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Terror in Jerusalem and the Danger of Ambivalence

By , New York

Lear’s vaporous howls erupted from my throat this morning after reading the news reports from Jerusalem.

I howled loudly, again and again, and tore at my hair because even Shakespeare, lyrical master that he was, knew that some offenses are so odious they cannot be contained in words. Tuesday morning there was no way to articulate the outrage of this massacre of Jewish life, of worshipers bludgeoned to death while wrapped in their prayer shawls in synagogue.  

I know, I tried. In recent weeks I’ve been participating in an experiment with a group of Jews of diverse views on Israel. Right, left and middle of the road were asked to meet once a week and practice listening to each other, and then to speak about our feelings on Israel with the caveat that we do so calmly, politely, and thoughtfully.

It would be an interesting experiment but for the fact that from my perspective, we were trying to engage in a conversation of measured words and voices about a matter that concerned life. My life, the life of my family and the people that I love.  

On the first day that we met, an Arab terrorist rammed his car into a pedestrian walkway in Jerusalem, throwing an infant from her stroller to her death. No one said a word about it when we met later that evening.  

Our next meeting took place two weeks later, on the same day that a truck driver drove into innocent people in Jerusalem, killing one and injuring 13. No one said a word about it when we met later that evening.  

One of the participants, a very soft-spoken, gentle woman who argues that Israel must practice radical empathy with the other (in this case, those who seek its destruction), was disturbed that after two evenings in conversation, we hadn’t talked enough about Palestinian suffering.  

I contained myself and said nothing. It wasn’t my turn to speak. But to be honest, I didn’t respond because her comments made me want to howl and howling wasn’t acceptable.  

I wanted to howl about the pain of the mother who tried for years to have a baby who was then murdered by someone who was taught that murdering Jews is a holy sport.  

I wanted to howl that it was because Palestinians have been coddled in their grievances—real or imagined—that they have become emboldened to murder Jews and then celebrate in the streets of Gaza with impunity.   

I wanted to howl about the loss of life that will sometimes go unmentioned, warranting not even a sigh, let alone a conversation, when it is Jewish life that is lost. I didn’t because howling was not allowed in this polite setting.  

But this morning’s bloodbath was not a polite scene, and howl we must. We must howl loudly and incessantly in the ears of those in academia and the arts, in politics and in the media who are responsible for having made it easy to tolerate, even to justify wanton murder so long as it is perpetrated against Jews.  

Howl we must in the ears of our fellow Jews who have given their support, wittingly or not, to this kind of violence. I mean Jews who have embraced as the plain truth fictional narratives because it is politically correct to do so, because it inspires hatred for Israel. Jews who support BDS, the demonization and isolation of Israel, and lend a hand to its dangerous enemies.

I spoke to a friend the other day, someone who shares my views and is participating in this experiment with me. He explained to me that I am unrealistic, that it is too late in the day to roll back the curtain and expose certain facts, like that the Palestinian identity is a recent creation of an Arab leadership that would otherwise be forced to absorb the refugees to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries.  

It is too late, my friend said, to expose the fact the UNWRA has created a new definition for “refugee” that applies to Palestinians alone, granting them refugee status if they lived in Israel for only two years, so that they could demand the right of return towards the end of a Jewish majority in Israel.

And besides, he told me, people today, good people, are unwilling to accept stark definitions. They don’t do well when things are presented in terms of good or evil. You can’t tell them that some of the harsh measures Israel takes are to protect its people from what happened this morning. There’s just not enough nuance in that kind of argument, and people appreciate nuance.  

So do I. That’s why I don’t want to believe that the hatred of today that targets Israel and Jews in Europe is of the same strain of unalloyed evil that targeted Jews in 1938. I very much wish to believe what former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told me in a recent interview, that anti-Semitism “flares up and then it evaporates as quickly as it came,” during hostilities in Israel.

Please believe this, he said to me.  

How I wish I could. And yet, I see no way to palliate the evil of this morning’s massacre. I think often of the Fogel family, the young parents and three of their children who were murdered in their own home by terrorists in 2011. Settlers, say those who want context. That explains it.

Does it? I think of the families blown to bits over the years, in Sbarro’s pizza shop in Jerusalem and in dozens of other cafes and on buses, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and Netanya because they were Jewish. I think of my next-door neighbor’s son, Ari Halberstam, who was murdered on the Brooklyn Bridge 20 years ago. And I think of those massacred this morning in a Jerusalem synagogue.  

Most will agree that there is no way to extenuate the murder of innocents, but history has shown that when it comes to Jews, violence against them is all too often explained, if not justified or excused. When it comes to Jews, well, we need to sit down and understand context, mitigating circumstances, perspective. You know.

There is something decidedly old-fashioned, unpopular and even politically incorrect about Judaism’s black and white attitude to good and evil, and the priority it places on an education that teaches people to recognize the difference. Averse to absolutes, ours is a society that goes to great pains to equivocate, choosing to highlight Judaism’s universal values while ignoring those that delineate non-negotiable lines.  

But we’ve had too many reminders in recent months that ambivalence has no place in the response to the murder of innocents; that evil doesn’t come in shades of grey—its blackness has been staring us squarely in the eye for some time now. And unless those people in positions to act, recognize it and rub it out, it will spread its tentacles far and wide beyond the Jewish people, beyond Israel.

Then, heaven forfend, government leaders who fail to act now will have fingers pointing at them with Kent’s question: Is this the end of the world?


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