Indivisible tragedy, murderous symbols

Across the page of my morning paper are the pictures of eight teenage boys murdered in the terror attack at Merkaz Harav yeshiva last week. They demand of me to imagine lives that will not be lived. The pictures have a dark magic; they try to conjure up the thought that a parent must force himself not to think, because otherwise it would be impossible to get through the day.

The sound of the newspaper page as I turn it is a whisper: The season of killing has not ended. There was a lull, like a few sunny days in the midst of the winter rains in Jerusalem. We must think about whether the children should ride the bus, whether to set appointments in cafes. I went and had coffee this morning anyway on Emek Refaim. An act of sumud, sticking to the soil.

Of course there has not even been a lull in the killing in Gaza or in Sderot. The dead of one’s own city are more noticeable, and the dead of one’s own side: No Israeli paper prints a long line of pictures of those who died on a given day in Gaza. The one-sided mourning is inevitable, and is a dangerous illusion. The tragedies are indivisible.

Friday, the morning after the attack, Ha’aretz reported that Prime Minister Olmert said

“It shows the extent to which the Palestinian Authority is insufficiently fighting terror. We will not make our peace with such events.”

A reflexive and foolish response. The terrorist was an East Jerusalem Palestinian. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Olmert has not turned responsibility for fighting terror in East Jerusalem over to the Palestinian security services. Despite all the efforts of our police and Shin Bet, they could not prevent the attack. Even in Area A of the West Bank, supposedly under Palestinian security control, Israel continues to conduct its own raids and arrests. Perhaps that’s necessary. But if attackers get through, it’s not because the PA doesn’t really care, any more than it is because the Shin Bet does’t really try to stop them.

In fact, the attack showed that an Israeli policy of divisions and fragmentation has failed. The gunman was from Jabel Mukaber, a Palestinian neighborhood of annexed East Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the security fence. The fence was supposed to put Israelis on one side, Palestinians on the other. Rather than dividing Israel from occupied territory, it divides parts of occupied territory from each other.

I could have supported, sadly, a fence along the Green Line, marking the border between Israel and the West Bank, with all the damage to the countryside, all the symbolism of mistrust. But in reality, Jerusalem would have foiled even that plan. No Israeli government would have built a fence along the Green Line in Jerusalem, leaving the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods (or settlements, if you prefer) on the far side, along with the Old City. A fence with a giant hole at Jerusalem would have been like a sign saying “Terrorists, enter here.” A fence around annexed East Jerusalem – more or less what has been built – puts over 200,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side. They live in the first circle of occupation, with more privileges than those in the West Bank. Neither annexation nor the fence, or wall, has succeeded in dividing them politically from other Palestinians. It has not cut the “imagined community” of the Palestinian nation in two. In Jabel Makaber, there are people willing to murder and die for their cause. This is just one example of how the fence has failed.

For months, Palestinian friends have told me that the lull in terror attacks is due to a decision of the Palestinian organizations, not to the fence or Israeli actions. This is obviously a one-sided account. I’m sure that the fence has been a partial obstacle, and that the Shin Bet has managed to foil many attacks that we blessedly never heard of. If Hamas and Jihad and the loose network of the Al-Aqsa Brigades has stopped attacking inside Israel, another reason presumably is that the price of the armed intifada has been so high that the public turned against it. All the same: the organizations can start trying much harder.

If they have done so at this time, it is because the division between Gaza and the West Bank is also an illusion shared collectively around the Israeli cabinet table. When official spokesmen say that we’ve ended the occupation of Gaza, and therefore Gazans have no reason to attack Israel, they forget not only the extent to which Israel controls Gaza from outside but also the fact that Gaza is part of the same national community as the West Bank. Hamas wants any ceasefire in Gaza to apply to the West Bank as well. The murders at Merkaz Harav are a horrid, unforgivable message – but one we should not ignore – that we also have an interest in an indivisible ceasefire. For that matter, we are fooling ourselves by negotiating with Abu Mazen’s West Bank government as if it can make peace without Gaza. Israel’s prime interest, as I wrote recently in The American Prospect, is a reunited Palestinian government that can negotiate in the name of all the Palestinian territories.

On Shabbat morning after services, a friend of mine – a professor of history – noted to me that the attack at Merkaz Harav took place on rosh hodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar, in which Purim falls. Fourteen years ago on Purim, a settler doctor from Kiryat Arba walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and, in an act of highly ritualized murder, gunned down 29 Palestinians kneeling in Ramadan prayers.

Since then, Palestinian groups have repeatedly marked the anniversary with their own acts of ritual terror. The bus bombings of 1996 began on the Gregorian anniversary of the Hebron massacre. In 1997, in Tel Aviv, a suicide bomber killed three Israelis in a Tel Aviv cafe on the Purim weekend. On February 25, 2005, again marking the Gregorian anniversary, a suicide bomber murdered 5 Israelis in a Tel Aviv club. t’s certainly possible that the latest attack is also a marking of the anniversary with murder and human sacrifice.

After the 1996 bombings, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, then the chief of general staff, dismissed any connection with the date. He insisted that “no one lacks dates” – that they hate us all the time, and act whenever they can. This was partly a denial of responsibility – he’d had no reason to put the country on alert that day, he was claiming – and partly an insistence on another false division. Israeli society is built around anniversaries and holidays – like any human society. Human beings make dates into symbols. The ideologues and extremists of every society reify those dates, treating them not only as symbols but as metaphysically distinct. The murderer in Hebron acted on Purim because he regarded it as date singled out for vengeance against gentiles. This is the miracle of human symbolic thinking, harnessed to horror.

Shahak, and all the others who have expressed the same thought over the year, were saying: They are not like us. They are animals who want to kill. No, my friend: They are human beings, the crowns of creation, with brains that make symbols, and that sometimes make those symbols murderous. The tragedy is indivisible.






4 thoughts on “Indivisible tragedy, murderous symbols”

  1. It’s rather sad that the two intelligent men who write this blog are so naive. If the Government of Israel truly wants to stop the Palestinian terror campaign, it should take a page out of the Hafaz Assad playbook. When faced with a terrorist campaign with headquarters in the Syrian City of Hama, Mr. Assad had the town surrounded by several hundred artillery pieces which began a bombardment that lasted 2 or 3 days, killing some 20,000 people. Harsh, but effective as the terror campaign abruptly ceased. This action was labeled Hama rules by New York Times editorial writer Tom Friedman. What is required is the application of Hama rules on the Gaza Strip unless or until the terrorists activities emanating from there cease.

  2. Superb commentary and how rare it is to read this.

    SLC above is more typical. What is his response to the horrible murder of 8 school children: the liquidation of a city of 1.4 million people. This seems to be an extreme example of the standard response but can people not see a connection between the actions of their own side and the reaction.

    The only way out of this is to break the cycle through the kinds of meditation in the above piece. Check out the recent Vanity Fair article for a prime source of the problem. Just imagine how you would react if this was done to you, including the subsequent siege and incursions. Israel has had some astonishingly bad counsel, and it shows. These people move on and you guys (and the Palestinians) are left with the mess.

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