The hard bigotry of no expectations
OpinionGuest columnist

The hard bigotry of no expectations

Some prominent commentators have asked, were the deaths of a reported 200 Gazans worth the lives of four Israeli hostages?

Jonathan A. Greenblatt
Posters of Israeli hostages in New York City's Union Square subway station, October 16, 2023. (Luke Tress)
Posters of Israeli hostages in New York City's Union Square subway station, October 16, 2023. (Luke Tress)

Decades ago, President George W. Bush spoke of the concept of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” the notion that expecting less from a group of people is to think less of them, a stereotyping that in and of itself is pernicious. Now, at a very different time and in a very different context, this idea from long ago rings in my ears.

Over the weekend, in the reaction to the heroic rescue of four Israeli hostages in the middle of Gaza, it became clear that many world leaders, commentators and protesters in the street have zero expectations for moral, ethical behavior for Hamas and those supporting them in the streets of Gaza or in the streets of cities around the world. They assign no agency to Gazans, relegating them to the role of perpetual victim — a soft bigotry — while at the same time, seeing Israel and the Jewish people as eternally evil — a hard bigotry to be sure.

To start, let’s remember who these hostages were: innocent men and one woman who were attending the Nova festival. They were not soldiers; they were not armed. Unlike the nearly 400 other civilians at the Nova site, they were not murdered and mutilated. Instead, they were viciously kidnapped against their will. In the case of Noa Argamani, we have the video of her being thrown on the back of a motorcycle and taken to Gaza.

As the details of their captivity came to light, we learned that these particular hostages had not been caged in subterranean tunnels deep under the enclave where they might never be found. Rather, they were placed in residential neighborhoods adjacent to a Western-style shopping mall and held captive in the homes of prominent members of society.

This is shocking, but perhaps not surprising. The scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen called the ordinary Germans who went along with the Nazis “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Here, we have Hamas’ willing kidnappers — and a similar phenomenon of people acquiescing and abetting evil.

However, just hours after the hostages were rescued, the great and good throughout the Western world did not start a discussion of the war crimes of Hamas kidnapping civilians or basing their operations in a residential neighborhood. Instead, the crime was Israel’s — for the unfortunate, and unavoidable, civilian deaths that happened as a result of the intense firefight Hamas unleashed on the rescue teams.

In fact, one UN official talked about the hostages being “released,” and then attacked Israel for using “hostages to legitimize killing, injuring, maiming, starving and traumatizing Palestinians in Gaza.”

It’s as if Hamas did not exist and Oct. 7 never happened.

Some bemoaned the death of a “journalist” who once contributed an article to Al Jazeera. But they never asked why a journalist would keep three kidnapped civilians in his home.

They never asked why a physician who lived in that house seemed to take his oath to Hamas more seriously than the Hippocratic oath.

They never wondered how it is that hundreds of people could look the other way as innocent men and women are being held hostage.

These questions were not asked in the wake of the events on June 8 or, in fact, since Oct. 7. There has been zero accountability — or expectations of accountability — for Gazans and Hamas.

Some prominent commentators have asked, were the deaths of a reported 200 Gazans worth the lives of four Israeli hostages?

Yes, this question absolutely should be asked — directly to Hamas.

It should be put to Hamas leaders in Doha who reject peace overtures and sit comfortably on vast fortunes while their people suffer needlessly in poverty.

It should be asked of Hamas generals who take maximalist positions as they are ensconced safely in tunnels while their civilians agonize needlessly on the streets.

And it should be considered by eager Hamas boosters in the West who preen and posture with their privilege while so many innocent people wail painfully in Gaza.

Indeed, the protests we saw this weekend, especially in front of the White House, show that this soft bigotry of low expectations is applied to those who protest against the Gaza war. Protesters claim that their motivation is peace or an end to the war and bloodshed. But their words and actions tell a different story. Outside the White House this weekend, protesters chanted, “kill Zionists,” a word finally understood to be little more than a crude euphemism for Jews. Others called for the death of Israeli soldiers.

Signs fetishized the murder that took place on 10/7, featuring red triangles and calls for terror organizations to murder more Jews. Groups who would be murdered by Hamas bizarrely championed their cause. One protester wore a Hamas headband and screamed and held aloft a bloodied mask of President Biden as if it were a decapitated head. Behind him, another activist tried to burn an American flag.

Maybe this should not surprise us. The widespread actions that have shaken higher education have featured a wide range of ugly anti-Jewish hate. We have seen despicable slogans at the University of Texas calling for genocide to ad hominem incitement at the University of California, Irvine, endangering faculty members to profane, profuse graffiti at Stanford. And these pale alongside the cases of assaults at places ranging from large public universities and elite Ivy colleges, let alone the innumerable accounts of harassment.

But where is the outrage? Where is the wholesale, widespread condemnation of this vile antisemitism?

Where are the pundits who correctly decried the anarchy of Jan. 6, when so-called protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol and defiled the temple of our democracy; when a new batch of chaos agents staged around the White House and vandalized another set of monuments of our democracy?

History shows us, time and again, that hateful rhetoric fuels hateful actions. We saw this from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh during the Trump years. Will anyone claim to be surprised when the other shoe inevitably drops in the days ahead?

The failure to set any expectations of acceptable behavior — let alone enforce them — is not just its own form of “soft bigotry.” It also can feed and foment hard bigotry. Antisemitism in the second half of the 20th century dwindled and diminished because society said it was no longer acceptable. In the 21st century, it has come roaring back because we have allowed that expectation to slip. Such moral relativism ultimately threatens all.

It’s time to start expecting more from Hamas and hold them accountable for their unthinkably horrendous actions. It’s time to stop accepting Hamas’ lies and their reckless contempt for the lives of those they govern, and demand of them that they accept the cease-fire agreement on the table — one that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu both have endorsed.

It’s time to expect more from those proclaiming to protest the war. It’s time to stop ignoring the rank antisemitism so proudly on display at these rallies. It’s time to demand that, if activists truly desire peace, they stop blaming Israel and Jews for everything and start asking tough questions of Hamas and its allies.

It is time to end this disastrous tolerance of no expectations and the bigotry it enables — before it’s too late. PJC

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This first appeared on The Times of Israel.

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