What Rudy Giuliani and Benjamin Netanyahu Don't Understand About Incitement

From New York to the West Bank, it's personal experience that breeds hatred, not words alone.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Police arrest protesters on December 20, 2014 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Police arrest protesters on December 20, 2014 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loses his reelection bid next spring, he should move to New York. He’d fit in perfectly with the state GOP. Like him, top New York Republicans are obsessed with “incitement.”

Earlier this week, after a deranged African American man murdered two New York policemen, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed “four months of propaganda,” led by U.S. President Barack Obama, which convinced the killer “that everybody should hate the police.” Former New York governor George Pataki tweeted, “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of [attorney general] #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD” It’s strikingly reminiscent of Netanyahu, who after last month’s horrific attack on a synagogue in Har Nof, declared that, “This is a direct result of the incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen (Abbas).”

The power Giuliani, Pataki and Netanyahu attribute to “incitement” is downright mystical. To hear them tell it, African Americans and Palestinians go merrily about their lives until hateful anti-Israeli or anti-police propaganda warps their souls. That propaganda, despite bearing no relation to their lived reality, nonetheless proves so powerful that it drives them to commit murder (and often suicide too).

What makes this claim even more remarkable is that much of the “incitement” Giuliani, Pataki and Netanyahu say sparks murder isn't really incitement at all. Yes, since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a few (emphasis on few) protesters have called for retaliation against the police. And yes, of course, Hamas both perpetrates and glorifies terrorism against Israelis. But the “inciters” named by Giuliani and Pataki were Obama, his attorney Eric Holder and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, none of whom have come close to demonizing the police, let alone advocating violence against them.

Similarly, Netanyahu fingered Abbas as one of the inciters of anti-Israeli violence even though his security cooperation is a prime reason Palestinian violence from the West Bank has dramatically decreased since the second intifada. And even though Netanyahu’s own Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen, has declared that Abbas “is not interested in terror, and is not leading [his people] to terror. Nor is he doing so ‘under the table.’”

What have Obama, Holder and De Blasio actually said? That police too often use disproportionate and unaccountable force against African Americans. What has Abbas actually said? He’s mostly railed against a system of Israeli oppression in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that denies Palestinians basic rights. Much of what Giuliani, Pataki and Netanyahu call “incitement,” in other words, is just an acknowledgement of injustice and a call for its redress.

So what Giuliani, Pataki and Netanyahu are actually claiming is that African Americans and Palestinians go merrily about their lives until a politician or activist tells them they are oppressed. At which point the African Americans begin randomly killing police and the Palestinians begin randomly killing Jews. It’s a highly unconvincing account of the way human beings actually behave. And that’s the point. When you depict a group of people as prone to react to imaginary slights with murder, you dehumanize them.

What Giuliani, Pataki and Netanyahu leave out is the thing that we all know from our own experience feeds the deepest rage: personal trauma. Imagine you’re an African American man who has been aggressively frisked, and perhaps jailed, by police despite having committed no crime, and who knows that such things happen far less often to whites. Imagine you’re a Palestinian who has seen her family’s lands dispossessed, her cousin held in indefinite detention and her elderly grandparents forced to wait for hours at checkpoints as cars with Israeli license plates whiz by. Then imagine that your television and computer screen fill with the images of a dead Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Then imagine that your country’s justice system, which you consider deeply biased, doesn't punish the perpetrators. Or at least doesn't punish them nearly as harshly as it punishes your people when they run afoul of the law.

Will all this drive someone to kill? It’s still extremely unlikely. It’s still absolutely inexcusable. (One can never say this too often: Explanation is not justification). And mental instability sometimes plays a role. But very often, so does personal trauma. It’s no surprise that when former Radford University economist Basel Saleh compiled a database of Palestinian suicide bombers, he found that “personal grievances [against Israel] have a considerable weight in motivating attacks.”

I’m not claiming hateful speech isn't a problem. It’s toxic and it must be fought. But truly combating incitement requires recognizing and combating the lived injustice that makes people susceptible to it. Which is precisely what Rudy Giuliani and Benjamin Netanyahu are so angry with Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas for trying to do.

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