What if Dartmouth Hall were in Tel Aviv?

by Michael Mello | 5/22/02 5:00am

About halfway through Christopher Hedges' lecture last week at Dartmouth Hall -- somewhere around the time he compared the Palestinians of today with the slaves of the antebellum American South, which is to say after he accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" (his phrase) but before he compared Israel's policies to South Africa during apartheid and after he characterized Israel's creation as a "crime" and the state itself "racist" -- a horrible thought popped uninvited into my head. I tried to banish the thought, but that just made it intrude still further into my consciousness.

This was the thought: Had this lecture been occurring in Tel Aviv, rather than Hanover, it would have made an ideal target for a suicide bomber. Here was a densely packed lecture hall filled with people, mostly young men and women of military age. Even a small bomb -- packed with rusty nails or bolts or ball bearings -- would likely have killed more people than the Passover Massacre's death toll of 29 souls. The magnitude of the carnage would depend on how many people were within the kill radius, whether the walls or ceilings collapsed, and how rapidly firefighters and EMS could respond.

As Mr. Hedges drew word-pictures of Israel's brutal repression of the Palestinians, my mind spun out a word-picture of the hypothetical suicide bombing of Dartmouth Hall. My mind drifted to the scenes that have become all too familiar in Israel, transposed to Dartmouth College.

Last Friday was a beautiful spring day outside, and so the DHART helicopters could use the Green as a landing zone. The time was approximately 5:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, so Hanover's streets would be congested to begin with. Ambulances would have trouble reaching the scene. A triage center could be set up in the Hanover Inn. I imagined the dazed shock of the survivors. Frantic people searching to learn if their loved ones were alive or dead, lightly wounded or crippled for life.

I imagined the puddles of blood in 105 Dartmouth Hall. Body parts strewn about like so much confetti. Shredded chairs and briefcases and backpacks and Evian bottles and human flesh and bone and brain matter. I wondered if the Hanover phone system would crash under the weight of calls from frantic parents. I wondered how I'd find a phone to tell my wife I was OK. I wondered if Rollins Chapel would be converted into a temporary morgue.

Then would come the media horde. The profiles of the victims and the killers. The interviews with the terrorist organizations, explaining how the attacks would continue until the United States stopped occupying Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The deep thinkers and commentators, demanding U.S. restraint in responding to such attacks lest we perpetuate the "cycle of violence." I imagined the funerals for the Dartmouth dead.

By now, Mr. Hedges was providing excuses for Palestinian terror in Israel. The Palestinians are desperate. They're oppressed by the Jewish state. And so on. Of course, Mr. Hedges didn't explicitly acknowledge he was making excuses for terror. That would have required intellectual honesty, not Mr. Hedges' strong suit.

I wondered whether Mr. Hedges would make the same excuses for the bombing of Dartmouth Hall as those he trotted out to justify the murder of Jews in Israel. Or is his support for terrorism limited to terrorists who kill Jews in the Jewish state?

But Dartmouth Hall would have been just one day's suicide bombing. Imagine that the next day they hit the Harvard Coop. The next day it's the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The next Fenway Park. The next a Grand Union supermarket in Des Moines. The next a kids' soccer event in Indiana. The day after it's a classroom at Yale. Then a student apartment building at Berkeley. The next a day care center at the University of Chicago. The day after a school bus in Wilder, Vt. That's what it's been like to live in Israel. That's what Israel is trying to defend herself against. In Israel, every day is Sept. 11.

When Mr. Hedges finished reading his thuddingly predictable speech, I put up my hand to ask some questions. I wanted to ask whether he would consider a suicide bombing of Dartmouth Hall an act of "terrorism." I also wanted to ask if he considered Sept. 11 an act of terrorism. His only mention of Sept. 11 was a sneering dismissal of what he called "George W. Bush's crusade." The Jewish civilians of Israel intentionally murdered in pizza parlors, discos, malls, buses, bat mitzvas merited not even a dismissal in Mr. Hedges' hour-long speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dead Jews in the Jewish state appear not to count for Mr. Hedges.

Rather, Mr. Hedges' sympathies are reserved exclusively for the Palestinian "martyrs" -- his word, repeated again and again -- who are, in his view, driven by despair to kill Jewish civilians because of the brutal policies of Israel.

I certainly agree that the Palestinians deserve both our sympathy and a state. They have been used as pawns by their Arab brothers for five decades and counting. They have been cursed with the worst leadership in a region that sets the gold standard for dreadful leadership. They have been fed on anti-Semitic lies and the false hope that they can, by using terrorism as a weapon, drive the Jews from the land of Israel. Israel's occupation has not always been gentle. War tends not to be gentle, and anyone who thinks that some Palestinian groups have not declared war on Israel hasn't been paying attention.

