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Mourning all victims is right; moral equivalence is not

Coexistence and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians is essential. However, ignoring the way the conflict is perpetuated by official hate won’t bring peace closer.

A "Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day" ceremony held by the Combatants for Peace group. Source: Screenshot.
A "Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day" ceremony held by the Combatants for Peace group. Source: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Outside of Israel, it was the alternative ceremony that got the most coverage. The official commemoration of Yom Hazikaron—the country’s Memorial Day that occurs the day before celebrating the Jewish state’s Independence Day—began with a one-minute siren that sounded throughout the country and continued at the Western Wall, where President Reuven Rivlin and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi led a small ceremony that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, had no audience.

Most Israelis, all too many of whom have lost a loved one or friend who was killed during the country’s wars or as a result of terrorism, will deal with the pain of this day of remembrance each in their own way though they will not be able to go to cemeteries, which are closed this year because of the ongoing lockdown.

But outside of Israel, most of the attention was neither on official efforts to remember the fallen nor the private grief of the families. Instead, much of the press was reporting about the efforts of peace activists to essentially hijack the nation’s day of mourning and turn it into a day devoted to promoting coexistence and mutual recognition of the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians.

This “Joint Memorial Day” event, which was started in 2006 by Israeli parents of fallen soldiers, is organized by two groups with both Israeli and Palestinian members: Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle Families Forum. But this year, it received an outpouring of support from American Jewish groups, including the Reform movement’s Union of Reform Judaism, J Street, the New Israel Fund, Peace Now, as well as the openly anti-Zionist IfNotNow and Churches for Middle East Peace, an interfaith Christian group that is also deeply hostile to the Jewish state.

Indeed, it is likely that this foreign support helped boost the Internet audience for the ceremony this year—increasing from a reported 20,000 tuning into the Internet to the 170,000 who are supposed to have watched it online via Facebook. That allowed organizers to claim to The New York Times that it had been “the biggest joint Israeli-Palestinian event in history.”

According to the organizers, the point of the event is to introduce people to the suffering that occurs on both sides of the conflict. On the surface, that seems hard to criticize. It ought to be possible to empathize with all those who’ve suffered losses. Demonstrating a common humanity and a kinship with suffering shouldn’t be criticized.

But even in some of the heart-rending stories told by both sides, it was possible to discern the problem with the event. Many Israelis denounced it as more of an attempt to create a false moral equivalency between those who died that Israel might live and those who died as a result of an ongoing Palestinian war aimed at the destruction of the only Jewish state on the planet. By asserting that there is no difference between efforts to defend and eradicate Israel, organizers are likely encouraging those who want to continue the conflict, rather than those who want to end it.

The most prominently featured Palestinian speaker was Yaquab al-Rabi, whose wife, Aisha, was killed as a result of his car being stoned by an Israeli teenager. The al-Rabi family suffered a terrible tragedy, and the perpetrator deserved to be severely punished. But the irony of highlighting a Palestinian victim of a stoning was lost in most press accounts of the ceremony. Though even one such incident was too many, examples of Israelis attacking Arabs in this manner are rare. By contrast, Arab stoning attacks on Israelis cars—with often similarly terrible results—are commonplace.

While civilians have died on both sides of the conflict, the notion that the two sides are morally equivalent fails to take into account the fact that Palestinians who attack Israelis target civilians, while the Israel Defense Forces try hard to avoid civilian casualties that are generated because terrorists use human shields.

The “both sides are to blame” narrative also ignores the way that the two societies regard those who commit acts of terrorism. The teenager held responsible for Aisha al-Rabi’s death was prosecuted. The same is true of three Israelis (serving long prison sentences for their crime and held in contempt by the country) who murdered a Palestinian boy in July 2014 in revenge for the gruesome murder of three Israeli teenage boys several weeks beforehand, who were kidnapped by Palestinians while walking home from school.

By contrast, the Palestinian Authority continues to honor terrorists. Just last week, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah movement honored the perpetrators of the Munich Olympic massacre on the anniversaries of their deaths. Similarly, those Palestinians who maim and kill Israelis in terror attacks continue to receive pensions and salaries from the P.A. as a reward for their crimes.

No one has the right to tell any Israeli family how to honor its loved ones, and if some reach out to bereaved Palestinian families in the hope of promoting peace, we must all hope they succeed.

But the contrast between the large Israeli peace movement and the almost non-existent Palestinian peace movement is telling. Palestinians consider their compatriots who support dialogue with Israel as “traitors” working to “normalize” the Jewish state (and terrorists are “martyrs” dying for the cause). The Gaza resident who organized a cooperative Zoom meeting between Palestinians and Israelis earlier this month was arrested by Hamas and hasn’t been seen alive since then. The fact that he was turned in by a Palestinian journalist who has worked for Amnesty International makes it all the more obvious that there is no comparison between the way the two societies think about peace.

We should mourn all victims of senseless violence, be they Jews, Arabs or any other people. But we should be wary of efforts to establish a false analogy between those who died to save Jewish lives and those whose purpose was to spill Jewish blood.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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