Whenever there is a terrorist atrocity somewhere in the world, you can count on hearing from the “yes, but” squad.
Yes, it was awful that the Irish Republican Army set off a bomb at a crowded pub, but you have to remember how angry Irish Catholics are about their persecution by Protestant bigots and British soldiers. Yes, it was terrible that hijackers flew planes into the twin towers, but aggressive U.S. foreign policy stirred up anger in the Muslim world. Yes, Vladimir Putin was out of line to bomb and pillage Ukrainian cities, but the West backed him into a corner by expanding NATO.
They always insist they don’t mean to condone violence. No, no, no, no. They just want to help us understand the “root causes” of the atrocity; to explain it; to put it in the proper context; to remind us who is truly, ultimately at fault.
So it was after last week’s Hamas attack on Israel. The assaults were barely over before the “yes, but” squad was out there contextualizing.
It is always astonishing to hear intelligent people make excuses for mass murder, but it was somehow doubly astonishing after what happened in Israel. Families – mothers, fathers, little children – shot down in their homes. Old women carted away as hostages. Beautiful young people massacred by the score at an outdoor music festival.
At Harvard University, more than 30 campus groups put their names to a statement holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” In Chicago, Black Lives Matter released a chilling graphic of a paraglider with a Palestinian flag, a reference to the terrorists who descended on Israel from the air. “I stand with Palestine,” it said. The group later expressed regret and deleted the post.
In Ontario, an NDP MPP, Sarah Jama, decried violence rooted in “settler colonialism” and called for an end to “all occupation of Palestinian land.” No mention of the slaughtered Israelis.
Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, a union group, put up his own post celebrating “the power of resistance around the globe.” Resistance is “fruitful,” he said, and “and no matter what some might say, resistance brings progress.”
Under pressure from the leader of her party, Ms. Jama apologized, saying that “I unequivocally condemn terrorism by Hamas on thousands of Israeli civilians.” Mr. Hahn, meanwhile, protested that “for anyone to imagine that I would ever endorse violence is horrific to me,” adding that everybody “deserves to live in peace.”
None of this uproar deterred a group of student unions at Toronto’s York University. Nearly a week after the Hamas assault, when the videos and witness accounts and floods of other evidence had made the nature and extent of the atrocity all too clear, they released a statement supporting Palestinian resistance and saying not a word against the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of Israeli innocents. “Recently, in a strong act of resistance,” it said, “the Palestinian people tore down and crossed the illegitimate border fence erected by the settler-colonial apartheid state of so-called Israel.” Such resistance was “justified and necessary.” Hamas itself could not have said it better.
No one is arguing that all criticism of Israel is out of bounds. Its critics have every right to say that they think it has mistreated the Palestinians or denied them their rights. Many liberal Israelis say it themselves. Its critics have every right to claim that Israel is reacting disproportionately to the attacks on its citizens and killing innocent Gazans in the process. Many voices are already saying so and they will become louder as the Israeli assault on Hamas escalates. It is certainly acceptable to point out that the divisive, populist rule of Benjamin Netanyahu weakened Israel and made it more vulnerable to this sort of attack. Plenty of Israelis are saying that, too.
What’s wrong is to imply that in some way Israel deserves, or should have expected, the horror inflicted on it; that the attacked are somehow as guilty as the attackers; that terrorism is just another form of fighting back, a predictable response of the powerless to their oppression.
What happened in Israel last week was monstrous. If you can’t bring yourself to say that without adding “but” – or, worse, can’t bring yourself to say it at all – you have lost all claim to a hearing from decent people.