Just after the murderous attack on the Seminary students in Jerusalem, SPME issued a statement to which it attached the names of the board members. The key passage runs as follows:
The deliberate attack on this venerable institution of Jewish learning, a sacred seminary, cannot be interpreted as anything but an overt act of premeditated, genocidal anti-Semitism not dissimilar from the acts of pogroms in Eastern Europe and Nazi SS raids on Jewish communities in Western Europe. Jews were killed simply because they were Jewish.
In no way can this be interpreted as an act of political liberation or of Palestinian self-determination and if the Palestinians insist that it is, then it must be interpreted as nothing less than an act of war against Jews and not just Israel.
Almost immediately board members received email objecting to this language as exaggerated and inappropriate. What follows are some of the objections that writers have made to us, and a response of sorts that both acknowledges their rebuke and raises a more fundamental question that this controversy reveals in stark colors.
I received the following from a colleague whose work I greatly respect and whose pronouncements on the Middle East conflict I had previously criticized.
I see that you and Efraim Karsh are among the signatories of the below call for a condemnation of the attack on the Mercaz Harav. Fine. But why this rhetoric? Why bring out the big guns (genocide, the SS, war
crimes) on the occasion of the mad actions of what seems to have been an isolated gunman who went “postal”? Did you protest in the same way when Baruch Goldstein shot worshippers at the mosque in Hebron? What is the point of this exaggerated rhetoric?
Wrote another colleague to a board member:
My general support for your efforts notwithstanding, I must object to this memo. Despicable. Deplorable. Criminal. Yes. But “genocidal?” No. Not by any reasonable definition of genocide. Hyperbole does not make the case stronger, just louder.
Wrote still another in the same vein:
I was saddened by the attack, by the loss of life, the injury, and the myriad of its implications. But your summary of the meaning of the event is badly discrediting your hasbara.
It would be easy to list many essential differences between the attack on Yeshivat Mercaz Harav and the pogroms in East Europe and Nazi SS raids. For one, as far as I know the Nazis and the kozacks did not undertake much risk, and certainly did not go on suicide missions. The Yeshiva, like the madrasas on the other side, is not just about scholarship but also indoctrination, to a perspective which does not leave much room for compromise. If this is the only choice, I certainly wish that the Yeshiva boys win over the madrasas, but hysterical self pity by the strong should not be our style.
Finally, an extensive rebuke from Alan Weisbard:
Words have meaning.
It is important that words associated with extremes of human conduct be used judiciously so that they retain their distinctive meanings, and so that proper uses of those words (and the experiences properly described by them) are not diminished through gratuitous overuse and dilution of meaning.
One such word is “genocide.” A second such word, one less extreme but nonetheless powerful and distinctive, particularly in Jewish historical context, is “pogrom.”
My own view is that the invocation of these terms to describe the clearly wanton and evil murder of religious students and scholars at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav by a single individual (perhaps – it is not known at this point – supported by one or another terrorist gang) is inexact and unhelpful. So are invocations of these terms (and of the term “holocaust”) employed by enemies of the State of Israel to describe deaths (including those of civilian women and children, so-called “collateral damage”) caused by targeted Israeli attacks on Palestinian militants/terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank.
I am making no claims regarding moral equivalence here, except to say that none of these acts, in my view, constitutes activity meaningfully or usefully described as genocidal. Certainly, if one applies such labels to the murders at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, one must do so equally for the slaughter at the Cave of Machpelah by a deranged co-religionist, whose name I decline to mention, at Purim time some years back.
Further, given the current and foreseeable composition and proclivities of most international institutions in a position to apply such terminology with legal force, I do not think it serves the interests of Israel, or of the worldwide Jewish community, to encourage the indiscriminate use of these incendiary terms in the context of today’s Middle East-at least short of the use (or threat) of weapons of mass destruction.
The attack on the Yeshiva merits moral condemnation in strong terms. I also join your expression of sympathy and condolences to its victims, their families and communities. But the rhetorical escalation of language serves little good purpose here, andI would urge you to reconsider how best to express your justifiable outrage at this heinous act.
In sum, SPME’s statement struck many thoughtful people who are by no means hostile to the State of Israel as loose talk that both discredits the organization and debases the language in ways that do not serve to benefit either a responsible and free society or the Jews.
