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No, Israel Isn’t at Fault For Toulouse

In ‘New York Review,’ William Pfaff blames the victims

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The Toulouse school earlier this week.(Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty Images)

Were the four Jews murdered in Toulouse, France, killed because of Israeli oppression and occupation of the Palestinians? The question, along with an uncharacteristic amount of righteous indignation on my part, is prompted by a really risible post by William Pfaff at the New York Review of Books. The editors supplied the headline, “The Middle East Conflict Comes to France,” and allowed Pfaff right off the bat to refer to “the war … between Zionism and the Palestinians,” a locution that intentionally denies the right of Israelis to exist. (Later, the war is between “the Muslims and the Zionists,” which undercuts Pfaff’s argument that the problem is Israel’s treatment of one particular majority-Muslim people and instead, again, suggests that the problem is Jews living in the general vicinity.)

But the question Pfaff raises is important, even if he completely, embarrassingly, and disturbingly bungles it. Were these Jews murdered because of the Mideast? Is the Mideast conflict responsible for murders of Jews by anti-Semites? Those are two distinct questions, and answering the first makes it apparent that this is a very poor test case for answering the second. First, literally: did the late Mohammed Merah shoot and kill four Jews, three of them children, at the Ozer Hatorah school in this peaceful city in southern France as some sort of misguided and displaced revenge for Israeli atrocities? Pfaff runs through all the evidence that he did not: that Merah had already killed three French Muslim soldiers; that while Merah claimed that this prior act was revenge for the Afghanistan invasion, given that he was not particularly religious or politically active, his claim of a political motive is tenuous; that, alternatively and more plausibly, Merah was a troubled soul from a broken home, with a psychological profile similar to Timothy McVeigh’s. Generally, with these things, “the nature of the motivating grievance varies with the times and the prevailing politics of a given period,” Pfaff concludes, “and usually is otherwise of no serious importance since the fundamental motivations are individual, and usually incoherently articulated and held.”

Did I write “concludes”? Actually, Pfaff has decided that Merah is the exception to this rule—that his “motivating grievance” (not the war against the Taliban, but the Palestinian conflict) is of very serious importance. “Merah’s cold-blooded killing of Jewish schoolchildren—quite apart from his fury against the French military—fit a distinct pattern,” Pfaff argues. “Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved.”

And not only is the Israeli-Palestinan conflict the culprit—Israel, specifically, is the culprit. Israel started it, according to Pfaff, when it touched off the latest round of deaths in Gaza with the “‘targeted killing’ of March 14 in reprisal for previous rocketing from Gaza.” (Actually, the targeted killing in question was not vengeful, it was preventive: the terrorist leader it successfully targeted was reportedly planning another attack. Nearly all Palestinian casualties during the course of the skirmishes were terrorists. Pfaff mentions none of this, and his editors didn’t insist otherwise.) And Israel is to blame for its continued unhappiness: “The stigmatization of Israel could be much mitigated, if not ended,” Pfaff writes, “by an Israeli government (unlikely to be this one) or by the United States government (again unlikely because of the intimidation of both Democratic and Republican administrations and of most of the Congress) or by Palestinian leadership (yet again unlikely because the most popular party, Hamas, denies Israel’s right to exist),” except I added that last part about the Palestinian leadership. Pfaff blames only Israel and America. (At least, as the poet said, blame Canada! But that would require not being ignorant.) Anyway, perhaps those Oklahoma City workers would still be alive if the federal government didn’t levy taxes?

I’m pretty sure there’s a word for blaming some Jews for the actions of some other Jews. And you heard the man: “Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention.”

I don’t know why Merah killed those children: I tend to subscribe to the thesis, controversial with many who heretofore have been cheering me on, that the main cause of jihadism among European Muslims are material factors like socioeconomic immobility and discrimination, which cause angry young men to latch onto ideologies of hate. I think the straightest line between killing French Jews to a French Muslim killer is French Muslim anti-Semitism, but I suppose Israel could have played a role; I suppose also France’s stifling, illiberal, official secularism, or laïcité, which causes the country to ban the veil in schools, also factored in, as did the anti-immigrant, at times xenophobic rhetoric in the current presidential campaign (Merah also cited these things, as Michael Moynihan reported in Tablet Magazine; they are unmentioned in Pfaff’s piece). I do know that it is presumptuous and unrigorous to chalk this one up to Israel because of a past “pattern,” and I certainly know that it is getting one’s values mixed up—or, more troublingly, not getting one’s values mixed up—to afix blame exclusively on Israel, its American patron, and the nameless indirect Jew-killers who “intimidate” both.

