There are many in the Christian world who have rushed to condemn Israel as it defends itself from savages who want to free the Levant of the stain that is Jewish presence. Those condemnations (this one, for instance) are wrong-headed and often misinformed, but they pale in comparison to the enthusiastic embrace of Islamic terrorism by some. Among the latter: Giles Fraser of the Church of England, who wrote in the Guardian:
For decades now the United Nations has been unable to agree a definition of terrorism. Even our own supreme court recently concluded that there is no internationally agreed definition. The stumbling block has been that western governments want states and state agents to be exempt from any definition. And a number of Islamic counties want some national liberation movements exempt.
That’s false, of course. Most if not all Western governments are agreed that Iran and Syria are state sponsors of terrorism. To the extent that they shy away from putting that label on some countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar), it is not because they don’t know what state terrorism is, or because they object to the idea, but because of political considerations, whether good or bad.
I am eating aubergines and flatbread with Dr Samah Jabr in a cool Palestinian cafe in Stoke Newington. A psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works out of East Jerusalem, Dr Jabr is quietly spoken, modest, and perhaps just a little bit shocked by my lapses into overly colourful language. She is an educated, middle-class Palestinian (in no way a rabble-rouser) but she insists that the word terrorist has become a powerful – though often un-thought-through – political pejorative employed to discredit legitimate resistance to the violence of occupation.
What some would call terrorism, she would call a moral duty. She gives me her paper on the subject. “Why is the word ‘terrorist’ so readily applied to individuals or groups who use homemade bombs, but not to states using nuclear and other internationally proscribed weapons to ensure submission to the oppressor?” she asks. She insists that violent resistance must be used in defence and as a last resort. And that it is important to distinguish between civilian and military targets. “The American media call our search for freedom ‘terrorism’,” she complains, “despite the fact that the right to self-determination by armed struggle is permissible under the UN charter’s article 51, concerning self-defence.”
“The right to self-determination” is a fine phrase, one that is joyfully extended by people like Fraser to pretty much every self-identified racial and ethnic group in the world…except Jews. They alone of all the world’s people groups must be required to wander the world, homeless and at the mercy of whoever owns whatever plot of real estate they have been temporarily allowed to settle in. Fraser should know all about the changeable nature of that mercy, given his own country’s history.
Anyway, to the point of Jabr’s diatribe: terrorism is not defined by its use by oppressor or oppressed, nor is it defined by the sophistication of lack thereof of the weapons used. Terrorism is defined by its use against civilian populations. It is used by those who don’t have the means to stand up to military power, so they instead target those who cannot defend themselves. It is the classic weapon of the fanatic, the bully, the coward, and incipient totalitarian, whose use of terror as a weapon illustrates well the kind of rule under which others would live if the terrorist triumphs. Indeed, the reports out of Gaza that indicate that millions of tons of concrete that were given for humanitarian purposes have been diverted from a needy Palestinian civilian population to build tunnels that can be used to facilitate the further slaughter of Israeli civilians. Hamas is an equal opportunity terrorist organization in that regard–as long as it is around, everyone, Jew and Arab, will suffer.
The “right to self-determination” that Jabr trumpets has its limits. It ends where it demands that, for the sake of one’s sick fantasies, another people must die. Hamas has declared in no uncertain terms that if it has its way, what is now Israel will cease to exist and all Jews will be expelled or die. Israel has no more obligation to lay down its arms in the face of such evil than any other nation.
But these aren’t just the ravings of a deranged shrink. Fraser agrees:
I took part in the Moral Maze recently on Radio 4 and was howled at for suggesting that there could be a moral right of resistance to oppression. And the suggestion was made that, as a priest, I ought to take no such line. The weird thing about this is that Christianity has thought a great deal about the idea of just resistance. The Reformation, for instance, saw a flurry of moral justifications for resistance to the state, when that state is seeking to impose on its subjects its own particular understanding of religious faith. In 1574, for example, Theodore Beza published his The Right of Magistrates in which he affirmed the right of resistance – and violent resistance in the final instance – to state tyranny. This sort of thing was hardly a one-off.
Apparently Fraser got lost in the moral maze. He seems unable to understand the difference between resistance to tyranny in the form of military or police forces (in other words, the uniformed representatives of a government) and the deliberate targeting of civilians. The Elector of Saxony taking the field against the Holy Roman Empire, Islamic fundamentalists blowing up teenagers in pizza parlors. You say potato, I say patattah. In the words of an unaccountably famous woman, what real difference does it make?
It is nonsense to think that being a state grants some sort of blanket immunity from the charge of terrorism – and certainly not from the moral opprobrium we attach to that term. We talk of asymmetric warfare. This is asymmetric morality: one that, in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, loads the dice in favour of the occupation. This is just not right.
I’ll tell you what’s not right. What’s not right is that the Church of England numbers among its ordained clergy a man so morally obtuse that he can’t tell the difference between national self-defense imperfectly carried out and plain, purposeful, pre-meditated murder.