Remember Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”? Written in the late 1950s, the play describes the transformation of a quiet, peaceful town into anarchy when one after another of its residents is transformed into a lumbering, thick–skinned brute. Only Berenger, a stand–in for the playwright, tries to hold out against the collective rush into rhinocerism.
First, the townspeople notice a stray rhinoceros rumbling down the street. No one takes a great deal of notice—it simply “made a lot of dust.”
Before long, an ethical debate develops over the rhino way of life versus the human way of life. “Why not just leave them alone,” a friend advises Berenger. You get used to it. The debate is quickly muted into blind acceptance of the rhino ethic, the entire town is joining the marching herd, and Berenger finds himself alone, partly resisting, partly enjoying the uncontrolled sounds coming out his own throat: Honk, Honk, Honk.
These sounds from Ionesco’s play echoed in my ears on January 22, in the wake of Israel’s recent operation against Hamas in Gaza, when a symposium on Human Rights and Gaza was held at UCLA, the university at which I have taught for over 40 years. The event, organized by UCLA s Center for Near East Studies (CNES), invited four longtime demonizers of Israel for a panel that one report described as a reenactment of a 1920 Munich beer hall. The speakers used the platform to attack the legitimacy of Israel, criminalize its birth, revile its conception and, during the QA period, even whipped the audience into chanting “Zionism is Nazism,” and “F—, f— Israel,” in the best tradition of rhino liturgy. Equally as surrealistic, the panelists calmly painted Hamas as a guiltless, peace–seeking, unjustly provoked organization, justly resisting a brutal oppressor.
Naturally, when students came complaining to me about how abused and frightened they felt during the symposium, I felt terribly guilty. “We should have anticipated this,” I told myself, “we, the Jewish faculty at UCLA, should have preempted it with a true symposium on human rights, one that honestly tackles the tough moral and legal dilemmas that the Gaza situation presents to civilized society: How does society protect the human rights of a civilian population in which rocket–launching terrorists are hiding? How does one reconcile the right of a country to defend itself with the wrong of killing women and children when the former entails the latter? What is a legitimate military target?” Instead, we allowed Hamas sympathizers to frame the academic agenda.
Burdened with guilt, I called some colleagues, but quickly realized that a few have already made the shift to a strange–sounding language, not unlike “honk, honk.” Some have entered the debate phase, arguing over the rhino way of life vs. the human way of life, and the majority, while still speaking in a familiar English vocabulary, are frightened beyond anything I have seen at UCLA in the decades that I have served on its faculty.
Colleagues told me about lecturers whose appointments were terminated, professors whose promotion committees received “incriminating” letters, and about the impossibility of revealing one’s pro–Israel convictions without losing grants, editorial board membership, or invitation to panels and conferences. And all, literally all, swore me into strict secrecy. We have truly entered the era of “the new Marranos,” our best and brightest closely guarding their pro–Israel sentiments from a viscerally hostile academic community, flipping into rhinocerism, rationalizing their flip with ever louder “honk, honk!”
Exaggeration? Jewish paranoia? Hardly. I invite skeptics to repeat the private experiment that I conducted among Jewish faculty in a reception hosted last year by the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. I asked each of them privately: Tell me, aren’t you a Zionist? I then counted the number of times my conversant would look to the right, then to the left, before whispering: “Yes, but...” I am sure that anyone who repeats this experiment will be as alarmed as I was about the level of academic terror on U.S. campuses, especially in the humanities, political and social sciences. Many generations of students will pay dearly for the failure of our leadership to acknowledge, assess, and form a unified front to combat this academic terror.
Yet how did this culture of fear and intimidation, this normalization of Hamas agenda, arise? This past February marked the seventh anniversary of the murder of my son, former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Those around the world who mourned for Danny in 2002 genuinely hoped that Danny’s murder would be a turning point in the history of man’s inhumanity to man, and that the targeting of innocents to transmit political messages would quickly become, like slavery and human sacrifice, an embarrassing relic of a bygone era. Yet neither Danny, nor the millions shocked by his murder, could have possibly predicted our current state of affairs. They could not imagine that seven years later his murderer, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, now in Guantanamo, would proudly boast of his murder in a military tribunal in March 2007 to the cheers of sympathetic jihadi supporters. Or that this ideology of barbarism, honked in Ahmadenijad’s poetry, would be celebrated in European and American universities like UCLA, fueling rally after rally for Hamas, Hezbullah, and other heroes of the “resistance.”
