POLITICS MARCH 28, 1994
More than any other Jewish thinker, Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century, still has sway over the modern mind and not just the modern mind of Jews. He was also a physician, and wrote widely on medicine. Among his voluminous writings--on drugs, asthma, sex, poisons, almost everything but managed competition--is this short prayer: "Supreme God in Heaven: Give me the merit to regard every suffering person ... as a human being, without any distinction between rich and poor, friend and foe, good person and bad. When a person is in distress show me only the human being." The prayer hangs in the offices of many Jewish doctors--as it may once have hung in the office of Dr. Baruch Goldstein--and animates their lives. This morning's Boston Globe carries a letter that begins with its binding words. Signed by thirteen physicians who are members of the health professions team at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the local equivalent of the United Jewish Appeal, the letter "condemn s the brutal murder of Palestinians by an American-born physician in disregard for his oath to revere life." And so still more Jews, however remote and abstract their tie to this one particular Jew (to say nothing of how nonexistent their tie to his beliefs and deeds), have declared him and his comrades banished and proscribed. And they did this even though Goldstein and friends hailed from the fringe of the fringe, ever so marginal and with no bonds to what is truly Israel's constituency in the world.
A few weeks ago (and for the umpteenth time) Goldstein joined a demonstration against the peace initiatives of Israel's government. Wearing a yellow Star of David like the ones Germans forced Jews to wear during the Second World War, Goldstein told the television cameras that Yitzhak Rabin's policies would result in a second Holocaust. In a confrontation with the police he and his fellow ethnic cleansers screamed at them, "Nazis, Nazis!" They do not see the bizarre irony of this epithet coming out of their mouths. The febrile imagery of the Jewish catastrophe is by now stock-in-trade of the Israeli settler ultraright. It is not just a rhetorical trick. These zealots, who are a tiny minority of the 2.5 percent of Israelis who live on the West Bank, believe they are the vanguard saviors of the Jews from the coming apocalypse. The other Jews are either sheep or worse. Yes, Rabin, Peres, like the police who tried to restrain the demonstrators, they are all "Nazis," the most laden and profane curse a Jew can hurl at anyone. In a sense, then, the Kahanists have excommunicated everyone else. If this is how these fanatics feel about the leaders of the Jewish state, that state, for all its ambivalence about the territories, cannot have exactly been a nurturing environment for them.
Still, ideological madmen are nurtured in their madness by others. Some months ago Colin Ferguson perpetrated a killing spree, not unlike Goldstein's, on the Long Island Railroad. He left written evidence of his beliefs, and they are uncannily close to the beliefs of Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. One may put his deeds at their feet. But it would be more than a little unfair if one were, let's say, to blame them on Jesse Jackson. Rashad Baz, the half-Palestinian, half-Druze gunman who seems to have been the one who shot four Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge, was obviously a little unhinged. But unhinged people sometimes commit ideologically motivated acts to satisfy their grievances and give meaning to their lives. The young men he aimed at were not random targets; they were especially visible Jews. Would he have shot at a van full of towheads? The police have not yet said that Baz is part of a conspiracy, but he had advanced weapons that would be hard to come by for a rogue acting alone, and he did have accomplices. Nonetheless, The New York Times was right to applaud Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's statement that Baz's "act of evil is not the act of a people." But it was an act conceived in a culture altogether at home with the idea of violence against Jews. Last month in Chicago three Palestinian-Americans were arrested for torching the Kollel, a synagogue and study center. This fire (and four others) is not aimless vandalism. Of course, it won't be hard to persuade the Jews of Crown Heights of these realities. Many of them, and others, too, are still rightfully fixed on the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum and on the anti-Semitism that caused it. But if they recognize these truths they would do well to admit that Dr. Goldstein's psychopathology was collectively fed also. And though it wasn't fed by mainstream Judaism or mainstream Zionism, it was fed by people, calling themselves Jews and Zionists, who are both malign and deadly.
A wise friend points out the inevitable anxieties of Muslims in the modern world. Given the near genocide in Bosnia, which was virtually consecrated by the Orthodox church, any thoughtful Muslim must conclude that Muslim torments don't count for much in the world. Then there is the custom of extremist Hindu aggression against Muslims in India. In late 1989 and again in late 1990 militant Hindus murdered as many as 2,000 Muslims in their campaign to build a Hindu temple to the god Ram at Ayodhya. One quaint feature of the carnage was Hindu organizations, which orchestrated the wave of attacks, disputing government estimates of casualties as being "too low." Like the Israeli government, the Indian government never countenanced terror. But New Delhi couldn't prevent it either, and had great difficulties in putting it down. There has been continuing but episodic violence against Muslims since. Of course, there is the phenomenon of Muslim terror--against Jews, against Christians and against errant Muslims. In the war of the secular army state against those who want to enforce a regime of austere virtue, both sides are casual killers of innocents. For the ordinary Muslim, who wants to feed his family, send his children to school and be able to pray, this has not been a good period.
Now he tells us. Edward Said has confided to The New York Times that he is not sure whether the Palestinians are "capable of having a decent state or not." One index of decency is a culture's attitude toward terror. Right now, reeling from the Hebron massacre, the entire spectrum of Palestinian and Arab politics parades its wounds and its indignation. The wounds are real. The indignation is contrived. It doesn't jibe with the indulgence long given to terrorism as a ho-hum routine. The Israeli Cabinet may have just instructed the attorney general to charge anyone praising the massacre with incitement, punishable by several years in prison. But both plo and Hamas Palestinians wink at their own terrorism. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what Edward Said does: the Palestinians "are the dispossessed, and what they do by way of violence and terrorism is understandable."