I must confess that I too, upon first reading the statement found it excessive in its rhetoric, unnecessarily insistent that the reader share the writer’s indignation at this wanton slaughter, but that they also assent to a “reading” of the conflict that drew sides in black and white. But as I read the objections, in particular the comparison with Baruch Goldstein – whose name Alan Weisbard is justifiably loath even to mention – I became increasingly convinced that the statement, rather than immoderate in its rhetoric, had only missed a critical step of reasoning that many of us on the board of SPME have already made, even if reluctantly and with much regret.
The missing piece here lies in the culture that produced this deed. Anyone who doubts that Palestinian culture, both “secular” (i.e., Fatah, Palestinian Authority) and religious (Hamas, Jihad Islami) has terrifying genocidal tendencies must visit the site of Palestinian Media Watch. There one finds documented in every aspect of public culture, from sermons on TV and educational programs to crosswords, sports, and children’s programs, a culture steeped in genocidal hatreds.
I use this term advisedly, as precisely one reader desired when he spoke about words having meaning. Islam has an apocalyptic hadith (saying of Muhammad not in the Qur’an) that speaks of the apocalyptic battle at the end of time in which nature herself assists the Muslims in killing virtually every last Jew that opposes their conquest:
And that day [of Judgment] shall not come until the Muslims kill the Jews [variant: and Christians]. And the Jews shall hide behind the rocks and the trees, and the rocks and trees will call out, “Come o Muslim, o servant of Allah [Abdullah], there is a Jew behind me, come slay him.”
The Hamas charter (7), cites this hadith, along with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (32), which they apparently believe describes a genuine Jewish conspiracy to enslave mankind. But this hadith is so common, so often heard on PATV, it so permeates the culture that many, even the journalists familiar with it, do not know that it derives from an apocalyptic hadith, or that the hatreds fomented in the Palestinian territories and beyond are the product of an apocalyptic world-view.
To anyone with the stomach to look, the parallels and links between the Nazis and the kind of apocalyptic -hence exterminationist – anti-Semitism one encounters on every corner of the Palestinian “street” are truly terrifying. Writes Matthias Küntzel, board member from Germany, and author of Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (summarized here ):
It was Yad Vashem’s Yehuda Bauer who coined this expression some years ago with regards to Islamist anti-Semitism as expressed in the Charter of Hamas. Robert Wistrich calls this type of anti-Semitism “genocidal and suicidal at the same time”. Other expressions with the same meaning are “exterminationist anti-Semitism” which Danny Goldhagen uses to refer to both
– Nazi and Islamist anti-Semitism, while Saul Friedländer coined the term “redemptive anti-Semitism” which has a lot of value as well [partly because it emphasizes the apocalyptic value of the genocide: it “saves” mankind – RL].
It’s true: The most recent massacre in Jerusalem was not a genocide and it is wrong to equate it with the Shoah. Our statement was not accurate enough in this respect.
It is, however, not only allowed but, in my opinion, necessary to analyse the similarities of the Nazi’s and Islamists’ anti-Semitic mindsets and to educate the public in this respect. Every arbitrary killing of Jews – be it by the means of suicide terror, be it by the means of rocket terror, be it by the murder of whoever attends a yeshiva school – clearly holds the signature of genocidal anti-Semitism.
Indeed one might interpret the entire fabric of public Palestinian life – especially since the autonomy acquired during the Oslo process – as an implementation of the belief that now is the time to prepare this slaughter. Hence we find the “culture of death ” which so many Muslims openly espouse, the brainwashing of children, the graduation ceremonies where kindergarten girls dip their hands in red paint to show solidarity with the men who tore two Israeli reservists apart with their bare hands, the constant instilling of paranoia and hatred of the Israelis and the West. As a result the most dastardly acts of aggression against Jewish civilians become occasions for public celebration and gory “exhibits ” where Palestinians can come and savor the moment when the explosion ripped through the bodies of Jews – Yahud, not Israeli. What sane culture ever worshipped Schadenfreude so openly?
