I find much of the literature on political culture to be persuasive, and I have worked in enough American states and other countries to experience variations myself. People differ in their values and behaviors, and often think that their way is the best or even the only way of dealing with circumstances. National, local, ethnic, and religious cultures are among the strongest influences on politics and governments.
One learns to describe and assess cultures with a detachment like that of a physician dealing with interesting symptoms.
That being said by way of intellectual introduction, I admit to feelings of dismay, but not great surprise, at the sights and sounds of American celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden. It reminds me of how sport fans can be ecstatic at their team's victory, or destructive in defeat. But this was not a game. The scenes made me think of lynch mobs, America's murder rate, the popularity of the death penalty, and the retarded ways in which American institutions deliver medical services.
I grew up as an American hearing that human life was the greatest value, but it does not appear to me that life has as much value for Americans as it rates in other democracies.
What might be next? Hanging criminals in a public square, with food and souvenir vendors peddling their wares among the raucous crowd?
If you are already accusing me of wild exaggeration or a vicious variety of anti-Americanism, take another look at statistics comparing the country's standing on the incidence of murder, its near uniqueness among western democracies for employing the death penalty, and summary health measures of longevity and infant mortality that are shameful for a country with its wealth and medical expertise.
The celebrations in Times Square resemble what Arabs do when one of their people succeeds in killing Jews: They go to the streets, parade, cheer, shout slogans in unison, and distribute sweets.
No doubt 9-11 was traumatic, and Americans had a right to pursue and punish those responsible. Moreover, warfare does not provide the luxury of orderly arrests and judicial proceedings. Some who are innocent are bound to be hurt.
One cannot blame Barack Obama for milking the event for all it is worth, both in his dramatic first announcement and again when he visits Ground Zero and meets with victims' families. He was behind in the polls, and has taken advantage of events to put himself ahead in the polls. That is what politicians do.
However, it is disturbing to ponder the most recent reports that the Seals gunned down bin Laden and others who were not resisting. Operating close to the capital of an uncooperative Pakistan might not have allowed any other response. Nonetheless, the images do not sit well with American criticism of Israel's targeting killings of individuals involved in actions that killed proportionately more of the country's civilians than the number of Americans who died on 9-11. (Israeli deaths as a result of terror between 2000 and 2008 were proportionately 10 times the American losses of 9-11.)
Israel is also in the majority of democracies that do not practice the death penalty. The action is permitted by law, but has not been used in the country's 63 history except for the case of Adolf Eichmann. Israel imprisons mass murderers for multiple life sentences. Its judges and most politicians ignore the isolated calls for death that accompany especially bloody events. Israelis also avoid the kinds of celebrations seen on the Arab street, or Times Square, when one of the nation's enemies falls victim to its security forces.
Israelis did celebrate the victory of 1967 and the success of the Entebbe operation, but the latter was a rescue, and the former was marked more by a surge of individuals to a holy site that had been denied them for 19 years than by anything approaching the ecstasy seen after an American football game or the bin Laden killing.
None of the behavior seen in the United States would bother me if Israel was not singled out by many Americans and others for what is said to be inhuman callousness toward Palestinians.
Those who accuse Israelis of all that is evil may sneer at the thought, but Israelis are reluctant to kill. Jewish values have something to do with it. Hebrew provided the original version of Thou shall not kill
(לא תרצח). Israeli military leaders, politicians, and commentators debate in public appropriate responses to violence, and provide media access to individuals speaking for Palestinians, Iranians, Lebanese, and other adversaries. www.memri.org is an Israeli organization that publishes translations of Muslim media, including both the hateful stereotypes and indications of doubting and self-critical Muslims. The country has a decent record of defense, marked not only by its successful use of violence, but by the nuances of absorbing attack, not rushing to aggression, limiting its occupation of hostile populations, and avoiding the carnival-like celebration of an enemy's death.
Israel's compulsory military service is not universal, but brings to basic training a substantial portion of young men and women from upper income families, i.e., the kinds of Americans who do not consider the military in their plans beyond high school. While some Yuppe teenagers do everything they can to avoid the IDF, others pay for private pre-enlistment training in order to qualify for elite commando units. Some young people acquired their patriotic fervor in religious families. For others, it comes from secular families who teach their children the problems of being Jews in a hostile world.
The IDF teaches young people from good families how to do ugly things, but not to celebrate killing. Israel's left of center and centrist parties attract as many retired generals as do right of center parties.
The anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric that appears on campuses and elsewhere in North America and Western Europe causes dismay among Israelis. It may lead some to depart for less troubled countries, but may add to the motivation of others to stay, endure the unpleasantness of military service, and urge their children to endure it. Experience is that current hatreds will not add to the blood lust of Israeli Jews, or lead them to comprehend American celebrations of a man's death.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem