“To a Nazi Professor. The more liberals like you Israel would have, the faster it would fail!” J. P. exclaimed in his letter. “Thanks,” he added, “for a great pro-Arab article in Baltimore Sun! What else they taught you in Notre-Damn? How to serve your master – Alah? I hate Jews like you.”
This is a typical example of the kind of hate mail I receive when writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic that frequently sparks a vicious visceral reaction.
But people get upset about other issues as well. In response to an op-ed criticizing the University of Notre Dame (my alma mater) for inviting President Bush to be the commencement speaker, D. K. wrote: “You are a fool, Mr. Gordon. An arrogant, miserable, hateful little foolé Stay in Israel you nasty little man. Stay away. Fester elsewhere. Begone, Satan.”
Both letters reveal evidence of anti-Semitism. Internet and Email, as many studies have shown, have provided a space for racists and other types of bigots to express their views openly, and they use it well. Sometimes a 500-word column will engender more than 100 letters. While I have gotten used to receiving hate mail, it is the violent letters that continue to unnerve me.
“Please remind your family to let me know when you’re blown up by an Arab bomb so that I can resume sending donations to Ben Gurion University,” wrote P. B. in response to an article that appeared in the Jerusalem Post. His was a death wish alongside a concrete threat.
Another reader stated that my op-ed criticizing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip “proves Hitler was right. If he had killed more Jews like you, the rest of the world would not have to suffer so much.”
Death wishes tend to come in a recognizable format. The letters are very short, employing violent language which precludes all possibility for debate. In the past, these letter-writers remained anonymous, either they neglected to sign their names or failed to provide a return address, professional affiliation, or other identifying information. The writers were afraid, sensing that their detestable views were socially unacceptable.
The “war on terrorism” has changed all that. Indeed, one of the less discussed effects of this war is that it has legitimized claims and actions that in the recent past were considered intolerable.
Just a few weeks ago, H. S., a University of Notre Dame professor wrote me: “Please do us all a favor and visit all the discos, pizza places, dining halls, malls and supermarkets you can. Perhaps one of these days you will be in the path of one of those ‘liberators of Palestinian suffering’, and get blown out of this world.”
Unlike many of his predecessors, H. S. had no qualms about identifying himself; he was not ashamed. He wished me death because I had quoted the Israeli paratrooper commander, Aviv Kohavi, with whom I had served in the army and gone to college. I had written an open letter to Kohavi pointing out that his brigade’s actions constituted, according to newly developed international law, war crimes, and that he, Kohavi, has become a war criminal.
What frightens me is not H. S.’s letter per se, but that he felt comfortable signing it. H. S.’s self-confidence is related to the new discourse that has emerged following September 11, a discourse that denigrates basic human rights and important moral norms without shame. Shame, to be sure, is an extremely problematic sentiment, yet it is one we cannot live without if only because within a shameless society everything is permitted.
Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.