So in response to our correspondents who felt that the murder of students at Mercaz HaRav was in the same category as the murder of forty Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of Abraham in Hebron at Purim in 1993, I think the answer is no. Despite his living in East Jerusalem and working in West Jerusalem, this Ala abu Dhaim responded to this larger culture of genocidal hatred when he made his attack on the Seminary. The “peers” whose approval he sought – and received – praise those who prefer death killing Jews to getting married and holding a job. And accordingly, crowds in Gaza and the West Bank cheered his deed wildly, his family set up a mourning tent with the flags of Israel’s mortal enemies, Hamas and Hizbullah, and Palestinian media, including Fatah newspapers, lavished praise on the young martyr.
In finding his apotheosis in this world, Ala Abu Dhaim chose death and hatred, chose to contribute his small part in this grand and depraved thirst to destroy Israel and kill Jews in a massive slaughter. Said Abu Amir of the Palestinian Resistance Committees:
The only way that Israelis will have security is if they get up and leave Palestine. All Palestinians will chase after every last one; we won’t leave them space to bury their dead. This is the first of many acts that the Palestinian resistance promised and started to carry out.
In the larger cultural context, one cannot legitimately claim that Goldstein’s slaughter constituted a genocidal act. On the contrary, Goldstein came from a culture that explicitly denounces the very thought of genocide, that regularly represses anything that might even lead in that direction (e.g., the “ethnic cleansing” of “transfer”). He himself was a doctor widely known for his medical care to Arab and Jew alike.
Israelis have nothing in their public culture remotely comparable to the hate-mongering and the death industry of their Palestinian neighbors. No one sent Goldstein to his dark deed; no widely praised “resistance” organization eagerly took credit for his slaughter. Rather than holding public celebrations, Israelis greeted Goldstein’s deed with horror, and even “settler” rabbis denounced the act as a violation of sacred religious principles. Unlike Palestinians, Israelis rarely, if ever, display Schadenfreude, even when their worst Arab enemies die under conditions of poetic justice.
It is difficult to imagine a more stark contrast, than that between an Israeli society that shares, indeed excels, at cultivating the qualities that progressives so prize – restraint, empathy, the value of every person’s life – and an Arab society that openly and proudly worships death. To convey this contrast, consider the situation in Israeli hospitals where a genuine, life-loving “even-handedness” prevails, where regardless of race, creed, or even guilt, each life is treated as precious and worthy of being saved. This situation has astonished many, and led to the extraordinary spectacle of terrorists in hospital rooms next door to their victims. Asked if that posed some problems, one nurse noted: “It gets hard when they [Arab patients] cheer when the bodies are brought in.”
And yet progressive Westerners shy away from examining this gap. On the contrary, they seem to want, at all costs, to maintain an “even-handed” approach, one that responds to every complaint about Palestinian society with an Israeli parallel, or still worse, turns the accusation back against the Israelis. Indeed much progressive Israeli and Jewish discourse operates from the principle “we too…” As in, “we too have our terrorist religious fanatics like Baruch Goldstein.” And from there, it is but one more step to, “actually, we are worse than they are.”
In some cases the moderate version of this generous and self-critical approach has much to recommend it, and may well lead to healing a conflict. But it is also a courageous act because it makes one very vulnerable. Admitting fault can inspire a foe to do so as well (as, for example, in good marriages); but in cases where the other side seizes upon the admissions as proof of guilt and becomes still more aggressive, such admissions may backfire. Thus progressives must take care to employ this generosity carefully, and distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate situations.
Which brings us back to the issue of this situation. Why are colleagues, sympathetic colleagues, shocked and dismayed when SPME describes this act of terror as genocidal? Part of the problem, I would argue, comes from the systematic unwillingness of both our academic colleagues and our journalists to discuss this culture of death that has sunk its talons so deeply into Palestinian society.
The day after the savage lynching of two reserve officers at Ramallah on October 12, 2000, Palestinian TV responded by running a live sermon from Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya from a Gaza City mosque.
The Jews are the Jews. Whether Labor or Likud the Jews are Jews. They do not have any moderates or any advocates of peace. They are all liars. They must be butchered and must be killed… The Jews are like a spring as long as you step on it with your foot it doesn’t move. But if you lift your foot from the spring, it hurts you and punishes you… It is forbidden to have mercy in your hearts for the Jews in any place and in any land. Make war on them any place that you find yourself. Any place that you meet them, kill them.
