Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Debate with Richard Landes (latest installment)

To the Editor (SPME):

My undergraduate classmate Richard Landes and I had a civil and generally constructive private exchange on the important issues raised by the SPME Statement on the murders at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. His lengthy published piece in the latest (March 16) SPME Faculty Forum, quoting my initial letter and parts of our subsequent correspondence, makes an eloquent presentation of one important point of view in a difficult and painful debate. His ultimate call for frank and candid dialogue is one I generally share. However, I am disappointed that in his otherwise respectful treatment of my remarks, he chose not to quote some important sections of my private communication with him. These elisions result in a misleading presentation of my own perspective, making it easier for him to (mis-) characterize the position that I hold (albeit somewhat indirectly) as "profoundly misguided", mak[ing] us “useful idiots” in ignoring the dangers that threaten not only us, but every person on the planet...", and to assert further that "... it is based on a profoundly condescending view of Muslims in which we hold them to no standards... "

I wonder if your readers might find these characterizations somewhat less persuasive if they read the excerpts Richard selected from my letter in the full context in which they were made (emphasis added for those passages edited out of my original remarks):

"These presentations also tend to gloss over the consequences of such approaches [annihilation, expulsion, brutal suppression, etc.] on the souls of their perpetrators. I agree that mainstream Israeli and Jewish reactions to the Jewish murderer in Hebron, or the Jewish assassin of Prime Minister Rabin, differ from the widespread celebration in Arab streets after terrorist attacks targeting Israelis or other Jews, or in some cases, Americans. But that stops too soon. Jewish perpetrators of such acts also come out of a particular culture (or subculture), and have, disgustingly, been celebrated by them. And on the other side, there are Arabs, and Muslims, equally disgusted with terror and the obscene waste of human life and human opportunities inherent in the current Middle Eastern morass.

"My own conclusion, in a situation in which every potential course of action carries grave risks, is to accept those risks associated with the quest for a two-state solution, in which both Jews and Arab Palestinians can seek to realize their national aspirations consistent with the security needs of the other. The only hope I see is that living together with a modicum of mutual forbearance and respect may yield positive change over time. I believe we saw some harbingers of such change in the brief period between Oslo and Rabin's assassination, and my own conclusion is that Israeli recognition of the Palestinians' national aspirations and statehood, under terms consistent with Israel's core security needs (which do not entail a large settlement presence in most of the West Bank), may rekindle such progress. It will, for reasons you articulate, be slow going, and not free from setbacks. But I do not see a tolerable alternative. "

I am somewhat at a loss to understand Richard's selective use of my comments (I did not grant permission for them to be quoted in selective fashion), except as a device to undermine the balance and sophistication of the views he chooses to attack, and to shift attention from some of the painful realities from which Jews supportive of Israel's flourishing as a Jewish and democratic state might prefer to avert their eyes. Some part of Arab hatred--not all of it, but an important part--is responsive to hateful acts committed by Jews, who find support and sustenance within parts of the Jewish and Israeli worlds.
If we are to proceed toward a more candid and truthful dialogue, these are among the truths we must recognize.

I would appreciate your prompt publication of this response as submitted, without editing or selective presentation.

Sincerely, Alan J. Weisbard
Associate Professor of Law, Medical History and Bioethics, Jewish Studies, and Religious Studies
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI.

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