Pfaff should heed these words: “It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life.” Such was Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad’s response to the Toulouse massacre.

So the Merah incident is a really poor example. Because here’s the thing, if I may pivot here: Israel’s actions do affect anti-Semitic activity elsewhere in the world. For example, during and after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, when Israel invaded Gaza, causing (in my opinion) an amount of destruction and death not justified by the provocation or the threat or the situation, anti-Semitic acts around the world ticked up. Moreover, one ought to be able to separate the judgment of whether an attack on a Jew in Caracas, Venezuela, is justified by an Israeli attack in Rafah—which, as is clear to most people not named William Pfaff, it is not—from the empirical fact that this dynamic is a documented phenomenon. And one ought to be able to ask further: should Israel take this dynamic into account when pondering operations—say, an attack on Iran?—likely to lead to such anti-Semitic “reprisals”? Acknowledging the existence of anti-Semitism need not mean granting it intellectual respect.

In the context of Toulouse and the talk surrounding an Iran operation, I found myself thinking about these issues, and earlier this week spoke with Moshe Halbertal, a leading Israeli and Jewish ethicist. (This should hardly matter, but Halbertal is known to frequent the regular Friday protests against the occupation at Sheikh Jarrah. In case Pfaff and the New York Review editors are reading this, Sheikh Jarrah is a Muslim neighborhood unjustly occupied by Zionism.) I wanted to know: should Israel feel responsible—not culpable, but obliged to look out for—the interests of Jews around the world who might be threatened by anti-Semites who use Israel’s actions as a pretext to kill Jews?

Personally, as I’ve written, I think it should: a war launched in the name of saving Jewish lives should take into account all Jewish lives.

While noting that the Jews in the world most likely to be threatened in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran are, in fact, Israeli Jews, Halbertal offered a careful, nuanced opinion that agreed with mine:

In principle, the state of Israel, as a state defining itself as a Jewish state, has responsibility of solidarity with the Jewish people as a whole. And therefore, if some of its actions impact the Jewish world, it really relates to its very political essence—it’s not a minor political consideration—and it will have to factor in and weigh what the repercussions are.

He added, “It is a serious consideration that cuts to the very essence of what Israel is.”

And then he turned things around, and made a profound argument about the relationship between Jews and Israel. “But you,” he told me, “like the Israeli Jews, have a responsibility of solidarity with Israeli Jews.”

You have to take into account their risks. You’re not a bystander in that respect. The same expectations you have of Israel, you should have of yourself. If you say, “Israel ought to have solidarity. If the deputy foreign minister of Israel puts the Turkish ambassador on a lower chair [note: yes, this happened], he has to think about the Jews of Istanbul, as an Israeli official,” that should relate to you as well. You’re going to have to assume that minor sacrifice for the well-being of your brethren in the state of Israel.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As a supporter of Israel, I am obliged to think of the repercussions of all Israeli actions in all direction; otherwise I am like a meat-eater who lives in denial of the sometimes inhumane methods of preparing my meat. This is precisely why I go out of my way to keep myself knowledgeable about Israel. But I also believe people should be free to make their own choices in defining their identities. Jews who refuse to identify with Israel are, in my opinion, shirking a valuable and rewarding commitment, and I’d implore them not to; but shirking that commitment doesn’t make them not Jewish.

You can find alternatives to Halbertal’s philosophy, such as Haaretz columnist Carlos Stenger’s imprecation that, “at a moment where a man who has also killed a number of French soldiers has murdered Jews, we must remember that bigotry, fanaticism, and extremism, of which neo-Nazism and Islamic Jihadism are two forms, are worldwide problems. Jews, as part of the global community, need to find ways to address and fight violent fanaticism in all its forms, rather than arguing that the world should be re-partitioned into tribes.”

And I’m willing to dole out a modicum of blame specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu, for casting Iran as Amalek. Amalek must be killed because he wants to kill all Jews and can kill all Jews; Iran’s leaders, by contrast, may or may not want to kill all Jews with their nuclear program, but as of now they cannot kill me with it. A lowering of the rhetorical temperature would do everyone a lot of good. But this is not what Merah had on his mind, and it’s not what Pfaff did, either.

Speaking of Pfaff! Though I didn’t know at the time I asked this question that somebody as high-profile as he would be so hateful to make this argument, while speaking with Halbertal I wondered if when Israeli actions provoke anti-Semitic crimes elsewhere, Israel becomes not just connected to but, like, actually guilty of those crimes. “An individual, innocent Jew, and, God forbid, kill him or harm him because he’s a Jew?” Halbertal responded. “That’s just racism.”

