Aids and the Palestinians -A Comparison of Crisis by Eliyahu Ben-David
Aids and the Palestinians -A Comparison of Crisis by Eliyahu Ben-David

Volume 1 , Issue 4

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 Syria.) Or, one could define the Palestinians as a people who claim Palestine as a homeland.

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 Israel is merely a naked desire for Jewish land, then the Palestinians are essentially thieves, and Israel should do whatever it must to defend itself. (In rabbinical tradition, the descendants of Ishmael, the Arabs, are identified as thieves; while the descendants of Esau, those whose rule emanates from Rome, are identified as murderers. History has borne out this tradition until recently. This suggests that the Jews may ultimately be better off negotiating with the Arabs then toadying up to the Pope.) By contrast, if the Palestinians are a bona fide nation, then (one supposes) they are entitled to a territory of their own (and possibly one of their own choice); their goal of ?liberating Palestine? is a worthy one; and the Israelis who try to stop them are usurpers and, at worst, murderers. (The reflex sympathizing with a ?national liberation movement? such as the ?Palestine Liberation Organization? is not invariably consistent with the highest liberal ideals. See, for example, the murderous Shining Path in Peru and Poi Pot's boys in Cambodia. Also, if one identifies with liberal ideals, why should one have sympathy with a movement whose aim is to make the Middle East as judenrein as the Ku Klux Klan would make the South?)

Adopting Definitions

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 land of Israel to ?vomit? forth the Canaanites and will do the same to us if we commit them. In Jewish law, sodomy, consensual or otherwise, is a crime punishable by death. While Jewish courts can no longer impose the death penalty (and. given the constraints of the Jewish legal system, may never have for this sort of offense), many contemporary rabbis believe that AIDS is a Divine punishment for homosexuality. That totally innocent people contract AIDS is simply a result of the principle thatDivine punishment, once unleashed, strikes both the guilty and the innocent.

Likewise, normative Judaism holds that only the Jews have any claim to the land of Israel (however defined) as a homeland. This principle by no means precludes non-Jews from living peaceably alongside Jews in Israel. It means only that Israel is not their national homeland. It also does not preclude a Palestinian state elsewhere. (The wisdom of permitting such a state close to Israel is a different matter.) But violence begets violence, and death is a generally unavoidable consequence of one's attempting to take by force the property of another who has superior firepower, so that the deaths of ?Palestinian? rioters may be seen as an inevitable consequence of their violent assertion of claims to which they have no right. And once violence is unleashed, innocent people inevitably die in the cross-fire.

Impractical Solutions

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 Borough Park) has proposed the quarantine of all AIDS victims. Not dissimilarly, Rabbi Kahane has proposed the ?voluntary? emigration from Israel of all Arabs. A third difficulty is that these attitudes can prevent one from acting reasonably, lest one be identified with the ?wrong? side. For example, some people have objected to raising funds to help babies with AIDS, apparently in part because they believe that Jews should not fund causes supported by homosexual organizations. Similarly, some people have objected to advocating attempts to deal with the Palestinians, lest they be identified with fringe Jewish figures who support such abhorrent positions as the internationalization of Jerusalem and the return of Israel to its 1947 [sic] borders. A final difficulty is that Jewish attitudes in both of these areas are sufficiently far-removed from nearly everyone else's that we risk ridicule in attempting to disseminate them. All of this does not mean that we should not keep these attitudes; only that we need to temper them at times, particularly in attempting to explain them to others.

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 Jordan to the Mediterranean. The violence will end only when Arabs learn to curb their desire for Jewish land. If this is to happen only with the coming of the Messiah, may he come quickly, and in our days.

Elyahu Ben-David lives in Brooklyn.

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