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Is Israel 'evil?'

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who in the past has called Israel Air Force pilots a ‘death squadron,’ condemned Israel as ‘pure evil.’ But is he right this time?

By David Sarna Galdi

Israeli soldiers escort Jewish settlers as they tour the Old City of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, June 4, 2016. The Israel army has enforced segregation in the city for over two decades, restricting residents’ movement according to their religion. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

Israeli soldiers escort Jewish settlers as they tour the Old City of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, June 4, 2016. The Israel army has enforced segregation in the city for over two decades, restricting residents’ movement according to their religion. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

Israeli media’s reigning provocateur, Gideon Levy, is an intellectual hooligan hanging around the neighborhood pub just waiting to cause some trouble. Levy insists on instigating scholarly brawls; if he takes a few punches it’s no big deal because he relishes showing off his cogitative muscle.

In an op-ed published by Haaretz last Sunday, Levy claimed that aside from nationalism, racism, and hatred for Arabs, there is “one more element…without which the behavior of the Israeli occupation regime cannot be explained: Evil. Pure evil. Sadistic evil. Evil for its own sake.”

Citing a recent article by sociologist Eva Illouz, Levy rips the tablecloth out from under the elegant dinner of conventional, mainstream-left criticism by refusing to acknowledge the logic or global commonality of bad stuff in Israel that might be palliative to a liberal Zionist, “The evil that Illouz attributes to Israel is not banal, it cannot happen anywhere, and it has political and social roots that are deeply embedded in Israeli society,” he insists.

While Levy’s writing and role in the Israeli media landscape are respectable, should we really accept that Israel is as bad as he claims? Is Israel really evil?

Although Levy’s pronouncement is imperious and unequivocal, tackling it seriously is complex. Any person attempting to answer the question of Israel’s evil would have to escape the labyrinth by first asking another question, “What is evil?”

The answer depends on whom you ask. In the Bible, God defined what is evil. Modern ethics, however, would certainly judge as evil the god of the Old Testament who endorsed slavery, killed indiscriminately, and denied equal rights to women. The entire paradigm of evil was destroyed after Auschwitz, which revealed that evil could be modern, logical, institutionalized, popular, and broadly tolerated. In the 1960s philosopher Hannah Arendt and writer Truman Capote portrayed evil as something that could arise anywhere and in anyone. In postmodern thought the concept of moral relativism dictates that good and evil are purely subjective, with no real, constant meaning of their own.

Coming to a philosophical understanding of evil is beyond a short op-ed piece. However, if we use Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of evil as “morally bad” or “causing harm or injury,” then even the most ardent of Zionists familiar with the policies of the military administration of the West Bank and Israelis’ racist beliefs would agree that a lot of it is indeed evil. Just watch the highly-publicized video of the cold-blooded killing of an incapacitated Palestinian stabbing-attack suspect by an Israeli soldier in Hebron, recent footage of an Israeli soldier stealing a Palestinian girl’s bicycle, or video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu using anti-Arab hate speech to get a sense of the putrid stench of hate and violence emanating from the ultra-nationalist government and the 49-year old occupation, which holds Palestinians in a stateless choke-hold of inequality.

Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses Israel's Arab citizens, urging them to take a larger role in Israeli society. (YouTube screenshot)

Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses Israel’s Arab citizens, urging them to take a larger role in Israeli society. (YouTube screenshot)

But I have a sneaking suspicion that Levy is implying something else.

In Rollo Romig’s 2012 article for The New Yorker, philosopher Peter Dews best anticipates what I think is Levy’s implication. Contemporary use of the word evil, Dews says, “hints at dark forces, at the obscure, unfathomable depths of human motivation…it suggests a vision of the universe as the stage for battle of supernatural powers, which human beings…cannot ultimately control. It threatens the modern, enlightened conception of the world as moving towards a just and peaceable future.”