I certainly hope that everyone who has complained of SPME’s rhetoric will agree that this is a genocidal speech.
A couple of months later, a journalist for the NYT, William Orme, wrote an article trying to explain the ferocious violence of the Second Intifada. In his discussion of the role of incitement, he mentions this incident:
Some Israelis claim it’s due to incitement to hatred. Israelis cite as one egregious example a televised sermon that defended the killing of the two soldiers. “Whether Likud or Labor, Jews are Jews,” proclaimed Sheik Ahmad Abu Halabaya in a live broadcast from a Gaza City mosque the day after the killings.
Now what has happened here? How on earth can Orme justify this truncated quotation from which the key, terrifying, genocidal, message has been eliminated. Did he intend to turn a legitimate Israeli complaint into a petulant claim that the good Sheikh is a prejudiced Archie-Bunker type?
Nor is Orme alone in his reluctance to discuss the culture of genocidal hatred. The current NYT Mideast correspondent, Steven Erlanger has not once treated this culture of hatred once in his three years in Israel, even in an extensive piece on “The Lost Generation ” of Palestinian children. When challenged, he claimed that was “another article”… which he has still to write. This attitude permeates politically correct circles in the West, and dismisses as Islamophobia any effort to sound the alarm. Meanwhile, Palestinian authorities make their demands for immunity from criticism perfectly clear to journalists, who sometimes reach nauseating levels of sycophancy in assuring their hosts that they will abide by those rules.
But this problem goes well beyond the reluctance of systematically intimidated journalists. Proud and loud moralists in the West have enormous difficulty confronting such depravity when it arises from a “subaltern” culture. Two SPME members had the disturbing experience of trying to get progressive theologians to condemn suicide terror attacks at the height of the “Second Intifada.” Writes Ed Beck:
I remember when I was with Lori Zoloth at the Jewish and Christian Society for Ethics meetings pleading for them to take a stand on recruiting suicide bombers from the ranks of children, the elderly, the alienated, the infirm and the damaged Jew and Gentile alike treated me like a naive child by telling me that the issue was far more ethically and morally and culturally complex than I was making it, and thus avoided the serious discussion to take a stand. Some of the older board members may remember when I reported that I threw up my hands and proclaimed my disappointment that leading theologians and ethicists could not make a commitment to distinguish between right and wrong.
Moral relativism combines with fear of violence to produce a literal censorship on criticism of Palestinians and Muslims. Most recently, the Council of Europe warned Geert Wilders not to release his film documenting the deeply disturbing teachings of the Qur’an, emphasizing that “freedom of expression does not equal freedom to offend,” and that as a public official he had an “extra responsibility not to humiliate Muslims.” In this case the role of intimidation and fear is particularly evident: “Various Islamic figures have warned that release of the film would breed violence.” But such a response only emboldens the aggressors: riots in response to rumors of Qur’ans in the toilet, to Danish Cartoons of Muhammad, to the Pope’s remarks about a violent Islam, all play their role: Westerners tremble at offending prickly Muslim pride.
And so, just when the West needs to defend its most progressive values and principles, it falls into a dismaying silence. One can detect the impact of this silence in the widespread negative response to the SPME statement, the sense that calling the attack on the students in Jerusalem genocidal seems “over the top.” Without an awareness of this backstory, Goldstein and Ala abu Dhaim are, superficially, identical examples.
One can detect the same lack of awareness, it in the grotesque remarks of well-meaning progressives like Jenny Tonge and Cherie Blair who understand, even sympathize with the despair of the Palestinians who presumably undertake their acts of suicidal terror as a response to Israeli oppression not from genocidal hatreds. Thus, goes the reasoning, “the Israelis must have done terrible things to the Palestinians to make them hate them so.” But what if this derives not from desperation, but aspiration … genocidal hopes.
One can also detect it, most disturbingly, in the failure of one “peace plan” after another to demand the cessation of hate-mongering in the media and the schools. Indeed, failure to acknowledge the hate mongering disables those who want to bring peace to the Middle East. Is the conflict a fight between two peoples who want independence and self-determination as a basis for living in peace and prosperity with their neighbors? Can it be resolved by exchanging land (an independent Palestinian state) for peace (Israel’s right to live and prosper in the region)?
