By Richard Edmondson
Recently US Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia drew a somewhat controversial analogy. Johnson compared the destructive nature of Israel’s ongoing illegal settlement enterprise to the foundational destruction caused by termite infestation of a house.
As you may expect, the comments drew the inevitable “anti-Semite” accusations, and not surprisingly the congressman hastily backed down and issued an apology.
Johnson’s remarks were given at an event sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and held in Philadelphia on July 25 on the opening day of the Democratic Convention. In addition to Johnson, other speakers included Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The event was entitled “Progressive for Palestine: Is the US Ready to Rethink Policy on Israel?”, and you can go here to see a full video (the portion featuring Johnson starts at about 30:50).
The Georgia congressman prefaced his remarks by stating a few simple, straightforward truths.
“You see today the world faces a very desperate situation, and we all know how high the stakes are,” he said. “We all know how dangerous it is, and we all know that we, Americans, are in large part responsible for the state of the world today.”
He added that this burden of responsibility means also that Americans “are going to have to be a part of the solution,” and he went on to point out, rightfully so, that much of the turmoil in the world today, or in the Middle East anyway, is at least peripherally related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And a major part of the problem here is the construction of Israeli settlements:
“In addition to war and seizure of land, there has been a steady–almost like termites can get into a residence and eat it up before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself–there has been settlement activity that has been, that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate, to the point where it has become alarming.
And it has become to the point with occupation, with highways that cut through Palestinian land, with walls that go up, with the inability or the restriction or the illegality of Palestinians being able to travel on those roads, and those roads cutting off Palestinian neighborhoods from each other, and then with the building of walls and the building of checkpoints that restrict movement of Palestinians, we’ve gotten to the point where the thought of a Palestinian homeland gets further and further removed from reality.”
Responses to Johnson’s comments, including from Jews, have been divided. The congressman was defended by Mondoweiss but attacked in an article published by The Algemeiner. The Mondoweiss article, posted July 26, appears under a joint byline attributed to the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Jewish Voice for Peace. The writers thank Johnson for participating in the event, going on to compliment him for his “insightful comments on the diminishing prospects for a two-state resolution,” and they also assert that the termite analogy “was taken out of context in an article with a misleading headline written by a journalist with a longstanding record of anti-Palestinian reporting.”
The anti-Palestinian journalist referred to is presumably Adam Kredo, whose article, “Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites,” appeared in the Washington Free Beacon on July 25. But in their defense of Johnson, the Mondoweiss folks contended the Georgia representative was not comparing Jews to termites, but only drawing a correlation between one “corrosive process” and another. Or as they put it:
Representative Johnson analogized this settlement activity to that of termites hollowing out and undermining a structure, noting that settlement expansion has made the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories all but impossible. From a plain reading of his remarks, it was clear that Representative Johnson was referring, as he clarified afterward, to a “corrosive process, not the people.”
Not so! says Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, whose article on the controversy was posted July 28 at The Algemeiner.
“It’s wrong for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to have failed to condemn as blatant antisemitism Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA)’s ‘termites’ label for Jews living in Judea/Samaria,” Klein writes in his excessively parenthetical lead paragraph.
As I mentioned above, Johnson apologized for his remarks–whether before or after the ADL piped in on the matter I’m not sure, but it does appear as if the ADL appreciated his atonement. A lot of other Jews were not so gracious and accepting, however, and Klein quotes a couple of them in his article. One is John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, who in response to the ADL’s seeming absolution tweeted, “How about using the term ‘anti-Semitic,’ you cowards? He compared Jews to TERMITES, for f—’s sake.”
A Los Angeles rabbi also complained, “This is not an apology. ‘I am sorry I said something stupid and anti-Semitic’–that would have been a fitting apology. These are not trivial issues…To call Jews ‘termites’ is base and vile.”
As for Klein’s own sentiments on the matter, they include the following:
The ADL also disgracefully failed to condemn Congressman Johnson’s involvement in the antisemitic forum where the Congressman referred to Jews as “termites.” The Congressman was speaking at a side event to the Democratic National Convention sponsored by the “U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.” This notorious antisemitic organization calls Israel’s rebirth in 1948 a “catastrophe” and promotes the antisemitic, anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is aimed at destroying the state of Israel.
Determining who’s right–the left wing Jews at Mondoweiss or the right wing Jews at The Algemeiner–is not my purpose here. Whether someone in Congress is or isn’t an anti-Semite is a trifling matter (everyone is entitled to their own views and opinions), and in point of fact, it we had more anti-Semites in the House and the Senate it would almost surely restore some semblance of balance to our nation’s lopsided foreign policy and likely even save us $40 billion over the next ten years. (So all you anti-Semites out there–do your patriotic duty and start running for Congress!)
What I’d like to do instead is consider the question of whether Johnson’s analogy is a valid one. In other words, is it reasonable to draw a comparison between the two “corrosive processes,” i.e. that carried out by Israeli settlers (not Jews in general, but settlers only) on the one hand, and termites on the other? This is the question I would hope to answer.
