of attributing pornographic atrocities to the Jewish nation-state, and particularly when the atrocity draws on the ancient archetype of the anti-Semitic blood libel: Jews killing infants.

The story of Leila al-Ghandour’s death offers a chance, then, to see not only how such symbols are made, but also a glimpse of the way in which the narrative about the conflict is constructed so as to generate such symbols, almost automatically.

Actually, the story should have raised doubts from the outset. The first and most obvious question that any decent journalist would have asked, of course, is: Who takes an infant into a war zone? Indeed, there were some who asked just that. At least the family had a ready answer, which found its way to several media outlets, including Walsh’s article.

According to family members, Leila’s 12-year-old uncle thought that the infant’s mother was already in the area of the border fence, and he brought the baby with him when he boarded a bus transporting people to the demonstrations. But the mother, who is 17, was suffering from a toothache and had remained at home. So the boy found the baby’s grandmother – his mother – “who was standing in a crowd under a pall of black smoke, shouting at Israeli soldiers across the fence a tear-gas canister fell nearby,” Walsh reported, and not long afterward, the baby stopped breathing.

Palestinian protesters chant slogans as they burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, May 14, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

This explanation does not have a distinct ring of truth. But even if it is true, it still begs the same question: Who takes children, including a 12-year-old boy with an infant in his arms, to violent clashes with the IDF along the Gaza border fence?

Even an amateur journalist would have no trouble coming up with the answer. Hamas officials were broadcasting it loud and clear. Here, for example, is what Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Strip, told Al Jazeera in Arabic: “We decided to turn the bodies of our women and children into a dam blocking Arab collapse.”

This being the declared intention, the question should not have been who the monsters are that teargas infants, but what Israel should do when faced with a cynical, murderous organization that shields its terrorists with the bodies of women and children.

One answer to that question is apparently contained in the criticism leveled at the IDF for use of “disproportionate force”: When you’re confronting children and women, even if armed terrorists in civilian clothing are hiding among them, lethal force should not be used. This does not seem to apply to the case of Leila al-Ghandour, given that, according to the first story, she died precisely from just such nonlethal means.

What should Israel have done, then? Avoid using nonlethal means, too? Stand aside and, since women and children are among the rioting crowds, just let them breach the fence, even though we know they were planning to slaughter civilians in the adjacent Israeli communities?

I haven’t seen anyone suggesting explicitly that we do nothing, but there were many moralists who seemed to support the breaching of the fence, at least implicitly. Indeed, many in the West (and in Israel) have adopted the narrative according to which the protesters have been trying to “break the siege” that Israel has allegedly imposed on Gaza (it is, in fact, a partial blockade; the Strip has a border with Egypt). This conveniently blurs, under the auspices of a metaphor, the difference between breaching a fence and breaking a siege.

Except that the Palestinians did not plan, and did not say they were planning, to breach any sort of “siege.” In fact, the source of the lie about the “demonstrations against the siege” was not Hamas. Hamas itself has called the riots that began over two months ago “the March of Return.” In other words, it declared publicly that the goal was Israel’s destruction. Nor did Hamas hide the fact that in the service of annihilating Israel as a state, it’s necessary also to annihilate Israelis. The plan was “to take down the border and tear out [the Israelis’] hearts from their bodies,” as Sinwar unambiguously put it.

This means there was nothing humanitarian about the marches. If anything, the goal was the opposite of humanitarian. Hamas wanted to foment death on the largest possible scale. If it’s possible to murder large numbers of Jews, all the better; if not, it still may still be feasible to pile up bodies of Palestinians, so as to tarnish Israel for the benefit of international audiences.

Israeli soldiers are seen on the Israeli side of the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip May 15, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

It’s clear, then, that Israel could not have sat idly by until the fence was breached. What is there, then, between passivity, on one hand, and the use of live ammunition, on the other? What remains are water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets – there are no other magical options. Alas, none of these would have been useful under the circumstances. Rubber bullets are effective only within a range of between 30 and 50 meters. If used at closer range, they are deadly and much less accurate than live fire; they may hit other people in the target’s vicinity. More than 50 meters away, they are useless. Water cannons have the same approximate range. This means that both are effective only at a distance where IDF snipers would have been exposed to the weapons wielded by the rioters, who outnumbered them: Molotov cocktails, grenades, pistols, slingshots and rocks. What remains is tear gas, but it has very little effect in open-air settings, and in any case cannot stop a stampeding crowd.

So live sniper fire is the only means that is effective at a distance of about 100 meters, assuming the shooter is not recklessly inaccurate. That’s the reason the IDF chose this means. Permission to use it was given only by high-ranking officers, and instructions were to aim below the knee.

