You’ve been getting the arithmetic of war all wrong: The bloody battle unfurling in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Ra’anana and elsewhere in Israel involves three sides, not two.
One consists of people like Isra Abed. She’s 30, an Israeli-Arab divorcee with a young child living with her parents in Nazareth. Not too long ago, Abed graduated from the Technion, one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning. She could have followed in the path of another recent Israeli-Arab Technion grad from Nazareth, one not much older than Abed, and focus on discovering ways to cure cancer. She could’ve enjoyed the privileges associated with her prestigious degree and joined her fellow alums in the Israeli workforce, where a Technion grad’s average monthly salary is approximately $6,558, much higher than the average wage in the local economy. Instead, she took a large knife, traveled to the central bus station in the northern town of Afula, and tried to stab Jews. Soldiers arriving on the scene just in time shot and wounded her.
What motivated Abed to put down her baccalaureate and pick up the knife? If you get your wisdom from the mainstream American—and, often, Israeli—press, the answer, naturally, is the Occupation, which breeds despair, which, in turn, begets violence. After all, what other way does a citizen of a democratic country with a priceless education and endless economic opportunity have of expressing her frustration with the pace of regional politics but through seeking to slash the arteries of three or four of her neighbors?
There is, of course, a better explanation, and, as is often the case, it’s the simplest one. Abed and the other Israeli Arab and Palestinian men and women who have taken to the streets with knives and screwdrivers and other sharp objects to jab into Israelis are operating on a simple model, perfected not so long ago in lands not so far away. If you believe Zionism to be a colonialist project—which is pretty much gospel among Palestinians and those who support them these days—you can take inspiration from the brothers and sisters who have driven the Europeans out of Arab lands. Take Algiers: As 1959 drew to an end, it swarmed with more than a million Pied-Noir, French colonialist settlers. In their zeal to drive the French out, Algerian nationalists, too, took to the knife: In Oran, for example, they cut the throats of thousands, not before warning their innocent victims that their choice was between the suitcase or the coffin. Most Pied-Noir opted for the suitcase: By the end of 1962, more than 800,000 French Algerians had fled back to the mainland.
In the Palestinian imagination, the Jews of Israel now ought to do the same. Stab and slash and spear them enough times, the theory goes, and eventually they’ll despair and return to the lands from which they came in 1882 or 1923 or 1948. That’s the only context in which a decentralized campaign of terror makes sense: It’s designed to break the resolve of an occupying force, which is not a strategic approach but a psychological and emotional one.
Except that members of the second group involved in this fight, consisting of most Israelis, don’t see it that way. Knowing full well that they can’t go back to Krakow, not to mention Cairo, and fiercely attached to their homes and their homeland, most Israelis understand this wave of wanton violence in its proper context, as a simple struggle between two national wills.
Israelis do their best to deflect the attacks without responding in kind. They allow the attackers their day in court: Earlier this week, the three terrorists who pelted the car of Alexander Levlovitz with rocks on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, leading to his death, were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, a controversial decision that speaks volumes about the ability of Israeli courts to remain impartial even as the nation comes under attack. The same is true of Israel’s hospitals, where it’s not uncommon for Palestinian stabbers, shot mid stabbing spree by Israeli soldiers or police, to lie just a few doors down from the civilians they’ve just tried to butcher.
These are all signs of a healthy society. The current round of violence is intolerable. An Israeli military response, swift and decisive and merciless, is inevitable. And when the bloodshed subsides, Israelis will simply return to their pursuits, raising children and building apps and watching reality TV and doing what normal people in normal countries do whenever no one runs down the block with a knife at hand and jihad at heart.
To members of the third group fighting in this conflict, however, such fluctuations in the actual state of observable reality hardly matter. Like college freshmen newly introduced to the most potent strain of cannabis, they stare at the events unfolding through a thick purple haze of pleasant perceptions. Don’t tell them about Hamas, or Hezbollah, or the Islamic State. Don’t bother them by noting that while Israel, like every other democratic state, has many flaws to address, it also stands alone in its arid region, offering liberty and opportunity where others mete out punishment and misery and death. Don’t mention the Palestinian Authority’s kleptocratic corruption or its murderous incitement. You’ll only be spoiling the high.
And who doesn’t love a good high? Certainly not John Kerry, for whom everything that’s happening is just one psychedelic cycle of violence that somehow orbits around the settlements, nor Jewish leaders who, eager to seem reasonable and thoughtful and presentable in good goyishe company, still believe that salvation will come if we could only be nicer to the Palestinians and invest in their infrastructure. These absolutists, a large and diverse crowd ranging from columnists in Tel Aviv to rock stars in London to intellectuals in New York, would rather hold out for the unicorns of perfect justice than do anything about the wild horses everywhere running amok. And it’s hard to know just how to respond when interacting with one of these zealots. What can you say, for example, to an Israeli civil rights group insisting, amid crests of violent attacks, that the police be prohibited from using deadly force, lest it, God forbid, wound one of the crazed assailants? Or to an American official pinning it all on Palestinian hopelessness, even as a Palestinian journalist visiting the homes of some of the mad stabbers reported that “these murderers had been leading comfortable lives, with unlimited access to education and work”?
That’s every bit as complicated a question as what to do with those intent on mass homicide. Physical attacks can be curbed; dangerous delusions less so. To those who want them to decamp for some imagined point of origin, and to those who want them to adhere to heavenly standards of righteous tenderness while the ground around them burns, Israelis have a powerful and irrefutable answer: They just keep on.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.