But to hear Mr. Hedges tell it, none of Israel's policies have anything to do with self-defense against terror. Mr. Hedges acknowledges not at all the possibility that the Jewish state might have a little bit of a terror problem. To hear Mr. Hedges explain the Arab-Israeli conflict, the brutal Jews oppress the innocent, peace-loving Palestinians for the hell of it, because they can.

I wanted to ask Mr. Hedges whether he would agree with me that terrorism in Hanover or Haifa are evil crimes. I wanted to ask how he thought Americans ought to respond to the architects of a hypothetical bombing of Dartmouth Hall. Should we ask the murderers why they're so angry at us and listen to their legitimate grievances? (Mr. Hedges seems the type to assume that any grievance against the United States is legitimate.) Should we appease their demands and hope that they'll let us alone in the future? Are the terrorists just as much victims as the dead of Dartmouth?

I wanted to ask Mr. Hedges to explain why suicide bombings that intentionally target Jewish civilians in Israel are morally different from the mass-murderers of Sept. 11. In both instances, the perpetrators of slaughter have legitimate grievances. I wondered whether his explanations -- I would call them excuses -- for Palestinian terror would come so easily were he to make his case to the families of the victims of Sept. 11. I honestly don't know what Mr. Hedges would say. He seems convinced that the Jews of Israel deserve what they get from the terrorists driven to despair by Israeli occupation.

Perhaps he'd say that America was also asking for it on Sept. 11. That Dartmouth Hall would have been just asking for it. I suspect that the dead of Dartmouth would be as invisible to Mr. Hedges as the dead Jews of Israel.

Or maybe not. I don't think it's any accident that Mr. Hedges' venom was directed at the Jewish state. In fact, I think his lecture was anti-Semitic. "Anti-Semitism" is a provocative charge, but I know Dartmouth College is committed to the free expression of political speech. If Mr. Hedges can call Israel "racist" and equate Israel with apartheid, I can equate his lecture with anti-Semitism.

I say Mr. Hedges' speech was anti-Semitic because the import of his speech was that the world in general, and the United States in particular, would be better off if the Jewish state did not exist. He did grudgingly concede -- when pressed by an audience question, not as part of his prepared speech -- that he believed Israel had a right to exist. I just don't believe him.

Consider his comparisons and characterizations. Israelis as modern slaveholders. Can anyone today argue that a state that supports slavery ought not disappear from the face of the earth? Israel as today's version of South African apartheid. Is the world not better off with the destruction of the South African apartheid state? Israel as "ethnic cleanser." Wasn't Hitler an "ethnic cleanser?" Israel's creation as a "crime." We all know what should happen to criminals (except those who murder Jews in Israel), don't we?

Or consider Mr. Hedges' non-response to an audience question. The question was a simple one: What is the point of Israel's existence? Mr. Hedges' response was to rub his eyes in boredom and to explain, in effect, that Israel has no real point -- there is no real reason for Israel to exist.

And how else to explain Mr. Hedges' justifications for Palestinian terror directed at Jews? How else to explain his demand that Israel withdraw unilaterally to the indefensible pre-1967 borders? Perhaps it is coincidence that dead Jews don't count. But the long, dirty history of anti-Semitism makes me suspicious.

To believe that Israel should not exist is anti-Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. One cannot be against the existence of Israel without being against the Jews.

One can, of course, be against particular policies of Israel without being anti-Semitic. I disagree with many policies of the Israeli government. Settlements, for example. The idiotic Likud vote against ever recognizing a Palestinian state, for another. Some members of Sharon's government are simply Taliban in yarmulkes.

I'm sure that Mr. Hedges would loudly deny that his lecture -- co-sponsored by Dartmouth's diversity committee and the President's office -- was anti-Semitic. He may even believe it. But anti-Semitism can be unconscious. Just like racism.

I do not criticize Dartmouth for bringing Mr. Hedges in to speak. To the contrary, the more provocative speakers the better. The antidote to people like Mr. Hedges is not to silence their speech. It is to answer it with more speech.

Maybe I'm wrong about Mr. Hedges' anti-Semitism. Maybe his scorn for terror's victims isn't limited to the dead Jews of Israel. Maybe he'd have the same contempt for the dead Americans of Sept. 11 and the hypothetical dead of Dartmouth Hall. Maybe we're just asking for it.

If so, then Mr. Hedges' may be an equal-opportunity apologist for terror. That might clear him of my charges of anti-Semitism. But it does indict him for far graver crimes.