Bloodlust Memories

by Leon Wieseltier | March 21, 1994

Clean Hands. In the course of many centuries, there were many crimes that Jews did not commit, but this was not least because they lacked the power to commit them.

I remember the day that I discovered the obscure figure of Yusuf Asar. He appeared in a remarkable volume of Syriac Christian hagiographies, called Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Yusuf Asar lived in the South Arabian kingdom of Himyar in the early sixth century. He was a Jew (or, according to the editors of the volume, "a Jewish upstart"). Yusuf seized power, massacred the Christians in the capital, moved northward to a town called Najran and presented its Christians with the choice of conversion to Judaism or death. And so were born, or rather made, the "women martyrs of Najran." The texts that describe their torments are not easy to read.

I grasped that hagiography is a type of propaganda; and yet the historical basis for the accounts of these Christian martyrdoms in Arabia was indisputable. And my reaction to my discovery of Yusuf troubled me. I felt horror, of course, but horror was not all that I felt. I felt also fascination. In these old Christian texts I had found a kind of Jewish pornography. The choice between conversion to Judaism or death! The analogy was not only spooky, it was also a little tickling. (It was the boy from the yeshivah in Brooklyn who was being tickled, I know; but he was not supposed to be reading Holy Women of the Syrian Orient in the first place.)

And I felt relief. My long education in the sanguine story of the Jews had left me, as it was designed to leave me, with a terrible confusion between victims and saints. I was not happy to know how often we were victims, but I was not eager to conclude that we were saints. This lack of interest in sainthood, I learned on my first visit to Israel in 1969, after which I returned to Brooklyn and parted company with my colleagues in the Jewish Defense League, was what the Zionists called "the normalization of the Jewish people." I was sick of martyrdom, and I was sick also of the axiom that martyrs don't martyr. The awful Yusuf nicely defied that axiom.

I was reminded of Yusuf Asar when I heard of Baruch Goldstein. Both of them inflicted on others the fate that they feared for their own. I thought about the abnormal side of normality, about the guilty side of innocence.

A student of Jewish history knows that guiltlessness was too high a price to pay for powerlessness. Jews suffered extremely for lacking the power that they might have used wisely, and not just unwisely. But not even Jews, when they have power, use it always wisely and never unwisely. And its wise uses should not be allowed to hide behind its unwise uses. The guns of Israeli racists are not like the guns of Israeli soldiers; and for this reason the latter may one day be used against the former.

Unholidays. The date of Baruch Goldstein's atrocity in the mosque in Hebron is morbidly dripping in meaning. He massacred on Purim. This is the holiday that commemorates ... but here is the problem. For most Jews, Purim is the holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jews of ancient Persia. For some Jews, Purim is the holiday that commemorates the revenge of the Jews of ancient Persia. For most Jews, it is a day of gladness. For some Jews, it is a day of wrath.

The story of Purim is told in the Book of Esther. This is the only book in the Bible that describes a post-Biblical world. God speaks directly to none of the protagonists, and so they must, as we like to say, muddle through. They are the only figures in the Bible with the pathos that we recognize, the pathos of doubt. "And who knows," Mordecai wonders, "whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this," as he beseeches Esther to intercede on her people's behalf with her husband, the king. "And if I perish, I perish," she says, when she agrees to act. These are the words of individuals without revelation. They believe that God is on their side, but they cannot prove it.

And that is not all that makes this text so familiar, so easy to use. The Book of Esther is a book of politics. It is a tale of intrigue at the Persian court. And in its third chapter, anti-Semitism appears for the first time, and as a political instrument. "There is a certain people," the villainous Haman tells the king, "scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it is not for the king's profit to suffer them."

In the seventh chapter, Haman is foiled and the Jews are saved. But the Book of Esther has, alas, ten chapters. And the Jews are not only saved. They are also given permission to kill, "to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish all the power of the people and provinces that would assault them, both little ones and women." Chapters eight, nine and ten take the story in rough and morally vexing directions. These chapters provide the sacred history of the iron fist, for the sorry Jews who have need of it. After a day of massacre, the king asks Esther what she now wishes, for it will be granted, and she tells him that she wishes for another day of massacre. Her wish is granted.

Purim, then, is the holiday that establishes the distinction between victims and saints. But not for all Jews. The Jews of Qiryat Arba, the settlers in the little Jewish suburb of Hebron who celebrated Baruch Goldstein's massacre in song and dance, were having themselves a perfect Purim. They are not the sort of Jews who linger long over the many commentators, ancient, medieval and modern, who were deeply troubled by the bloodlust at the end of the Biblical narrative. Those rabbis, I guess, were just more self-hating Jews.