Somehow, barbarism, often cloaked in this language of resistance, has gained acceptance in most elite circles of our society. The words “war on terror” cannot be uttered today without fear of offense. Civilized society, so it seems, is so numbed by violence that it has lost its gift to be disgusted by evil.
Samir Kuntar, who murdered four Israelis in 1979 including a four–year old girl by smashing her head in with the butt of his rifle, is hailed by Lebanese leaders as a hero of the resistance upon is return to Lebanon in 2008.
I believe it all started with wellmeaning analysts, who in their zeal to find creative solutions to terror decided that terror is not a real enemy, but a tactic. Thus the basic engine that propels acts of terrorism the ideological license to elevate one’s grievances above the norms of civilized society was wished away in favor of seemingly more manageable “tactical” considerations.
This craving for manageable enemies then worked its way into the political sphere. The clearest endorsement of terror as a legitimate instrument of political bargaining came from former President Jimmy Carter. In his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Mr. Carter appeals to the sponsors of suicide bombing. “It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism,” Carter states, only “when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Road–map for Peace are accepted by Israel.” Acts of terror, according to Carter, are no longer taboo, but effective tools for terrorists to settle perceived injustices.
Mr. Carter’s logic has become the dominant paradigm in rationalizing terror. When asked what Israel should do to stop Hamas’s rockets aimed at innocent civilians, the Syrian first lady, Asma Al–Assad, did not hesitate for a moment in her response: “They should end the occupation.” In other words, terror must earn a dividend before it is stopped.
The media have played a major role in handing terrorism this victory of acceptability. This became brutally clear on the August 2008 birthday of Samir Kuntar, the unrepentant killer who, in 1979, smashed the head of a four–year–old Israeli girl with his rifle after killing her father before her eyes. Qatari–based Al Jazeera elevated Kuntar to heroic heights with orchestras, fireworks and sword dances, presenting him to 50 million viewers as Arab society’s role model. No mainstream Western media outlet dared to expose Al Jazeera efforts to warp its young viewers into the likes of Kuntar. Al Jazeera’s management continues to receive royal treatment in all major press clubs.
Indeed, some American pundits and TV anchors occasionally echoed Al Jazeera in their analysis of the recent war in Gaza. Bill Moyers was quick to lend Hamas legitimacy as a “resistance” movement, together with honorary membership in PBS’s imaginary “cycle of violence.” In his January 9th TV show, Mr. Moyers explained to his viewers that “each [side] greases the cycle of violence, as one man’s terrorism becomes another’s resistance to oppression.” He then stated without blushing that for readers of the Hebrew Bible, “Godsoaked violence became genetically coded.” The “cycle of violence” platitude allows analysts to empower terror with the guise of reciprocity, and, amazingly, indict terror’s victims for violence as immutable as DNA.
Ultimately, however, when we ask ourselves what it is about the American psyche that enables racist organizations like Hamas the charter of which would offend every neuron in our brains to become tolerated in public discourse, the American university remains at the heart of the answer.
The morning after the UCLA symposium on Gaza and human rights, I realized the detrimental impact of the event when I read the campus newspaper. Inside, unsuspecting, uninvolved students could find an article titled, “Scholars Say Attack on Gaza an Abuse of Human Rights,” cast as a dispassionate scholarly conclusion, to which the good name of the University of California was attached. This is where Hamas scored its main triumph another inch of academic respectability, another inroad into Western minds. Decent scholars stood idly by, silent, indifferent, and afraid, as the growing rhino herd of Hamas acceptability proudly marched ahead.
My son’s picture is hanging just in front of me, his warm smile as reassuring as ever. I wish I could tell him that his death was not in vain, that it serves today as one of the last reminders that moral relativism has its limits and that good and evil are not empty words.
DR. JUDEA PEARL is founder and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which sponsors journalism fellowships aimed at promoting honest reporting and East West understanding. For more information on Dr. Pearl or his son Danny, please visit www.danielpearl.org
Above: A pro–Palestinian demonstrator leads a crowd of thousands in San Francisco in January 2009, protesting Israel’s military operation in Gaza. The event was one of a series of similar events held in various cities around the country held at the time.