Those instructions were followed scrupulously, as can be seen from the outcome: The number of people killed on the day the U.S. Embassy was moved to Jerusalem, was 62 (61 if Leila al-Ghandour’s name is removed from the list). According to Haaretz, about 2,770 were wounded, of these an estimated 1,350 from live ammunition. This means that 95 percent of those hit by snipers were neutralized without being killed, despite the smoke, noise and pandemonium. Of the 61 killed, about 50, according to Hamas, were members of that organization (which is not to say that there were no members of other military organizations among the remaining 11).

This means that 80 percent of the casualties were not innocent civilians, but rather out-and-out terrorists who were picked off successfully even though they were hiding in a large crowd, amid the smoke and noise. Any journalists worth their salt would have had to come to the conclusion that Israel was using extreme caution, both in its choice of weapons and in their use, and had nonetheless succeeded in stopping a mass assault on the fence, thereby averting a far greater number of fatalities.

But the same conclusion could have been reached by plain common sense, even without these data. In fact, the most worrisome logical leap in the myth of “disproportionate force” relates to the question of motivation. After all, Hamas sought to maximize the number of losses, while Israel’s definite interest was keeping them to a minimum. It’s also clear that the IDF knew that this was what was expected of it. So why, then, would the army use force beyond the necessary minimum to prevent the breach of the fence?

There is no alternative, therefore, to concluding that many are ready to attribute irrational cruelty to Israel. Many are prepared to believe that Israel’s bloodthirstiness is so potent that not even our vested interests can restrain it. On this assumption, then, it seems relevant to write that an “IDF Soldier Recounts Harrowing, Heroic War Story of Killing 8-Month-Old Child.”

Blood libels, reawakened

If we are forced to make Leila al-Ghandour a symbol, it should not be the one Hamas sought to create, and which the “liberal” media so thoughtlessly adopted. If anything, she should be a symbol of the cynicism and barbarity of Hamas, and a warning sign about the ease with which contemporary “progressives” slip back into the oldest patterns of anti-Semitic blood libels. If not for such strong biases against Israel, which lurk dormant beneath the threshold of Western consciousness, no decent observer would allow himself to turn morality on its head and ask about Israel what should first be asked about Hamas. We Israelis are not the cruel, racist, barbaric side in this conflict.

But this isn’t all. Anti-Semitism always stirs from its slumber within a specific context, so we need to ask about that, too. And the contemporary context is the broader moral framework bequeathed us by the student rebellions of the 1960s. The liberal democratic worldview has been sinking into the rot of moral kitsch for over half a century now. Increasingly we identify weakness with right, and power, irrespective of the goals for which it’s invoked, with wrong. Since the West has been powerful since the advent of modernity, we now categorize it automatically on the side of evil. Call it the Edward Said paradigm, although Said only gave it its clearest form, long after its birth in the 1960s.

For two generations, we’ve been educating students to believe the philosophical absurdity that liberalism is an illiberal view, whereas the enemies of liberalism are actually its best friends, those who will teach us to improve it. And here we are, looking those best friends right in the eye.

Read what Hamas thinks about women and gays. It is not promoting the West’s mirage of “identity politics”; it seeks to annihilate any identity that is different from its own.

It so happens that this mood in the West dovetails with the Palestinian ethos of victimhood. They fit each other like yin and yang. The morally grotesque result is that international funding encourages an entire people to become addicted to its suffering, to avoid every act of rehabilitation and to aggrandize its misery – all in the service of cruel dreams of unrestrained revenge and theatrical grandiosity. And the West, which finances UNRWA, the United Nations welfare agency for the Palestinians, continues to encourage them to dream.

By the same token, the congruence also works in the opposite direction: The Palestinian ethos of victimhood dovetails reciprocally with the West’s urge to cleanse itself of the guilt over colonialism. The Jews – who were once powerless, and now have power – can easily serve both ends of the narrative constructed for this purpose: At its beginning they are the victims who remind us of the sin, and at the end they themselves are the sinners, and so should be punished.

The victims of old hate crimes metamorphose into the scapegoat, at the expense of which Europe will cleanse itself of its own racism. Two birds with one stone, then: By pandering to the Palestinians and blaming the Jews, the West can make amends for the sins of colonialism while at the same time giving anti-Semitism a contemporary justification. And in this way one can absolve oneself of the sin of hate, while indulging it. Thus it becomes possible to cleanse oneself of the crimes of anti-Semitism by acting on anti-Semitic urges, and all that’s required is to sacrifice the legitimacy of the Jewish nation-state on the altar of postcolonial studies of righteousness.

Out of this partnership, between the Palestinians’ cult of death and victimization, and the guilt feelings of the West, spring, as though of themselves, more and more myths about the evil of the Jewish nation-state. No public diplomacy and no truth will, apparently, be able to eradicate them. The temptation remains too great. How appalling that all this should become a venomous show of self-righteousness over the dead body of a baby girl.

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