I remember it like it was yesterday.
Purim, 1994. A Jew from Hevron massacred 29 Muslims praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs. When the initial shock wore off it became clear that something needed to be done. Beginning with the Yeshiva high school I was teaching in and extending to twenty-one others in North America, we organized a campaign to make a public, unequivocal condemnation of the massacre: the hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, needed to be called by name, and did not represent God, the Jewish people, or the Jewish religion.
One very late night before the statement went public I received a phone call from a prominent Rabbi who forbade me from following through, adding that it was prohibited on the level of yehareg ve`al ya`avor – better to be killed than to transgress. Shaking, I repeatedly asked for his reasoning, but he refused to share it with me. But we could not remain silent, and many others felt that a public declaration was an absolute imperative – a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) to counter the desecration. (The Rabbi later retracted his decree.)
The unrestrained and indiscriminate violent rioting by Jews against Arabs in Israeli cities has brought me back to that Purim. Like many around me I could justify the pent-up rage following hundreds of missiles raining down on our cities, random attacks on Jews in Jerusalem, the Arab torching of Jewish stores and synagogues in Lod, the seething fury which erupted in and around Jerusalem’s Old City vented at Jews and the police, and so much more – but that is not who I am, who we are. Injustice done to me and my people does not justify revenge, despite the temptation. Those rioters do not speak for me, for the Jewish people, or for religion they are purportedly defending. We must simply say, NO.
Many of my colleagues argue that taking a principled stand without context doesn’t accomplish anything – the rioters will not listen. They argue that without nuance and context I sound diffident and removed. Perhaps so, and that is a risk I must take. Not because I think that the perpetrators of the violence will listen, but because someone has to take a stand and say, unequivocally, NO. No excuses, no justification, no contextualizing. Simply, NO. The test of morality comes when it is challenged on a visceral level.
It was not two weeks ago that we witnessed the great moral stain of the political and religious leaders who should have been held responsible for the tragedy of Meron blocking a state inquiry into the event and quick to point fingers at others. The soul-searching that they are avoiding is a black mark which will outlive any legacy those leaders might have left behind. We must not fall into that same trap of moral relativism and religious or national blindness which prevent us from saying unequivocally, “this must not happen!”
There will be a time of understanding, talking, contextualizing. There will be a time for speaking with Muslim colleagues and asking them to denounce their own radicals. But our moral clarity is not dependent on the statements, actions, inactions, or silence of others. We need to name what just happened: the rioting and lynching of innocent Arab citizens by enraged Jews is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.