Or is it a cultural and religious battle between those determined to eliminate any autonomous non-Muslim state, and, in the case of Israel, bent on revenge for having a few million Dhimmi Jews humiliate hundreds of millions of Arabs by establishing an independent state in the heart of Dar al Islam. As Hamas MP Fathi Hammad proclaimed: “…oh Arabs, who number 300 million, you cannot allow yourselves to be ruled by four million brothers of apes and pigs…” [Note: He’s not talking about Palestinians, but Arab Muslims!] And as Saudi scholar Walid al-Rashudi insisted, “The killing of al the Jews will not be satisfactory compensation for the ‘real Holocaust’ [of about a hundred, mostly fighters] in Gaza.”
Many of us would like to believe the reasonable version, partly because it means negotiations can lead to peace, partly because the absolute demands of the Palestinian insurgents to destroy Israel seem so absurd in a situation where Israel vastly outguns them, partly because we don’t like sweeping (negative) characterizations about other cultures. All of us would like to believe that “the vast majority of Muslims are moderate,” even if the situation is more complex and troubling.
But what if they are not? What if even a small but determined minority increasingly dominates public discourse, intimidating those who desire civil society and empowering those who seek to destroy it. And what if that “rationality” that so many project onto the enemies of Israel – and of the West, no matter how anti-Zionist – empowers the very forces of irrational hatred about which we are in so much denial. For in this mad asymmetrical war in which an aggressive and imperialist variant of Islam seeks to conquer the world, the media – mainstream and online – represent a key battlefield. The challengers here depend vitally on their ability to use the media of the strong side to disguise intent, to garner support for their causes, to demonize targeted enemies. And, till now, the coverage in the MSM in the West has greatly energized global Jihad in the 21st century.
In order to achieve this effect, among other things, these covert aggressors need to play on our desire to believe that everyone plays by our modern/post-modern rules of tolerance and mutual respect. Board member Barry Rubin writes in this regard about that movement’s rules of engagement:
6. Talking to our own people, we will foment hatred and demonize you. Speaking to the West, we will accuse you of fomenting hatred. We will hypocritically turn against you all the concepts you developed: racism, imperialism, failure to understand the “other,” and so on. These concepts, of course, describe what we are doing, but your feelings of guilt, ignorance about us, and indifference to ideology will make you fail to notice that fact. [This describes what I have called the dynamic of demopaths and their dupes . – RL]
7. We will claim to be victims and “underdogs.” Because you are stronger and more “advanced,” that means you are the villains. We are not held responsible for our deeds, or expected to live up to the same standards. There will be no shortage of, to quote Lenin, “useful idiots” in your societies to help echo our propaganda.
Having done a tour of the horizon, let’s return to SPME’s statement and the criticism we received. First, I agree with those who felt that this statement would strike many as excessive rhetoric. But such a perception would be based not on the actual excessiveness of the statement but on widespread ignorance of the genocidal culture that informed and celebrated the act so described.
If we were to rewrite the SPME statement, I would suggest the following changes:
The deliberate attack on this venerable institution of Jewish learning, a sacred seminary, should be understood in the framework of a larger culture that urges, sponsors and celebrates a program of premeditated, genocidal anti-Semitism not dissimilar from that which pervaded pogrom-ridden Eastern Europe and the genocidal Germany of the Nazis. People bred in this world of hatred kill Jews simply because they are Jewish.
Without knowledge of this culture of death, Westerners tend to view such violence as an act of political liberation or of Palestinian self-determination. But according to the Palestinians themselves, then this act of terror and its enthusiastic celebration by the Palestinian “street” represent nothing less than an act of war against the very existence of Israel and Jews the world over.
In any case, and ironically, until we wake up to the appalling nature of the problem, we are in still deeper trouble.
