We are as strong as our ideas
The Paris attacks last Friday night left us seared and scarred and back in familiar territory. A scorched landscape of bodies, traumatised families, outrage and helplessness. The horror of innocent young people targeted by other young people with a burning hatred in their hearts and a twisted ideology in their heads. Yet there is also something new about this, a paradigm shift not unlike 9/11. A sense that the world is more dangerous, more unpredictable, the new “normal” in which you are not guaranteed of safety no matter where you live.
In the enormity of the events in Paris it was also easy to miss yet another horrifying attack on a family in the West Bank on the same Friday night. The Litman’s car was fired on. Inside was the driver Rabbi Yaakov Litman, his wife, their two sons and three young girls aged 11, 9 and 5. Rabbi Litman was shot and fatally wounded. His older son Natanel tried to call rescue services but was then shot dead by one of the gunmen who got out of his car to fire more shots into their vehicle. They were on their way to celebrate their daughter’s upcoming wedding.
While you cannot conflate the Paris and the West Bank events they are bound by one common factor: the cruel and callous disregard for life; the targeted killing of the innocent. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and siblings just trying to get on with life, being shot down mercilessly.
At times like this when the world seems to be falling apart, when fear stalks our most cosmopolitan cities and anxiety runs the gauntlet from Moscow to Melbourne, Hanover to Jerusalem, Mumbai to Mogadishu, it’s easy to fall back on anger and bigotry. It’s however precisely at times like these we need to dig deep, to reach into our souls and find the composure, courage and compassion that we need. Terrorism succeeds when it distorts our judgement, when it makes us smaller and meaner.
It’s tempting at moments like this to gloat at French misery because of their perceived hostility to Israel or suggest it’s an appropriate come-uppance for the EU for their foolish decision to label West Bank products; to say it’s measure-for-measure or even worse- God’s way of punishing them. It’s easy to blame Islam and all Muslims for this or Europe for allowing the tides of Syrian and Muslim refugees into the continent.
The attacks in Paris, no less than bombings in Turkey or Beirut and stabbings in Jerusalem hurt us all. They are an affront against humanity, they challenge the basis of our free and open democratic societies.
When we indulge in schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another’s misfortune) we fall into the same mind-set of those who rejoice at the success of ISIS at killing the “infidels”. When we tar all Muslims with the same brush and assert that this is what Islam and its crazy caliphate aspiration is all about, we engage in the same mind-set of those conspiracy-theorists who claim that it’s all about the Jews, the Israelis, the Mossad trying to divert attention from Israel or to control the world.
When we blame it on Europe for accepting refugees (especially Syrian) we invite a cold disregard for human suffering which can easily be turned on us. When we say this is all God’s divine plan to punish the anti-Semites we leave ourselves dangerously close to the extremists and fundamentalists who claim they are only following God’s desires.
To be sure the struggle of the world today is one of civilisation against terror and “Jihadism” (in the words of Francois Hollande – French PM). It’s a battle against the poisonous ideology of Islam that we have allowed to flourish, that Western governments have been slow to name, recognise and confront. Too often they have confused political correctness with moral clarity and failed to see who the enemy is. The confrontation is not, as, Hollande rightly asserts, a clash of civilisations – there is nothing civil nor civilised about ISIS and its outrageous allies.
We will not defeat Islamic extremism by touting Islam as the enemy. In fact as a recent Israeli conference on counter-terrorism it was again affirmed that we help prevent the growth of terrorism by strengthening moderate Muslims and by seeking ways of countering the alienation of young Muslims.
Rabbi Mark Schneier writes:
Why do I, an Orthodox rabbi, advocate reaching out to Muslims? Because over the past eight years, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which I serve as president, has been engaged in a highly successful effort to build ties of communication and cooperation between Muslims and Jews across America and around the world. During that time, I have come to know scores of Muslims — both leaders of organizations and grass roots folks — as personal friends, whom I know in my gut would no more support acts of murder and mayhem against innocent people than I would myself.
Indeed, many of these people are even now speaking out clearly and unambiguously, against the monstrous crimes of ISIS and Al-Queda. As Azhar Azeez, President of the Islamic Society of North America declared: “No religious tradition can ever justify nor condone such ruthless and senseless acts of violence.”
In his incisive book (Not in God’s Name) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued that this century will be one of the weakening of secularisation and the proliferation of religious conflict. Religion can be a source of conflict and violence, a division of the world into simplistic and irredeemably good or evil, a pathological dualism. It leads to what Sacks calls “altruistic evil”, acts of terror in which the self-sacrifice involved somehow gives the right to be merciless and desperately cruel.
As I read the psalm of the day (in the morning service), Psalm 94, yesterday, it reminded me of this: “How long shall…the wicked triumph?…All the evil doers are full of boasting. They…oppress your inheritance. They kill the widow and the strangers…”
If religion is a cause of so much conflict, it is also the source of conciliation and harmony. We need to talk to each other, we need to sit down with moderate Muslims and encourage them to reinterpret their texts as we reinterpret our texts. We can read the Torah as a text of the eternal animosity between Jew and Muslim as we used to read it as a text of endless conflict between Jew and Christian. We can’t settle for the rabbinic despair that “Esau will always hate Jacob”. We surely can’t afford the luxury of such despair. Down such a path lies only more carnage and bodies in the streets of our cities…
There has to be, as Sacks indeed shows, a Biblical reading that allows us to see God’s face in the stranger, which reveals the path of justice and the possibility of reconciliation. The Biblical story can be read as one in which the warring siblings, the children of Abraham, ultimately reconcile, where they discover a world wide enough for them all to embrace.
It may seem idealistic in our technological social media-age that peace will be found in our ancient texts. But then remember Abraham didn’t have an empire or an army but he was armed with something far more powerful – an idea. An idea of how to think and link, to connect and communicate, to live and to love.
Freud said we are only as strong as our ideas. We are a people who introduced some of the most powerful ideas into the language of humanity. Let’s use these ideas to counter the toxicity of radicalisation, to talk to the other, to heal and to build a better world.
This piece is republished from Rabbi Ralph Genende’s weekly article for the Caulfield Hebrew Congregration