The "Mirror Image" Libel

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 5.07

by Arnold Kling

May 26, 2002

Thrilled with a Biased Article

A story appeared in The New York Times Magazine on May 12 that I thought was biased. I thought that it was an attempt to present in the guise of objective truth a point of view with which I disagree.

It is my belief that we are living in a time like the 1930's, the era in which appeasement was a disaster. In contrast, the point of view that the story reflected is that for Israel, any negotiated concession enhances security, while any military action undermines security in the long run. This biased viewpoint was an undercurrent of the whole story, including its title, An Impossible Occupation.

My reaction to "An Impossible Occupation" was unusual, in that for the most part Jews and other supporters of Israel were thrilled to read it. That is because the article demonstrated that the Israeli military showed a clear concern for human life--including Arab human life. Thus, the article ran counter to one of the most insidious myths in the world's media--the myth that I call the Mirror Image Libel.

The Mirror Image Libel is that Israelis and Palestinians are mirror images of one another.

The Mirror Image Libel hurts Jews very badly. The core of the Jewish tradition is that we wrestle with moral questions and try to improve justice and decency in the world. The Mirror Image Libel denies this very identity. Instead, it says that we are no different from people who responded to a peace offer at Camp David by launching a war of maximum cruelty.

The Mirror Image Libel ignores many differences between Jews and the Palestinians.

  1. Jews do not tolerate their own violent extremists. The Israeli government arrests them. Jewish leaders condemn them.

  2. Jews come from a tradition that supports democracy and human rights. The Palestinians come from an Arab world in which democracy and human rights are not valued.

  3. Jews are prepared to compromise for peace. The Arab world continues to draw maps of the Middle East in which Israel is obliterated. The Arab media promote the extermination of all Jewish people.

  4. Jews engage in moral self-examination over many issues, including their conduct toward Palestinians. There is much concern in Israel over the economic and social problems of the Palestinians, and genuine horror over the death of Arabs. Palestinians celebrate whenever a suicide bomber kills civilian targets.

  5. Supporters of Israel believe that Israel must take risks to try to give Palestinians life with dignity. Supporters of the Palestinians believe that as "victims" they have little or no obligation to respect human rights.

  6. When Israel exercises restraint, the terrorists continue or increase their attacks. If the Arabs would act to restrain terrorism rather than to incite it, Israel would support and encourage Palestinian sovereignty.

The Jewish people, in both their religious and secular traditions, emphasize moral conduct and self-examination.The Mirror Image Libel denies the reality of those traditions. Instead, the Mirror Image Libel says that Jew are no better than life-destroying terrorists.

But Aren't We All the Same?

The Mirror Image Libel may be seductive because it is consistent with what we have come to believe over the past fifty years is an enlightened outlook. That is the belief that human beings are all the same. In fact, the view that there are ethnic differences is considered racism.

I believe in this enlightened view of our common humanity. However, we must recognize that there are real differences in belief systems and values. Indeed, there are cultures whose values and beliefs threaten to blot out the Jewish, American, and Western traditions that we cherish.

The belief that all are created equal means that all are worthy of human rights. It does not mean that we are all the moral mirror image of terrorists.

In fact, the Mirror Image Libel does not say that "we are all terrorists." Journalists and others who practice the Mirror Image Libel usually believe that there is such a thing as higher morality, and that they themselves are morally righteous. The Mirror Image Libel refuses to acknowledge that Jews are among those who try to behave in a moral manner. Instead, it insists on libeling Jews as behaving identically to terrorists. Thus, the Mirror Image Libel not only denies that Jews have a particularly strong moral focus--it implies that Jews, like terrorists, have less of a conscience than humanity at large.

Mirror Image and the Structure of Denial

Imagine what would have happened in the 1940's if America had held a "mirror image" view of itself with respect to Japan and Germany. Fortunately, during World War II, we recognized that we had enemies who were evil and had to be defeated.

During World War II, we wrongly incarcerated Japanese-Americans because of their race, even though many of them were loyal Americans. Today, we wrongly exonerate Arabs because of their race, even though many of them want to see America destroyed. Both in World War II and today, we were wrong to focus solely on race factors while ignoring beliefs and conduct.

After September 11, American political leaders rushed to re-assure Arabs and Muslims that we are not their enemy. However, Arab and Muslim leaders--even in America--are providing us with no such reassurance. In this context, re-iterating that we are not at war with Islam may represent not the voice of reasonable moderation but the mantra of denial.

I see the Mirror Image Libel as fitting into this structure of denial. It is difficult to confront the possibility that there are Arabs and Muslims who are unremittingly hostile to Western values. It is easier to believe instead that there is just an isolated mirror image conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

A Challenge to Journalists

I hereby challenge opinion leaders in general, and journalists in particular, to avoid the Mirror Image libel. Where there are real differences in moral outlook and moral conduct, those differences should not be ignored. Instead, pay attention to the cultural beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that are important in today's world.

The ability to recognize moral distinctions is crucial to getting the story right. The ability to maintain moral standards is crucial to America's survival.