The idea that the recent wave of Palestinian terror is an understandable (albeit reprehensible) response to Israeli actions appears to be gaining currency among liberal Jews. After Peter Beinart propounded a layman’s version of this theory last week in a Los Angeles speech, sociology professor Samuel Heilman dressed it up in academic jargon for a Haaretz op-ed this week. The theory has many problems, and Jonathan Tobin discussed several of them in his post on Tuesday. But I’d like to add one more: It completely fails to explain why other ethnic groups in comparable situations haven’t responded with periodic outbreaks of vicious violence. The fact that this Palestinian response is far from universal argues that it stems not from their “relative deprivation,” to quote Heilman’s learned phrase, but from something specific to Palestinian culture and attitudes.
Heilman defines “relative deprivation” as “the discontent or deprivation people feel when they compare their positions to others around and like them and realize that in comparison to them they have less of what they believe themselves to be entitled than those around them,” and says it “perfectly describe[s] Palestinians under occupation.” Thus far, his argument is uncontroversial. Palestinians undoubtedly do compare themselves to Israel, and this comparison is undoubtedly frustrating. By almost any yardstick – national sovereignty, civil liberties, democracy, economic welfare – Israelis have a better life than Palestinians do.
Where the argument breaks down is his assertion that this frustration naturally leads them to “explode and strike at anything that walks down the Jewish street.” Or as Beinart put it, that “today’s Palestinian terrorism is a monstrous, demented response to Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights.” For if that is true, comparable situations elsewhere in the world should have produced comparable outbreaks of violence. And they haven’t.
Take, for instance, Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1951 – longer than Israel has controlled the West Bank. The occupation certainly hasn’t brought prosperity to Tibet, which has the highest poverty rate in China. Moreover, Beijing has sought to eradicate Tibetan culture and religion, a process that reached its climax when the government asserted the right to choose the next Panchen Lama, the second-highest post in Tibetan Buddhism’s religious hierarchy. Israel, by contrast, scrupulously respects Palestinians’ religious freedom. Finally, there has been such an influx of Han Chinese settlers into Tibet that ethnic Tibetans are now a minority in “greater Tibet,” whereas Palestinians, despite Israel’s much-hyped settlement activity, remain an overwhelming majority in the West Bank.
So by the Heilman/Beinart standard, one would expect Tibetans to respond to their relative deprivation by launching periodic waves of vicious violence against the Chinese. And yet, that hasn’t happened. Instead, there has been a wave of self-immolations, and even those have been few and far between. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 143 Tibetans have set themselves on fire as an act of protest since February 2009 – a shocking figure, but spread out over almost seven years. By comparison, there have been 65 Palestinian stabbing attacks in the last six weeks alone.
In short, something in Tibet’s culture or leadership caused Tibetans to respond very differently to “relative deprivation” than Palestinians have.
Alternatively, consider the American civil rights movement. American blacks in the mid-20th century undoubtedly suffered relative deprivation. Despite being American citizens, southern blacks were often denied basic rights like the right to vote and subjected to segregated buses, schools, parks and water fountains, and of course, they were also far poorer than whites. Thus by the Heilman/Beinart standard, one would have expected them to respond with periodic waves of vicious violence against American whites.
Yet that didn’t happen. There were occasional violent riots, but there were no mass waves of stabbings, shootings or suicide bombings by blacks. Instead, the civil rights movement opted for nonviolent civil disobedience. Something in mid-20th century American black culture or leadership caused American blacks to respond very differently than Palestinians have.
Nor is it hard to figure out what this “something” is. The Tibetans’ revered spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, tirelessly preaches nonviolence. Black civil rights leaders, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., also tirelessly preached nonviolence. And these messages were reinforced by other civil-society institutions, first and foremost Tibetan monasteries and black churches.
In contrast, Palestinian culture is steeped in support for violence and loathing for Jews and Israelis, as Daniel Polisar pointed out in a sweeping analysis of Palestinian opinion polls for Mosaic Magazine this month. Palestinian clerics, political officials and media outlets routinely denigrate Jews as “apes and pigs,” glorify terror attacks (see, for instance, here, here and here) and actively incite to violence (see, for instance, here or here). And that’s in the “moderate” Palestinian Authority. Hamas, needless to say, is even worse (like the Gaza cleric who urged young Palestinians to “cut Jews into body parts”).
Relative deprivation may goad people to react, but whether they react constructively or destructively is entirely their own choice. Palestinians could have chosen to emulate U.S. civil rights leaders and respond constructively to their relative deprivation – for instance, by accepting one of Israel’s repeated offers of statehood. That they have chosen instead to respond with repeated outbursts of vicious violence has nothing whatsoever to do with anything Israel has done, and everything to do with their own culture and leadership.
Originally published in Commentary on November 11, 2015