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The Middle East Conflict Comes to France [NYRB]
Related: Racial Profiling [Tablet Magazine]
A Partial Jew’s Response to A.B. Yehoshua [Haaretz]
Earlier: Terrorist Killing Prompts Gaza Rocket Exchange
Haman Is Dead

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So you are then saying that while antisemitic attacks outside Israel are unwarranted, attacks like the Sabaro bombing or the Netanya massacre are justified? You blame the Palestinians, the Moslem world, or the world in general for their antisemitic attitudes toward worldwide Jewry becasue of what Israel does or does not do but antisemitic attitudes toward Israel is OK? That Israel retaining the right to defend herself as any other nation in the world is alloed to do is a proper catalyst for antisemitism. Somehow it is Netanyahu’s fault that Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map? You and Ambassador Gutman have alot in common don’t you.

Nechama says:

@Independent, you totally missed the point. The author is objecting to the very reasoning that views any attacks as “justified”, but he still acknowledges the fact that anti-semites react to the conflict and take out their “reactions” on Jews all around the world, regardless of their personal connection to Israel. This acknowledgement had him wondering about about possibly implications for Israel with regards to how it calculates its own strategies and actions.
It’s a fast-paced, witty, and thought-provoking article.
I disagree with the author about Jews being able to legitimately cast Israel out of their Jewish fold. Leaving the “Zionism” out of it, there’s still the serious problem of a Jew who has no/so little ahavat yisroel as to disregard half the world’s Jewry that lives in Israel…

Wow, this article is mind boggling. Let’s be honest. People kill Jews because some people hate Jews. These killers are just looking for an excuse to kill. If it wasn’t Israel it would be that Jews control the media or the banks or that Jews use the blood of non-Jess to make Passover matzos or almost any other excuse.

Killing Jews didn’t start with the creation of Israel or Zionism and it’s silly to expect that it would stop if Israel didn’t exist. People want to pretend that Arab antisemitism existed long before Israel. For instance, it wasn’t the Zionists who made the mufti of Jerusalem a Nazi, it was the Jew hatred he had learned and practiced all his life. But people want to pretend otherwise.

“For example, during and after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, when Israel invaded Gaza, causing (in my opinion) an amount of destruction and death not justified by the provocation or the threat or the situation…” 5,000 rockets tolerated over four years randomly aimed at civilians is ‘not justified’ by the provocation. Sounds like Goldstone all over again. Lord protect from our defenders.

There are three essays mashed together here.
The first is a decent take-down of William Pfaff.

The second is a problematic analysis of Israel’s relationship with the diaspora because it seems to assert that the responsibility of Israel to defend its citizens from harm is circumscribed by a duty not to risk justifying actions against Jews outside of Israel, even those who don’t like/don’t care about Israel in the first place. That doesn’t make sense.

The third is the mandatory hand-wringing about Netanyahu and Iran. I’m very happy that “as of now” Iran cannot kill Mr. Tracy. Nothing for anyone to worry about then!

Doron Lubinsky says:

Mr. Pfaff does his best to blame “settlements”, Israel’s leaders, etc. Would it make any difference if there weren’t any? Would it make a difference if Israel consisted of just Tel Aviv, or if its leader was the Dalai Lama? Of course not. The core issue is Arab rejection of a permanent Israel behind ANY boundaries. Thus it has been for 63 years.

As for Israel’s right to exist within the Middle east: Jews always clung to the Holy Land, constituting a clear majority in East Jerusalem until they were expelled in the 1920’s riots and pogrosm by Arab atackers. In addition, more than half of its people are descendants of JEWISH REFUGEES FROM ARAB LANDS. They came to Israel penniless, but rebuilt their lives. Compare this to 63 years of cynical Arab manipulation of a similar number of Arab refugees. The hypocrisy of Arab leaders is all the more remarkable, as the Arab world started the wars that led to BOTH refugee issues.

Peace can only come when Arab regimes stop abusing the conflict as a distraction, and instead start educating for peace. Unfortunately, there seems no hope that the new regimes emerging from the Arab Spring are even contemplating that.

les goldstein says:

kol hakavode on your response to William Pfaff. Israel is far from perfect but Pfaff’s reliance on Mohammed Merah, the “moderate” Abbas, and the UN Human Rights Council (Cuba, Libya, Syria, et al) is, to be polite, naive.

Again, an excellent job. Les Goldstein

Mike says:

in my comment number three, I meant to say… people want to pretend Aran antisemitism DIDN’T exist….