Note: I have received responses from both Michel Zank and Alan Weisbard to this essay. They both emphasize an issue that lies at the heart of the problem: dialogue. I cite selections from both. Zank writes:
…You are right. There is stuff out there that is even more primitive and more hateful than what the Nazis invented to make genocide possible. But it functions differently and is used in different ways, it is located in a different society, and it needs to be engaged where and for what it is. We better find a way of engaging it. In my view, the way is to engage Muslims, show them how odious these fairy tales are, etc. But it seems to me that, in order to be successful, we need to engage in conversations with Muslims. Much of what comes from the national religious Jewish side of things appears as fear mongering because it is directed at building solidarity with an Israel that is besieged by enemies, feeding the narrative of catastrophe Zionism. There is little gained by this…
While I am characterologically reluctant to indulge in sweeping generalizations about national or religious cultures, or to accept such generalizations uncritically, there is a part of this Jew that recognizes something real and genuinely threatening in celebrations in Arab streets after 9/11, or after the recent horror at the Jerusalem yeshiva. That horror extends to statements by Arab parents (one posted on my blog within the past fortnight) expressing gratitude for the martyr-deaths of their terrorist children. I too am drawn to–rather, despite myself, I cannot avoid– a characterization of a “culture of death” that I find virtually impossible to understand in human terms [because most of us don’t study the apocalyptic mindset – RL]. And I fully recognize and accept the necessity–moral, political, and military – of protecting Israelis, Jews, Americans, and others from the murderous impulses inherent in such displays.
What I find unsatisfying… to some degree in your [presentation]…, is where to go with such recognitions. Annihilation of the other? Expulsion? Brutal suppression and apartheid? Utter abandonment of hope for democracy and human rights in Israel, and perhaps in America?
… My own conclusion, in a situation in which every potential course of action carries grave risks, is to accept those risks associated with the quest for a two-state solution, in which both Jews and Arab Palestinians can seek to realize their national aspirations consistent with the security needs of the other… It will, for reasons you articulate, be slow going, and not free from setbacks. But I do not see a tolerable alternative.
These responses raise a host of issues that are not appropriate to explore at the end of this already long piece, but these two passages highlight the need for a new direction for dialogue – among Jews/Westerners and with Muslims.
Much of the resistance to pointing out the deplorable condition of thought, speech and action in the Palestinian/Arab/Muslim world is the sense that, once acknowledged, “Whaddaya gonna do? Nuke ‘em?” That response in turn suggests that somehow, if we admit what kind of an enemy we face, negotiations are useless if not worse, and a war of annihilation is the only alternative.
This assumption is, in my opinion, not only a major player in the Western “silence” on the spread of apocalyptic madness – paranoia, genocidal rage, megalomanic dreams of global conquest – in the Muslim public sphere, but profoundly misguided. Above all, it makes us “useful idiots” in ignoring the dangers that threaten not only us, but every person on the planet – especially Muslims. But also it is based on a profoundly condescending view of Muslims in which we hold them to no standards – “don’t mention their madness.” Indeed, it makes it impossible for us to think creatively about the problem: if acknowledging one of its main motors is illegitimate, how can we possibly find a solution?
We all want to negotiate a peace; we all want successful (moderating) dialogues. The question, then, is how best to achieve those goals? What is the best way to “show the [Muslims] how odious their tales…” when they have so prickly a sense of honor? What is the best way to talk about human rights, when dealing with people who think that 100 dead in Gaza is worse than the Holocaust? And how do we talk with people who may be more moderate than these wild ideologues, but who out of a sense of either solidarity or intimidation, cannot begin to think in anything but the most clichéd manner about Israel.
Our public sphere has banned any discussion of the Islamic culture of hatemongering, and too rapidly shifted to a self-criticism that empowers the forces of war. That taboo supports our comforting illusion that we live in a rational world, and it prevents us from dealing with the real hatreds and violence that threaten freedom and civil society around the globe. I think I speak for those of us on the SPME board who believe that the “Oslo Paradigm” is counterproductive, that none of us wants war; that we all prefer dialogue and negotiations. What we need now is not an “Oslo” side that dismisses its critics as war-mongers, and an “Anti-Oslo” side that views the “peace” camp as appeasers, but a discussion among those in search of a post-Oslo paradigm that at once faces the unmentionable, and considers proper responses in the world of discourse.
I, for one, think that we have enormous advantages in the contest in the public sphere. Were we willing to use these advantages, it could change the dynamics of this conflict dramatically in ways that would embody the best of liberal and progressive values – the power of words over the power of violence. But to do that, we have to think and speak differently. And not a second too soon…
Richard Landes is Professor of History at Boston University and is Co-Founder of the Center for Millenial Studies. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East