Monday, December 20, 2004

UnJewish Action

When Baruch Goldstein murdered twenty-nine Arabs who were praying at Ma-arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron ten years ago, his evil deed was strongly condemned by Israeli and American Jews across the religious and ideological spectrum. It mattered not at all that Goldstein was described as a talented and extraordinarily kind medical doctor, nor was his crime mitigated by speculation about his motives. Whatever they were, they could not be morally contorted into a defense of murder.

There were no doubt at the time some - probably very few - who privately justified the murderous rampage which culminated in Goldstein being killed. Horrific acts tend to generate lunatic fringes that make excuses for what is morally indefensible. There were then and certainly there are now those who believe that the Arabs got what was coming to them. As we are more removed from the shock of what transpired in 1994 and with the Intifada and suicide bombers, the ranks of those who believe that Goldstein killed and died for a just cause have grown. His gravesite has become a place of homage, a place for prayer and something of a shrine.

While there was and still is little that can be done to squelch the religiously-deficient and morally repugnant pro-Goldstein claque, for the most part the toxic attitude has been contained. It has been understood that the principle of free speech and free press does not create an obligation to impart legitimacy to that which is odious. The fantastic and disturbed musings of those who condone the murder of people in cold blood are appropriate fare for those who are engaged in abnormal psychology. Our media do not publish articles defending the assassination of Presidents or the murder of students in Columbine.

There is, however, a point to showing the affinity between suicide bombers and what Baruch Goldstein did, although the demonstration would not have any impact on the thinking of those who believe it appropriate to murder Arabs.

Jewish Action, the fine magazine sponsored by the Orthodox Union, has crossed into forbidden territory by giving a forum to an apologist for murder. I am certain that no official of the organization knew that in its latest issue, the magazine would publish a long letter - more than 1,000 words - by Toby Klein Greenwald arguing that there may have been legitimate grounds for Baruch Goldstein to kill. I am equally certain that one of the editors sympathizes with Greenwald's views and that is why a sick and sickening letter made it into the publication. That person should be censured and perhaps removed and there should be an apology in the next issue.

Hebron evokes powerful emotions among religious Jews and some who aren't religious. These feelings result, in turn, in a dilemma that many of us face. There is the view that Hebron is an essential part of our religious and national heritage and the Jews who live there are right and heroic. These same Jews tolerate and even embrace extremist attitudes and actions. They have created an environment that nurtures paranoia and hatred, an environment that nurtured Baruch Goldstein. When we give support to Hebron Jews we are, in effect, buying into a single package. What we like and what we would like to reject are inseparable as Siamese twins.

Many of us turn a blind eye toward the outrageous excesses of some Hebronites because we admire their courage. We seek to accommodate the antithetical and yet intertwined attitudes that we have about Hebron through a form of dissonance, through processes that attempt to block out that which makes us uncomfortable.

A couple of issues back, Jewish Action focused on the Hebron massacre of 1929 when rampaging Arabs murdered Jews. In an article, Toby Klein Greenwald referred to Baruch Goldstein's killings as an "incident." This provoked a letter from Jerusalem resident Howie Kahn who wrote, "I am sure that she wouldn't call the killing of Jews at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Seder night in 2002 an 'incident.' It was a planned massacre of innocent people in the midst of prayer, as was that perpetrated by Dr. Goldstein in Hebron."

Greenwald than responded with the lengthy letter that has just been published. Despite several weak qualifications, her letter is a defense of Goldstein's action on the ground that it was "a pre-emptive strike" because there were credible reports that Arabs were planning to attack Jews. Accordingly, in her view it is an "open question" whether those who were killed were "innocent victims."

This is despicable stuff. The defense of Israelis is presumably the responsibility of Israel's military and security forces, not of individuals who are prepared to kill at random. Israel is in a state of perpetual danger and there are reports nearly each day of possible terrorist attacks. If we accept Greenwald's repugnant approach, nearly each day Israeli citizens would be gunning down innocent Arabs.

Whatever his motives and whatever his background, Baruch Goldstein was a murderer. What he did was evil. His killing of Arabs did not result in a single Jewish life being saved, nor in Hebron's Jews or any other Jews being more secure. Indeed, one immediate consequence was that Israeli Jews were less secure. Nor did his actions result in Jews having greater access to our holy sites. As my son Yosef has noted on his blog, Goldstein's actions led directly to the reduction in Jewish access to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

We in religious Jewish life must understand that it is no mitzvah to justify wrongdoing and it is certainly not a mitzvah to make excuses for murder. When we do so and even when we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who preach hatred, we are turning other Jews away from our glorious heritage.