Taking dark comfort in an Israeli Arab’s New York Times lament

A former PLO adviser waxes anxious over Israel’s incoming government but fails to recognize the anxieties of Israeli Jews.

“The New York Times” headquarters at night. Credit: Osugi/Shutterstock.
“The New York Times” headquarters at night. Credit: Osugi/Shutterstock.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

As an Israeli-American Jew who has lived in Israel for 20 years, it was with a certain dark comfort that I read Israeli-Arab activist Diana Buttu’s Dec. 13 New York Times column “Israelis Have Put Benjamin Netanyahu Back in Power. Palestinians Will Surely Pay the Price,” in which she laments the election of Israel’s incoming right-wing coalition.

“Well,” I thought, “at least she’s afraid too.”

This is unpleasant stuff, no doubt. Butto and I live in a beautiful country, which we both, I am sure, love very deeply, but when the situation is unpleasant, we become unpleasant with it.

I am not happy that Buttu and her Israeli-Arab friends now feel “it is only a matter of time before we are gone.” But I understand it, because I often feel the same anxiety about my own people. In a terrible way, her fear comforts me, because I now know that we are both in the same boat.

Nonetheless, I am troubled by more than Buttu’s obsidian reverie, because it did and does occur to me that, while I may understand her fears, she most certainly does not understand mine, and appears to have made no effort to do so.

Butto omits, for example, some rather important things in order to convey her sentiments of terror. She describes an “atmosphere of racism” in Israel that she finds unbearable, and blames it solely on Israeli Jews. This is, unfortunately for our country, half the story at best, given that in May 2021, Israeli-Arab mobs went on a racist rampage, seeking out Jews to beat and kill, burning down synagogues and essentially acting little different from the Ku Klux Klan of the old South.

Butto compounds this omission by accusing Israeli Jews who might point to some Arab responsibility for the current situation as “blaming the victim rather than the aggressor.” But those who lynch Jews and burn down synagogues are aggressors under any definition except the most racist, and the idea that Jews should react to such violence by burying their trauma beneath layers of… something… is a demand Butto would clearly never make of herself or her own community. There is a name for such double standards, and Butto uses it frequently.

All of this is quite convenient because it allows Butto to attribute the rise of far-right politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir—who will likely be powerful ministers in the new government—to her contextless “atmosphere of racism.”

I hold no brief for Smotrich or Ben-Gvir. I object to their ideology and to most of the policies they advocate. Butto is not wrong to fear them. In some ways, I do as well.

She has a right to her fear, but she also has an obligation to tell the truth, and the truth is that, if it were not for the 2021 riots, which she erases from history, neither of these men would have risen to power. Butto would likely consider this irrelevant, but it is not, because in omitting this truth, she privileges her own fear and her own experiences of racism, without so much as acknowledging the fears and experiences of the Jews she so consistently others.

Nor is it a coincidence, I fear, that Butto mentions terrorism only twice, each time in the context of Jewish terrorism. Terrorism is monstrous, whoever commits it. One would think, however, that she might make a passing mention of the dozens of Palestinian terror attacks that have taken place over the past several months and directly contributed to the rise of the politicians she despises. Clearly, victims and aggressors are very contingent things, depending on who they happen to be.

This should not be overly surprising, given that Butto’s bio openly declares that she is a “former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.” That is to say, she is a former adviser to a terrorist group that has committed numerous acts of mass murder over the past six decades.

I have no doubt that Butto would either deny the label of terror or come back with a list of alleged Israeli atrocities, but the former is false and the latter irrelevant. The PLO is what it is and what it has always been. It was Butto’s choice to get her hands dirty, and she cannot complain when someone points it out, even if their own hands are soiled as well.

Her affiliation to the PLO is equally telling in regard to her statement, “We are made to feel we are interlopers whose presence is temporary and simply being tolerated until such time as it is feasible to get rid of us.”

I have no doubt this is how she feels, but the irony is redolent, in that Butto herself was an adviser to an organization that claimed for decades—and technically still does—that the Jews are interlopers whose presence in the Land of Israel is temporary, and declared that its raison d’être is to get rid of us.

Such an organization, of course, cannot be described as anything other than racist, and suffice it to say that the PLO is the dominating power in the Palestinian Authority, which is led by a Holocaust denier, and the acknowledged international representative of a nationalist movement whose founder was an avowed and unrepentant Nazi.

This is not to mention Hamas—as Butto does not, referring to “repeated mass bombings of Gaza” while remaining silent on the rockets that prompt such countermeasures. Suffice it to say that Hamas expresses its genocidal racism quite explicitly at every possible opportunity.

Indeed, it is by no means an exaggeration to say that Butto’s remark about “Palestinians inevitably paying the heaviest price for Israel’s electoral choices” could easily be matched by the assertion that Israelis and Jews worldwide have paid the heaviest price for Palestinian nationalism.

This is especially the case given that the massive rise in antisemitism worldwide since 2000—which everyone is, at long last, finally talking about—not coincidentally coincided with the launching of the Second Intifada. The new antisemitism, whether Butto cares to admit it or not, was largely a Palestinian creation. The Palestinians knew (and know) that they cannot break Israel without breaking the Jews, so a nationalist terror war was matched with a racist one. That the rest of the world happily jumped on board does not absolve those who launched the boat.

So much, perhaps, for Butto’s logos and ethos. But I must confess that I found something else in her pathos, because I believe her terrors are real, and I cannot deny that I have felt my own share of terrors over the years, and indeed now. In a terrible way, Butto and I fear the same thing, although from opposite sides, in mirror images of ourselves.

There is in this a kind of terrible, involuntary kinship, and perhaps that is, in the end, something to build on. Perhaps it must be, because it seems that we have nothing else in common, and if fear must be the only thing that we do, then it is at least something, and that may be reason enough to hope.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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