Aids and the Palestinians -A Comparison of Crisis by Eliyahu Ben-David
Volume 1 , Issue 4 (June, 1988 | Tammuz, 5748)
At first glance, the AIDS epidemic among homosexuals would not seem to share much with the deaths of Palestinian rioters from Israeli bullets. Yet, a comparison of these two crises reveals instructive similarities, helping us to understand our attitudes toward them and the limitations of these attitudes, and perhaps to propose a solution to these crises.
AIDS among homosexuals is spread, if not caused, by homosexual conduct. Similarly, recent Palestinian deaths are a direct consequence of Palestinian political unrest. How one views the AIDS and Palestinian crises is thus largely a function of how one views homosexuality and ?Palestinianism?. This, in turn, depends on definitions: what is homosexuality, and what are Palestinians?
One could define homosexuality as an abnormal condition, a mental disease or defect--as, indeed, did the mental health profession until quite recently. Similarly, one could define the commission of homosexual acts as criminal conduct, as do (or still did until recently) the laws of most states. Or, one could define homosexuality as a ?sexual preference?, an ?alternative lifestyle?, and those who practice it as members of the ?gay community?.
Palestinians Are ??
Likewise, one could define Palestinians--with considerable historical
justification--as a group of people scattered in various countries who have
absolutely nothing in common in the way of tradition, culture and history other
than a claim to the territory of Israel in place of the Jews. One could then
state--again with some justification--that most of these people have never set
foot inside their supposed homeland in Israel and that those of their ancestors
who did, migrated from various parts of the Arab world less than a hundred
years ago. (Not coincidentally, Halabi is a common
Palestinian and Sephardic name, betraying that recent ancestors of both groups
migrated from Halab, or Alleppo, in
These differing definitions are not merely semantic. If homosexuality is defined as merely a ?sexual preference?-- as the popular press, notably The New York Times, has decided--then one is presumably free, morally and legally, to exercise that ?preference?. Notably, in a recent debate, one heard Senator Kennedy referring, in sympathetic tones, to the ?gay community? and Senator Helms referring, in disparaging tones, to ?homosexuals?. Similarly, if there really is a ?Palestinian people?--as The New York Times long ago concluded--then there must be a ?Palestine? to which these people have rights. For this reason, Menachem Begin made a point of calling them ?so-called Palestinians?. Alas, only Mr. Begin understood the importance of asserting the distinction; his colleagues conceded the point and thereby may have lost the political debate as well.
The different definitions also lead to profound philosophical consequences. If homosexual acts are crimes, legal or moral, then the AIDS epidemic among homosexuals is the penalty for engaging in those practices, and the epidemic is a major public health concern only insofar as it affects others. By contrast, if homosexuality is a legitimate ?lifestyle?, AIDS is as much a public health concern as sickle-cell anemia among Blacks or Tay-Sachs disease among Jews.
In the same way, if the Palestinian claim to
Adopting particular definitions may even contribute to the AIDS and Palestinian crises. Defining homosexuality as other than a disease or a crime implies that there is nothing wrong with it. The result is that some homosexuals who might otherwise seek a ?cure? may be persuaded by the popular press to believe that their condition is a perfectly acceptable alternative ?lifestyle?, and heterosexuals may no longer be dissuaded from foregoing an alternative ?sexual preference?. Similarly, United Nations ?relief? workers in ?Palestinian? ?refugee? camps (see how different these terms look in quotations marks) have been accused of deliberately encouraging the notion among young ?Palestinians? that they are part of a discrete people, thus preventing the assimilation of these people into the rest of the Arab world. The popular press has done no less.
Jewish attitudes, too, are a function of these definitions. In Judaism,
homosexuality is by no means a permissible ?alternative lifestyle?. The Torah
states that sodomy and similar acts are ?abominations? which caused the
Likewise, normative Judaism holds that only the Jews have any claim to
One difficulty with these Jewish positions, moral and logical though
they may be, is that they do not resolve the immediate problems: no matter what
side one takes, innocent people, along with the guilty, are dying of AIDS and
Israeli bullets. Another difficulty is that these positions, if followed to
their logical conclusions, suggest ?solutions? which are, at the very least,
impractical. Thus, Pat Robertson (whose presidential ambitions, incidentally,
supposedly had some support among Jews in
Science will undoubtedly find a cure for AIDS sooner or later; but AIDS
will surely be followed eventually by another scourge, similarly transmitted,
unless homosexuals learn that one must sometimes curb one's desires in order to
live. Recent news reports suggest that they are, belatedly, beginning to learn
this lesson. Similarly, the creation of a ?Palestinian? state on the ?West Bank?
might stop the bloodshed for now, but would not stop it for very long because
in most Arab eyes the West Bank runs from the
Elyahu Ben-David lives