When it comes to mass murder, it seems that everyone is a pop psychologist. Everyone wants to know why some people strive to become killers, even at the cost of their own lives, as is the case with Palestinians. For years, the talking heads on television and those who wrote about the situation for mainstream publications parroted the same line: The Palestinians are motivated by a sense of poverty and hopelessness that has made their lives untenable. What else would you expect desperate people to do but explode themselves on Israelis?

But after three and a half years of a Palestinian war of attrition against Israel, that argument doesn’t hold up anymore. The majority of those who have committed such crimes were not dispossessed or poor. They are just as likely to come from educated classes – and to have a great deal to live for. 

The Palestinian woman who last month faked an injury, then blew up solicitous Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint who tried to help her, came from a wealthy family and had two children under the age of three. And last week’s atrocity on a Jerusalem bus was perpetrated by, of all things, a member of the Palestinian Authority police.

It’s no good pretending we can understand such people via the rhetoric of compassion or the sort of inductive reasoning used by detectives on American television shows such as “Law & Order.” Instead, we need to try to begin understanding the society that bred them. But to even suggest such a thing opens us up to criticism for generalizing about a people rather than discussing individuals. We are told that only racists would even suggest such a thing.

Yet when it comes to Palestinian terrorists, focusing on the individual over the group gets us nowhere. These terrorists are acting in accordance with values that are lauded in their culture, and as part of a war that a particular society is conducting against Israel. The suicide bombers and other terrorists who kill Israeli men, women and children in cold blood are doing what their state schools and religious institutions have been telling them is an honorable, even saintly, deed.

So we must, albeit reluctantly, ask ourselves what sort of a society would think it is a good thing to commit gruesome murders? Are Jews not considered human? Are Palestinians truly barbarians, who, as historian Benny Morris recently suggested, need to be penned up?

In the past, even those who lived in enlightened liberal democracies have not been troubled by generalizations about their enemies. Look at any movie made in Hollywood during World War II and search in vain for a humanized portrait of a German or Japanese soldier.

We can snicker at the crude chauvinism of that time, but what else were Americans to think about people who had committed untold atrocities in Poland, China and elsewhere? And the truth is, the screenwriters and the audiences of those films actually didn’t know a fraction of the horror that was committed by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust, or in the Far East by the servants of the Japanese empire.

Americans then assumed that the Japanese and the Nazis, didn’t place the same value on human life as we did. But by the time of the Vietnam war, Americans were too sophisticated to buy into such reasoning. So, too, when it came to depictions of their Arab foes, have been most Israelis. Almost from the start of the modern Zionist movement, Hebrew popular culture has done its best to depict Arabs respectfully. Most films and plays produced in Israel have gone out of their way to humanize Palestinians, and to anguish over the conflict and the loss to both sides.

The notion of sacrifice for the nation is part of Zionist lore. But even a work such as Nathan Alterman’s classic poem “The Silver Platter,” in which the slain heroes of Israel’s War of Independence remind the nation that the Jewish state was bought with their lives, does not glorify death or dehumanize the enemy; it reminds us of the terrible price of even a just war.

Even today, at a time when Jewish blood has been spilled so readily, mindless hatred against Arabs is still a marginal factor in Israeli society.
 
Not so among the Arabs. You need only read the translations from the Arab press and television that are published by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI.org) to understand that the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews is an integral part of mainstream Arab culture.

Some will blame Israel for this, and claim its refusal to give in to Palestinian demands and its insistence on fighting back against terror are creating Arab hatred. But that assertion flies in the face of the fact that the current war is one the Palestinians chose when they could have had a state. The goal of the Palestinian national movement – Israel’s destruction – remains unchanged.

Yet even in the middle of this desperate war, we saw last week the willingness of Israel to trade hundreds of terrorist prisoners for one Israeli captive, along with the bodies of three slain soldiers. Israel was reportedly willing to release even more terrorists if only Hizbullah or any other Arab group would hand over the long-sought Israeli prisoner Ron Arad, or at least his lifeless bones. Recent reports in the Israeli press revealed that DNA tests proved that a bone fragment that was received recently from Hizbullah (a down payment on future trades?) was not that of Arad.

Why are Israelis so willing to trade so much for a single life when the Palestinians are willing to expend their own so needlessly? I suspect that it may be not so much a matter of devaluing life as it is the greater value they place on the ultimate victory they seek. This is more than a philosophical question, because if we think that Israel’s foes share our horror at the conflict, then we will always try to appease them with concessions. If their goals are different from those of the Jews, then a change in long-term strategy may be in order.

We may not understand why Arabs honor murder and Jews don’t, but at this point in history, we’re forced to at least pose the question. If, rather than a dispute about territory, something darker within Palestinian society is driving this terrible war, then every debate about the peace process is ultimately moot. And that is a possibility very few of us wish to acknowledge. 

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Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. He can be followed on Twitter, @jonathans_tobin.