Attacks on the France Jewish Community have been going on for a very long time. Jews in France are the most assimilated Jews in the world. France has brought in a huge Muslims population. Many Jews in France have no understanding why they should be attacked or what to do about it.

Lynne T says:


Possibly as an American, you underestimate the influence of the media in Europe.

As a resident in France, Merah and others in his cohort would have had a steady media diet of Israel hatred since at least September 2000, courtesy of Channel 2’s broadcasting and rebroadcasting of the false report of the death of a Palestinian child named Mohammed Al Dura at Eretz Crossing at the hands of the IDF. To this day, that channel, and the reporter, Charles Enderlin have not recanted. If anything, since the beginning of this milenium, the biased reporting on the conflict in much of the “lib/left” European media has generally gotten worse. And then, of course, there’s satellite access to broadcasts by Hezbollah, Iran’s Press TV outlet in Britain (recently shut down if memory serves.)
There are also “lib/left” politicians like former Brit MP George Galloway and former London mayor Ken Livingstone actively promoting Hamas-related “charities” and similar crazies in the European Parliament whose names escape me.

Scott says:

I have to respond to Tracy’s take on Sheikh Jarrah. Contrary to Tracy’s implication, Sheikh Jarrah was a Jewish neighborhood prior to Jordan’s conquest in 1948-9. Following Jordan’s conquest, Muslims moved in. After Israel recaptured the neighborhood, the right of the Muslim residents of the neighborhood was balanced with the ownership rights of the Jews possessing the deeds by allowing the residents to remain providing they paid rent to the owners.

This arrangement came undone when documents came to light which the residents claimed showed that the Jews’ possessions in the neighborhood were not valid and went to court to have the Jewish owners’ right to collect rent vacated. The courts ruled against the residents, but the residents acted as though they had won and stopped paying rent. Since the residents stopped paying rent, the owners exercised their rights by evicting the residents and then making the property from which they had been evicted available to other Jews.

If there are any grounds for complaint, it would be over the decision that the owners’ deeds were valid. However, such a complaint would require looking at the facts behind the ownership trail, which is a lot harder than just shouting “colonialism.” What is not a valid case is to say that the residents should face no consequence for disregarding the court ruling.

Marc, you accuse NYRB of bad editorial decisions, but I may say the same of Tablet.

“Actually, the targeted killing in question was not vengeful, it was preventive: the terrorist leader it successfully targeted was reportedly planning another attack. Nearly all Palestinian casualties during the course of the skirmishes were terrorists. Pfaff mentions none of this, and his editors didn’t insist otherwise.)”

For “reportedly” read “allegedly”, since it was the IDF spokesperson’s office that made the claim and not a reporter — and most people who follow that office knows its reliability. Would you be interested in examples?

“Nearly all Palestinian casualties were terrorists” — again, according to the IDF, whose word you never question.

Ah, and that phrase, “nearly all”….but that certainly allows for a few minors, right?

Since Pfaff is careful not to blame Israel for any of the Toulouse deaths, he doesn’t consider Israel “culpable,” does he? He is making the obvious point that has been made by all organizations investigating the New Antisemitism, including the ADL, that Israel’s actions against Palestinians is accompanied by a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. That doesn’t mean that Israel should not do what it sees fit to do; only that there is a connection, and that connection should be factor into Israel’s policy decisions, especially when Israel defines itself as the nation state of all the Jews, including those who are not citizens and are living in Europe, and even including those who despise Israel and Zionists.

For Zlota says:

So if Jews were murdered in the name of revenge, are we done?

I’d have thought we already racked up a surplus, but hey, guess there’s no roll over plan.

Jojlolo says:

“Jews in France are the most assimilated Jews in the world.”

You obviously never met any French Jew. Maybe the old French Jewish community was assimilated (in the 19th century), but nowadays French Jews are in majority North-African Sefaradim Jews and not really assimilated. The inter-marriage rate in France is around 30%, much lower than in the USA.

Ebenezer says:

Contrast the ethically obscene screed by Pfaff with the comments of Mrs. Eva Sandler, widowed and bereft of two of her three children by the Toulouse terrorist atrocity – and judge which shows the more beautiful human being and which gives a better and more Jewishly responsible response to this tragedy. See

Rachel Golem says:

So, if I don’t like the actions of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, I can shoot African Americans in America?????

Haim says:

but as of now they cannot kill me with it” – so I don’t give a damn, right?

Phil N says:

Remember when political left thought the killings were the work of a right wing nut. At that time they were ready to blame French society in general. The minute the attack bacame the work of Moslem we got the “lone gunman” theory and blame Israel. Maybe the problem is in the Liberal and left wing media.