I remember a visit to Hebron in 1980. It was shortly after Purim. As usual, there had been trouble. An Israeli friend who knew Arabic and enjoyed the trust of the local Arabs took me to a meeting in a municipal hall, at which Arab individuals presented their grievances to the mayor, whose task it was to represent these grievances to the Israeli authorities. A small, paunchy man rose and timidly held up a distressed piece of paper. It was a letter that a Jew had written, in Hebrew, in 1929, asking that the Jewish authorities give every consideration to this man and his family, because they had saved him, the grateful author of the letter, from the knives of Arabs in 1929. (I have a copy of this affecting document somewhere.) And then this man proceeded to describe his humiliation when a group of Jewish students at the yeshivah in Hebron, singing and drinking at a Purim party, pissed on him, through the window of the yeshivah, as he walked in the street below. On Purim, Jews are enjoined to drink, or "be gladdened," as the rabbis say, until they no longer know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and " blessed be Mordecai." Until, that is, they lose their moral compass. This is the inversion of Purim. In this sense, in Qiryat Arba and elsewhere among the settlers of the West Bank, no drinks are necessary and every day is Purim. The inversion is a way of life.

A Gun Grows in Brooklyn. From the papers, I learned that Baruch Goldstein was once Benjamin Goldstein, but I knew immediately that really he must have been Benjy Goldstein. That was the genial nomenclature of Flatbush, where he (and I) grew up. I was not surprised to learn also that he went to the yeshivah called Ohel Moshe in Bensonhurst, though he might have gone to the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Flatbush (where I studied, and where I learned, by the example of a high school principal, that there is a basis in the tradition for resisting the tradition's own ugliness), or Etz Chaim in Borough Park, or the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy in Flatbush; and I was not surprised to learn that he was a follower of the late, unlamented Meir Kahane.

A man who was at home in Brooklyn was at home in Hebron. That is all you need to know. For Hebron is a place of poison. It is well-known that the Jews of Hebron were massacred by Arabs in 1929. (Sixty-seven dead, sixty wounded.) In 1936 the Jewish community was attacked again, and evacuated; and between 1936 and 1947, there was only one Jew in Hebron; and in 1968 the Israeli government, a Labor government, acquiesced in the renewal of Jewish settlement in Hebron, surrendering to a small group of chiliastic Jews who were squatting at a local hotel. Since 1970 the Jewish community of Hebron has set a contemporary standard for anti-Arab virulence and anti-Arab violence. But it is not, historically speaking, breaking new ground. Jews have always re-established themselves in Hebron brutally. Judah Maccabee, in the second century b.c., attacked Hebron to cleanse it of Edomites; and the zealot Simeon bar Giora, who fought the Romans and contributed handsomely, with his indifference to reality and his worship of violence, to the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, plundered Hebron in the first century a.d.

Hebron is for the fevered; and so there are many young Jews from Brooklyn there. I hope that they have overcome their abjection, but I suspect that they have taken it with them, like their vcrs. Flatbush, I like to recall, was a lovely place; there was peace, the fathers worked hard, the mothers were, well, the mothers, the children studied and played, everybody worshiped and ate; and yet Flatbush seethed. The Jews of Brooklyn were some of the luckiest Jews who ever lived, and yet they were choking on anger. Crime explained some of it; class resentment explained some of it; the Holocaust, which lives in Brooklyn, explained some of it. But finally I do not understand why so many of them were so miserable.

I do see, though, that these Jews of Brooklyn, I mean the ones who joined the Jewish Defense League and Kach and the other little militancies that made anger seem like a condition of pride, were ungrateful, envious, power-craving, spiritually shallow men and women who wanted only a piece of the action. And there is no action like messianic action. The loony millenarianism of the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights was preceded by the lethal millenarianism of my friends, first in the preoccupied territories of Flatbush, Bensonhurst and Borough Park and then in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, who found excuses in religion and in right-wing politics to act on their fear of goyim, shvartzes and Arabs. They were not vigilant, they were vigilantes. The vigilant can live without an enemy. The vigilante cannot.

There were drugs in Brooklyn. I wish they had turned to drugs. The drugs you take destroy only yourself. In a way, they did turn to drugs.