Last year, exactly one year ago today, settlers set fire to the home of the Dawabsha’s, a Palestinian family living in the West Bank village of Duma. Three members of the family were burned to death: 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha, along with his mother and father, Riham and Sa’ad Dawabsha. The only survivor was 5-year-old Ahmed Dawabsha, who suffered severe burns and who has been hospitalized off-and-on over the past twelve months. The photo below, taken earlier this year, shows Ahmed staring at a photo of his deceased family members:
Ahmed has recently been released from the hospital and is now living with his grandfather. It is expected, however, that he’ll have to return to the hospital for weekly checkups as well as additional surgeries. Earlier this year, the young boy got to make a trip to Spain, where he met his hero, football/soccer player Christiano Ronaldo, and you can go here to see a photo of him and Ronaldo together as well as one of Ahmed being greeted by a young friend upon his return to Duma. The firebombing of the Dawabsha home was a despicable act, resulting in the tragic deaths of three people, but at least one young boy made it out alive and now has the opportunity to return to a normal life.
In the following photo, we see Meir Ettinger, the reputed leader of a group of settler youth who was arrested last year shortly after the arson attack upon the Dawabsha home:
And in the next photo we have a close up shot of a termite:
In the following photo we see termite damage to a house:
And in this next photo, we see settler damage to the Dawahsha home:
You’ll note that as bad as the termite damage looks, the settler damage appears worse.
By the way, Ettinger was not charged in the Dawabsha arson attack and has since been released from custody. However, two other youths said to be members of his group have been charged and are awaiting trial. One of them is Amiram Ben-Uliel, 21, who is facing three counts of murder, the other a minor who has not been named.
So as we can see, there are indeed certain similarities between the two “corrosive processes.” At the same time, we should also be honest and note some distinguishing differences as well. For instance, while termite infestations can cause house fires, there is no known instance of termites throwing petrol bombs through the window of a house and deliberately burning three of the occupants alive.
Nor is there any recorded instance of termites flashing three fingers to celebrate the incineration of the three people killed:
But wait! Is the video maker not reading too much into the hand gesture? After all, the young man could have been simply wagging his fingers in a bored, more-or-less abstract, absent-minded manner while awaiting the court hearing–isn’t that possible? It’s possible, but not terribly likely:
Nor do we know of any cases of termites dancing wildly and joyously up and down while stabbing a photo of an 18-month-old toddler–the same toddler who, along with his parents, perished in the fire they started.
I guess what we can conclude from our analysis of the two “corrosive processes” is that while certain similarities can be detected, there are also unmistakable differences.
The “anti-Semite” label is often used as a cudgel to silence criticism of Israel. If we go back and look again at the video of Johnson speaking at the event in Philadelphia it is clear that he was talking about Israeli settlements. An overactive imagination is required to construe his remarks as a “slur” against an entire people, and a certain amount of skill and artistry are necessary as well in order to then go on and characterize them as such in public comments.
Those who have voiced harsh condemnations of Rep. Johnson–do they do so out of, a) a desire to curb “anti-Semitism” (whatever their definition of the word may be); b) to undermine him publicly and thereby inflict punishment upon a member of Congress for daring to criticize Israel; or, c) perhaps a little of both?
Johnson’s maligners apparently have little to say about Israeli Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyihu, who earlier this year posted on Facebook, ““Israeli army has to stop arresting Palestinians, but it must execute them and leave no one alive.”
They apparently also have little to say about Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, director of Israel’s Tsomet Institute and an official in the country’s Chief Rabbinate, who once wrote, “All of the Palestinians must be killed; men, women, infants, and even their beasts.”
Other rabbis as well have also issued inflammatory statements about Palestinians or non-Jews in general, including Yitzhak Shapira, Dov Lior, and Yitzhak Ginsburgh–none of this, however, is mentioned by ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt in an article written and posted July 28 on the organization’s website. The piece is apparently written in response to those who criticized the ADL for failing to castigate Johnson in a stronger manner.
“First, to the remarks themselves: As I myself tweeted, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rep. Johnson’s comments were both irresponsible and reprehensible, particularly because they played into traditional anti-Semitic canards,” Greenblatt writes. “In the annals of anti-Semitism, from the medieval period to Czarist Russia, and most pronouncedly in Nazi Germany, there is a common leitmotif of Jews being portrayed as subhuman – rats, cockroaches and other undesirable creatures. Even today, depictions of Jews in anti-Semitic cartoons that pervade the Arab press often conform to this legacy.
“Surely Rep. Johnson can understand a people’s legitimate sensitivities that emerge from a long history of oppression. And surely there is room for legitimate and balanced criticisms of policy which do not resort to these prejudiced tropes,” he adds.
Nowhere in the article does Greenblatt make mention of the “prejudiced tropes” of Israeli rabbis who have portrayed Palestinians as subhuman, nor does he mention the firebombing of the Dawabsha home and the deaths of three members of the family.
Compared to the statements of Eliyahu and Rosen, Johnson’s words, “there has been a steady–almost like termites can get into a residence and eat it up”–seem exceptionally innocuous. Yet Johnson is the only offender Greenblatt mentions in his article.
Moreover, Johnson, as Greenblatt notes, has apologized. But the rabbis have not. It looks very much as if there is one standard for Jews, and another standard for everybody else.
Rather than accusations of anti-Semitism, what is urgently needed now is for Israel to abide by international law. All settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law, and Israel needs to be held accountable. The settlements should be dismantled immediately with no exceptions. Failure to do so simply perpetuates the “corrosive process.” Yet this likely would lead to massive public unrest, and some have even suggested the possibility of a Jewish civil war breaking out.
A resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, it also needs to be said, would require a recognition by the settlers and their religious authorities that they share a common humanity with the Palestinians–but of course for those whose mental antennae are attuned more to the boring of floor joists, grasping the concept of “shared humanity” might be an insurmountable challenge.