There was scarcely time to grieve before the event itself receded and the eight young men who were killed in the horrid attack in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva (as also those who were wounded) were transformed into symbols, and then from symbols into launching pads for all manner of political argument. It is almost always so in Israel; there, things don’t merely “happen.” There, context is everything, and these days, there’s rarely agreement on context.
So: A friend observes that the killer at Virginia Tech last year murdered 32 people, not one less worthy or more deserving of the wound than the Mercaz Harav students. Why draw conclusions at all? People go berserk and begin firing, end of tragic story.
Call that an effort to decontextualize. It falls flat. We do not know the mental history of Alaa Abu Dheim, the 20 year old from Jabel Mukhaber, an East Jerusalem town just across from the neighborhood of Talpiot, a town literally divided by the security fence — here a 24-foot-high wall — that is meant to protect against terrorists. (Abu Dheim’s family lives on the Israeli side of the wall, hence in truth neither here nor there.)
We do not know the killer’s mental history, but we know too well his social and political history, and it is they that gave rise to his pathology. In the aftermath of the event, key elements of the social and political context were on despicable display: In Gaza, children distributed candy in celebration of the victory, people danced in the streets; in Jabel Mukhaber, the family erected a mourning tent and above it, until the police removed them, flew the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. What lessons does a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, or even a 6 year old, draw from witnessing such a response to murder, to this murder?
Others observe that Mercaz Harav is the ideological ground zero of the settler movement, driven not only by fundamentalist theology but by a specific vision of Zionism’s destiny. It must be, they say, that the target of the attack was no random choice, was selected by Abu Dheim’s masters to insult the pre-frontal cortex of the settler movement, there where thoughts and actions are orchestrated in accordance with internal goals. But as I write, we do not know whether Abu Dheim was recruited or acted on his own, whether Mercaz Harav was chosen for its deeper significance or because of its handiness.
Cyberspace is aswarm with opposing lessons we are meant to learn from what has happened. Violence breeds violence; Palestinians cannot be trusted, they revel in what civilized people regard with outrage; the occupation has corrupted the souls of both the occupiers and the occupied; just as Baruch Goldstein, the savage murderer in the Cave of the Patriarchs, did not speak for the Jews of Israel, Abu Dheim did not speak for all Palestinians.
The reaction that I find most perplexing, even disturbing, comes from Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center of Jerusalem. Gordis has developed over the last few years a niche market: He is a master at the manipulation of sentiment. In a longish essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the killings, he begins his seduction with a recap of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s magnum opus, “In the City of Slaughter,” a poem of more than 300 lines written after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, a poem that indicts the Jews for their passivity.
Then he moves on to cite Natan Alterman’s “Silver Salver,” a poem once taught to Israeli schoolchildren lauding the brave young men and women who birthed the Jewish state. Both Bialik and Alterman perceived religion as the source of the shameful Jewish passivity, and it is that which distresses Gordis. Without religious conviction, without continuing religious discourse, he tells us, we will not know why there needs to be a Jewish state, what purposes it serves.
That’s a provocative view, worthy of serious discussion. But that is not where Gordis takes the reader. Absent a clear sense of purpose, he writes, you want desperately to be “normal,” and so you close your eyes to the continuing attacks, assaults, insults. “You get so used to [them] that you don’t see that Jews sitting like ducks, simply waiting to be hit by homemade missiles while the region’s most powerful army sits on the side and polishes its boots, is a bastardization of what Zionism was supposed to be.”
His indictment, as harsh in its own way as Bialik’s, goes on, step by critical step, until finally it finds its home base: “So we sit. And civilians keep getting targeted, and keep dying. And soldiers die. And Israeli towns become ghost towns…
“But George Bush most supports us, so we feel better. And the charade with Abu Mazen permits us to continue hallucinating about the possibility of peace, to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t simply an utterly failed people that will never make peace in our lifetimes or those of our children, so we feel even better.”
Another time, we can argue about “what Zionism was supposed to be.” Just now, let us take note of what Zionism was not supposed to be: Two days after the yeshiva attack, Israel announced renewed construction of hundreds of homes in the West Bank town of Givat Ze’ev and authorized hundreds more in East Jerusalem. So much for the Road Map; so much for Israel’s explicit commitments at the Annapolis conference last fall.
Zionism, then, as an act of spite; Zionism to keep a fractious coalition together; Zionism to satisfy those in the religious camp who are as far from “shameful Jewish passivity” as can be. Take your pick: a Zionism that polishes its boots, or a Zionism that spits in the face of the Other and on its own moral tradition. Either way, you lose.