Rights and Brains. "The work of a fanatical and deranged individual," said The New York Times the day after the horror. Not exactly. Baruch Goldstein was not rational, but he expressed a rationality. No man with a gun is an island unto himself. The etiology of the massacre, as Dr. Goldstein might have put it, goes something like this: a man acts on beliefs that he shares with a small group of extremists, for which a large movement has a use, for which a national party has a use. The line from Baruch Goldstein to Kach to the settlers movement to the Likud is incontrovertible. I do not mean to say that they are all murderers or apologists for murder (though it was only a month or so ago that Yitzhak Shamir told Israeli radio, which asked him to comment on a bomb that was discovered at the New York office of American Friends of Peace Now, that "Peace Now has caused the State of Israel far more harm than would have been caused had the bombs gone off"); and there are decent men and women among the settlers who denounce physical force with spiritual force. Still, all these political tendencies have the same interest in the consequence of violence, that is, in the abrogation of Israeli- Palestinian diplomacy and, more generally, of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. If you do not deplore the consequences of the atrocity, you do not deplore the atrocity.

It is impossible, and it is unfair, to disarm all the settlers, but it is not impossible to disarm some of the settlers. If Hamas can be banned in the territories, Kach can be banned in the territories. (They have so much else in common.) Most important, the question of the settlements must finally be faced. The "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements" that was signed by Israel and the plo in September deferred the discussion of the settlements for three years. This made some tactical sense, but it did not strike a blow for realism. It made the settlements as diplomatically unapproachable as Jerusalem (the difficulties deferred are "Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest"), and it hardened one of the oldest and most dangerous dogmas of Israel, which is the sanctity of settlement.

The sanctity of settlement is one of the principles of what used to be called practical Zionism. But the settlement of many areas of the occupied territories is impractical Zionism; and so Shimon Peres was perfectly right to challenge the principle of the sanctity of settlement in Gaza, when a few weeks ago he dared to suggest that a pointless little place called Netzarim might have to give way to the security arrangements of a political accord. It is grotesque, moreover, to suggest, as William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal both suggested a few days after the massacre, that the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territories means making the territories "Jew-free." The word that they are slightly embarrassed to use, of course, is Judenrein. Suddenly it is not obscene to compare a policy of an Israeli government with a policy of his. Yes, yes, Jews have a right to live in the West Bank and Gaza; but Jews do not only have rights, they also have brains, and it is not smart to believe that the possession of a right justifies every exercise of a right.

The settlements were not established only by idealists, they were established also by strategists, and the objective of the strategists was to thwart territorial compromise, by making a map that separated Israeli sovereignty from Palestinian sovereignty difficult to draw. The settlements were designed as spoilers. For this reason, there is something particularly foolish about the anti-anti-settlement view. It is not based on a conception of security or a conception of ideology. It is a dodge, and plays into the settlers' hands.

The Vanity of Shame. The responses of the prime minister of Israel and the president of Israel were extraordinary. They made no extenuations. They spoke with genuine compassion to Arabs and with genuine fury to Jews. They knew that Jews are killed in the territories by Arabs, and they knew that no Arab state apologizes and no Arab statesman condoles; but they did not wrap themselves in these complicating and unedifying truths. Indeed, the comparison with the other side that Rabin chose to make was this one: "A single line of blood and terrorism runs from the Islamic Holy War member who shot Jewish worshipers who stood in prayer in Istanbul, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome to the Jewish Hamas member who shot Ramadan worshipers."

"I am shamed over the disgrace imposed upon us by a degenerate murderer," Rabin told the parliament. Among American Jews, something odd occurred. The Israeli recognition of the disgrace to Israel diminished the disgrace to Israel. They became vain about the shame. A.M. Rosenthal wrote a congratulatory column called "The Worth of Israel" consisting of thirty-six sentences, three of them condemning the massacre, thirty-three of them praising the condemning of the massacre.

I see his point, but it is unseemly. It is important to understand the place of the comparative impulse in moral accounting. When the comparative impulse becomes primary, accounting becomes apologetics. The really striking thing about the ethical texts of the Jews in exile is the extent to which they are silent about the adversity that the writers of these texts were regularly experiencing. For most of two millennia, the Jews had the standing alibi of anti-Semitism, if they wanted to take it up; but they did not want to take it up. They held themselves to the highest standards of conduct and then proceeded to the business of safety. One is not better merely because others are bad. And the better is not the same as the good.

 

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