Levy isn’t using “evil” to refer to Israel as just morally bad: a lukewarm statement that would be a waste of his ink. Levy, with a preacher’s fiery absolutism, accuses Israel of the kind of evil that wears the face of a werewolf and has an infernal, dark lust for destruction. He is claiming that Israel is evil in a way that “shatters our trust in the world,” to use words From Susan Neiman’s 2002 book, Evil In Modern Thought (also quoted by Rollig).

Israel is not that kind of evil. It doesn’t shatter our trust in the world. Even Israel’s most misguided policies or beliefs usually have a political explanation as well as precedents and parallels in other normative societies; the situation is no better or worse than that of many other “enlightened” countries at different times in history. Was the United States of America, for the 250 years that it allowed for slavery, and despite all its milestones in democracy, an entirely evil country? Maybe. Maybe not.

And there are still some wise men in Sodom. The occupation casts a big ugly shadow, but Israel is home to many positive ideas, freedoms, achievements and citizens. For every racist, there is a Gideon Levy. Yes, he too is Israeli.

Levy could have used the word “sick;” sick things can be treated. The problem with Levy’s use of the word “evil” is that it is absolute, leaving no room for debate, justification or rectification. Evil should be utterly obliterated, but, as much as it should be reformed, Israel should not be destroyed.

Gideon, Israel is not evil with a capital E. Israelis are not monsters. They are human and fallible and doing some very bad things. That, in itself, might be even scarier.

David Sarna Galdi, a former editor at Haaretz newspaper, works for an nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      David’s piece could be expanded to include the claim that “Israel is committing genocide” as well. Various commentors here said that BLM was justified in saying that “Israel is committing genocide” and that people shouldn’t get worked up about the use of the word, which is justified in using against anyone or anything the ‘progressive Left” doesn’t like.
      As David said, “evil” must be eradicated at whatever the cost, and same with “genocidal” people or countries. That is why the word games the “progressives” are using in saying “genocide isn’t necessarily Holocaust, it can be applied to Israel as well” is just a mask for complete delegitimization, which is the real goal of those throwing these words around.

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    2. Mark

      A new surprise every day.

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    3. Bruce Gould

      Better to ask a more focused question: are home demolitions evil?
      “U.S. Warns It Will Respond Harshly If Israel Demolishes Palestinian Village of Sussia”:


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    4. Bernie X

      No wonder global warming goes on unabated.

      Assholes waste their lives parsing out Gideon Levy.

      Fucking lemmings.

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    5. Ben

      This strikes me as a kind of hasbara dressed up as philosophy. Let’s all sit around and, instead of dealing with the occupation, let’s instead parse the true meaning and character of Gideon Levy, let’s deliberate this, because of poor, poor Israel, beaten up by Levy the Big Bad Wolf. Let’s reduce him to “a provocateur” and “intellectual hooligan.” What ad hominem bullshit. Levy is dismissed as a mere “provocateur” by “the consensus” that simply has not wanted to hear what he has had to say, day in day out for many, many years; and who (along with just a few other people of integrity like Amira Hass and the writers of +972) is saying “I write so that Israelis will not be able to say ‘we didn’t know.’” So when Levy, in frustration, writes one article calling Israel evil, then, suddenly, the writer everyone “in the consensus” has assiduously ignored for thirty years is suddenly worthy of painstaking philosophical in depth analysis. The occupation? Who cares? But, is Israel evil? This on the other hand deserves dropping everything and paying scrupulous attention in order to refute it. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t ignore Gideon Levy for thirty years about the ‘smaller stuff’ and then jump all over him all of a sudden. This massive complacency and self-righteousness of Israelis is what is one “evil” thing with a small “e”. “It’s not about the settlements, they just, um, hate us…it’s about the Jewish People’s Right to Self-Determination! But screw the Palestinians’ same right….Iran!… eternal united Jerusalem!…blah blah blah.” This impossible self-righteousness is a kind of “evil,” in the smaller non-apocalyptic sense Bruce Gould means. Like a dangerous cult is a kind of evil. That’s why this article, well meaning though I am sure its author intended it to be, is unwittingly a kind of sophisticated hasbarist distraction, a form of narcissism. Gideon Levy needs to be told Israelis “are human and fallible and doing some very bad things“? Excuse me? Really?