MethanP says:

So typical of the left. This is what happens when equivilency PC runs the conversation.

ahad ha'amoratsim says:

Please, please, Israel, ignore the existential threats from a nuclear Iran, the chemical weapons stockpiled in Syria, and the constant missiles from Gaza — because if you defend yourself, no matter that you take risks to your own soldiers unprecedented in history to achieve the world’s lowest number of enemy civilians killed per enemy fighters — the world will call what you do “disproportionate.” And then non-Israeli Jews like me will be put at risk, even though it is a fraction of the risk that you face very day. No, your obligation is to commit suicide so that I will not be embarrassed or attacked.

Thus sayeth the sustaining members of the ancient order of the Sciety of Trembling Israelites.

George One says:

TOULOUSE. The excuse that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of the barbaric murder of Jewish children is pure b/s. Arabs were murdering Jews in Jerusalem in the 1920s – well before Israel existed as a free and independant state.

Baba Wawa says:

Taking Pfaff’s perspective, shouldn’t we have killed Muslims living in America because of what foreign Muslims did to the Twin Towers? Seriously, if the actions of some reflect on the whole, then the Muslims in America got off pretty light for that crime.

mark epstein says:

So according to the left and pfaff, the German’s were justified for Kristallnacht. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a German-born Polish Jew in Paris. If Israel had been around then, the German’s could have justified and rationalized that Israel’s actions was a cause for the Shoah. Funny how when Egypt occupied Gaza, and Jordan the West Bank there was no outrage about occupation. In fact when the Ottoman’s occupied the area no outrage. It must be that Jews are not allowed to be there. Any attacks against Jews are the Jews own fault—sounds like Nazi and Czarist propaganda to me. Might I suggest Pfaff et al read: Tarek Fatah’s book: the Jew is not my Enemy or Gilbert’s In Ishmael’s House to see about the anti-semitism in Islam. Perhaps instead of blaming the victims we should blame the left wing media and Politicians with demonizing Israel, and being appologists for terrorist crimes against Jews. Why dont we ask the leftist appologists to wear a kippah and star of david in France or Holland and Arab lands and see how they feel.

andrew r says:

I made a similar point in another article, and I’ll say it here: Westerners and especially anti-jihad westerners are extremely deluded if they think there’s a moral distinction between killing civilians on accident in an airstrike vs. shooting them at point blank range.

Merah could never in a million years get his own airforce. Too bad for him: He could have carpet bombed Toulouse and claimed he was only targeting French soldiers. Of course, no one would buy that or even approve of hitting only French soldiers, period. Yet hitting Taliban or al-Qaeda is a good enough excuse to kill Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

So if Merah wants to avenge the civilians he identifies with, what does he do? He kills other civilians based on guilt-by-association. Every person killed by the US overseas is dead for the same reason – to avenge 9-11.

Everyone needs to understand that Merah is a creation of technological warfare waged on helpless targets. If Muslim terrorists had B-52s, they wouldn’t be shooting Jewish children at point blank range. They would just give New York and Paris the Falluja treatment.

You write the rules, don’t complain when others play by them.

Hershl says:

Last time I noticed The NYRB is virtually unknown outside of the Upper West Side of Manhattan when it comes to influence.

What do you expect?

These old time lefties and children of them are so out of touch with reality that they are a living joke.

I wouldn’t take any notice of them and their other creations like J Street, BDS, Beinart, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky’s politics, etc. As in the Park Slope Co-op they are just a bunch of trouble makers whom no one pays attention to.

Homo patheticus.

Laura says:


It’s not what Israel does or does not, but what the Euro biased media “buys” and “swallowed” Pallywood lies and how it “reports” the news.

Of course Arab-Muslims share almost all the guilt when an Arab kid dies. Don’t we all know hopw Arab children are pawns in vicious Arab-Islamic ‘Palestinian’ (Hamas or Abbas’ “moderate” Fatah’s Al-aqsa-Martyrs-Brigad)e and Hezbollah hands?

It’s exactly that Arab racism that causes civilians casualties in order to blame Israel for it, so that Arab racism can go on on its routine massacres (since 1929) such as Qassams upon schoolchildren in Sderot, Itamar kids in their bedroom (by Hakim Awad who said he had a “desire to kill Jews”) or in a Tolouse school by ‘Forsane Alizza,’ banned in France for inciting anti-Jewish hatred in Jan. in a McDonadls….


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No, Israel Isn’t at Fault For Toulouse

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