MERCAZ HARAV AND THE G-WORD
By • Richard Landes, Boston University
Published in: Exclusive to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Faculty Forum March 16, 2008
Just after the murderous attack on the Seminary students in Jerusalem, SPME issued a statement to which it attached the names of the board members. The key passage runs as follows:
The deliberate attack on this venerable institution of Jewish learning, a sacred seminary, cannot be interpreted as anything but an overt act of premeditated, genocidal anti-Semitism not dissimilar from the acts of pogroms in Eastern Europe and Nazi SS raids on Jewish communities in Western Europe. Jews were killed simply because they were Jewish.
In no way can this be interpreted as an act of political liberation or of Palestinian self-determination and if the Palestinians insist that it is, then it must be interpreted as nothing less than an act of war against Jews and not just Israel.
Almost immediately board members received email objecting to this language as exaggerated and inappropriate. What follows are some of the objections that writers have made to us, and a response of sorts that both acknowledges their rebuke and raises a more fundamental question that this controversy reveals in stark colors.
I received the following from a colleague whose work I greatly respect and whose pronouncements on the Middle East conflict I had previously criticized.
I see that you and Efraim Karsh are among the signatories of the below call for a condemnation of the attack on the Mercaz Harav. Fine. But why this rhetoric? Why bring out the big guns (genocide, the SS, warcrimes) on the occasion of the mad actions of what seems to have been an isolated gunman who went “postal”? Did you protest in the same way when Baruch Goldstein shot worshippers at the mosque in Hebron? What is the point of this exaggerated rhetoric?
Wrote another colleague to a board member:
My general support for your efforts notwithstanding, I must object to this memo. Despicable. Deplorable. Criminal. Yes. But “genocidal?” No. Not by any reasonable definition of genocide. Hyperbole does not make the case stronger, just louder.
Wrote still another in the same vein:
I was saddened by the attack, by the loss of life, the injury, and the myriad of its implications. But your summary of the meaning of the event is badly discrediting your hasbara.
It would be easy to list many essential differences between the attack on Yeshivat Mercaz Harav and the pogroms in East Europe and Nazi SS raids. For one, as far as I know the Nazis and the kozacks did not undertake much risk, and certainly did not go on suicide missions. The Yeshiva, like the madrasas on the other side, is not just about scholarship but also indoctrination, to a perspective which does not leave much room for compromise. If this is the only choice, I certainly wish that the Yeshiva boys win over the madrasas, but hysterical self pity by the strong should not be our style.
Finally, an extensive rebuke from Alan Weisbard:
Words have meaning.
It is important that words associated with extremes of human conduct be used judiciously so that they retain their distinctive meanings, and so that proper uses of those words (and the experiences properly described by them) are not diminished through gratuitous overuse and dilution of meaning.
One such word is “genocide.” A second such word, one less extreme but nonetheless powerful and distinctive, particularly in Jewish historical context, is “pogrom.”
My own view is that the invocation of these terms to describe the clearly wanton and evil murder of religious students and scholars at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav by a single individual (perhaps – it is not known at this point – supported by one or another terrorist gang) is inexact and unhelpful. So are invocations of these terms (and of the term “holocaust”) employed by enemies of the State of Israel to describe deaths (including those of civilian women and children, so-called “collateral damage”) caused by targeted Israeli attacks on Palestinian militants/terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank.
I am making no claims regarding moral equivalence here, except to say that none of these acts, in my view, constitutes activity meaningfully or usefully described as genocidal. Certainly, if one applies such labels to the murders at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, one must do so equally for the slaughter at the Cave of Machpelah by a deranged co-religionist, whose name I decline to mention, at Purim time some years back.
Further, given the current and foreseeable composition and proclivities of most international institutions in a position to apply such terminology with legal force, I do not think it serves the interests of Israel, or of the worldwide Jewish community, to encourage the indiscriminate use of these incendiary terms in the context of today’s Middle East-at least short of the use (or threat) of weapons of mass destruction.
The attack on the Yeshiva merits moral condemnation in strong terms. I also join your expression of sympathy and condolences to its victims, their families and communities. But the rhetorical escalation of language serves little good purpose here, andI would urge you to reconsider how best to express your justifiable outrage at this heinous act.
In sum, SPME’s statement struck many thoughtful people who are by no means hostile to the State of Israel as loose talk that both discredits the organization and debases the language in ways that do not serve to benefit either a responsible and free society or the Jews.
I must confess that I too, upon first reading the statement found it excessive in its rhetoric, unnecessarily insistent that the reader share the writer’s indignation at this wanton slaughter, but that they also assent to a “reading” of the conflict that drew sides in black and white. But as I read the objections, in particular the comparison with Baruch Goldstein – whose name Alan Weisbard is justifiably loath even to mention – I became increasingly convinced that the statement, rather than immoderate in its rhetoric, had only missed a critical step of reasoning that many of us on the board of SPME have already made, even if reluctantly and with much regret.
The missing piece here lies in the culture that produced this deed. Anyone who doubts that Palestinian culture, both “secular” (i.e., Fatah, Palestinian Authority) and religious (Hamas, Jihad Islami) has terrifying genocidal tendencies must visit the site of Palestinian Media Watch. There one finds documented in every aspect of public culture, from sermons on TV and educational programs to crosswords, sports, and children’s programs, a culture steeped in genocidal hatreds.
Read the rest.