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    6. Duh

      This article, in particular the paragraph starting with, “Israel is not that kind of evil. It doesn’t shatter our trust in the world” is a good example of saying a whole lot without saying anything. We might as well let Israel off the hook pending its ultimate descent into pure, unadulterated evil, not this pansy, shmansy “sick”, “enlightened” evil it’s stuck at right now.

      The Zionist political movement to create a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is responsible for starting the conflict; Israel is responsible for continuing it. It takes more syllables to say that word, but it’s more precise than “evil”.

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    7. The modern state of Israel is indeed evil.

      It was conceived in sin, as “a land without a people for a people without a land”, despite the hundreds of thousands living there who were not Jews.

      It was born in sin when Jews came and drove hundreds of thousands out of their land to establish a state for Jews whose families had not lived there for many generations, at the expense of those driven out (or massacred) whose families had lived there for generations.

      It continues to sin with the continuous occupation, land thefts, and violence against non-Jews, the continued demolitions and displacement of non-Jews in order to create towns for Jews, the continuous practice of “mowing the lawn” in order to kill many non-Jews and the continuous strangulation of the Palestinian economy, both in the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza, which is an attempt to slow the birth rate in order to better the Jewish demographic situation.

      All of this has been planned and ongoing for almost a century, at the expense of other peoples rights and even their lives.

      Yes, Israel is evil.

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    8. carmen


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    9. Ben

      Illouz on the role of the rabbinate in this: “In Israel the rabbinate has played an increasingly powerful role in transforming nationality into a quasi-racial definition, reserved only for a group that meets clear biological requirements (conversion processes are so difficult and humiliating that they are de facto a politics whose purpose is to dissuade non-Jews from joining the Jewish people, thus reinforcing the biological view that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother). It is not by chance that religious people in Israel are spearheading racist views. Rabbis on the public payroll call for not employing Arabs and for boycotting shops that do so; these rabbis also call on the population not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. They frequently cite the Torah to justify the idea that that Jewish and non-Jewish lives are of unequal value. In fact, the view that Jews and non-Jews are both equally the children of God would be, for many religious Jews, sacrilege, a profanation of Judaism. The Lehava organization, that which battles against interfaith marriages and has set for itself the goal of maintaining the racial purity of Jews has been, as revealed in Haaretz in 2011, indirectly financed by the State of Israel.”

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    10. Ben

      My post of August 11 was preceded by the following post, which appears to have gotten lost:

      Sarna Galdi does not engage with Eva Illouz’s argument. Illouz (utilizing a concept of family resemblance articulated by Wittgenstein) emphasizes that “Israel’s current colonialist regime bears a family resemblance with other evil regimes, even if it does not share overlapping features with them. It is not Nazi, not apartheid, not fascist – yet it belongs to that unhappy family.” She then argues thus:

      “How do we know that? James Waller – a specialist in the study of the Shoah and genocide in general – gives a hint: ‘The greatest catastrophes occur when the distinctions between war and crime fade; when there is dissolution of the boundaries between military and criminal conduct, between civility and barbarity … Such acts are human evil writ large.’ The question is thus the following one: Is the distinction between war and crime fading in contemporary Israel? This question was poignantly illustrated by the act of Elor Azaria…the question that implicitly reverberated through this affair…. For the distinction between warfare and crime against a population to start fading, the state itself must be the source and origin of ordinary violence directed at ordinary citizens. Moreover, such a state and its representatives must use an ideology to justify violence against the minority group, and must try to enshrine in law to make it look unavoidable, necessary and even moral.” Illouz then describes the role the state’s rabbinate has played in this.

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    12. Mazen El-Khairy

      If Isreal is not EVIL, what is???

      Reply to Comment