We have met the enemy and he is us

When does a murder become personal? When you know the victim, or you know the perpetrator. But more personal yet is when the victim is a family member. Or when the murderer is.

Israel’s internal security service has determined that the stone that killed Aisha Rabi, a mother of eight, as she drove home with her husband and one of her daughters was thrown by Jewish yeshiva students. The students, supposedly religious Jews, had chosen to spend the Friday night of Parshat Noah terrorizing Palestinians driving past the Tapuah junction. An ironic and tragic commentary on the hamas—or violence—that condemned the generation of the flood.

The test of stewardship

Since the founding of the State of Israel, we have faced test after test. Many of these are the same ones that we faced — and failed — at earlier stages of our our history, and those failures resulted in exile from our land.

Invariably, the hardest tests have been the ones that bring us face to face with ourselves, with our own weaknesses: our own sense of inferiority, our own humanity. Or, at times, its lack.

As so eloquently expressed by Rav Benny Lau, our response to wrong-doing among our own will determine our right to our Land according to Torah law:

The prophets of Israel warned that shedding innocent blood will cause us to lose our right to our land. By the grace of God, we have been given a strong and sovereign state. We must maintain our internal fortitude and moral integrity lest we lose this privilege.

Can we pass the test this time around? Can we maintain those standards of behavior upon which our stewardship of the Land depends?

Two thousand years ago, the Sicaris—a band of young Jewish brigands—managed to seal the fate of Jerusalem. They burned the storehouses of grain laid up against siege, and condemned the defenders of the city to starvation and eventual defeat by the Romans. Those who should have opposed them were afraid. Those who might have spoken out against them found them useful enough…until they went too far. And by then it was too late.

Is it too late now? For Aisha Rabi and her family, it is. For the survival of our nation? I have to believe that this time, it is not.

When “They” are “Us”

British author Terry Pratchett managed to embed hidden treasures of passion among the most irreverent frivolity. Here is one such gem that we would do well to take to heart:

And then he realized why he was thinking like this.

It was because he wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, where capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No-one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

Facing an atrocity, we tend to ask “what kind of a person would do such a thing?” As if ordinary people could never fall so low. As if only some sort of aberration could account for such acts. But is it true? Is man’s inhumanity to man the work of sociopaths—people whose minds we can’t hope to understand? Or are these acts carried out by people like us, whose choices have distanced them from their humanity, one small act of cruelty at a time.

I think we know the answer. The memories we have inherited warn us how fragile is the veil of our humanity: It isn’t only of the victims that we can say: that could have been me, but of the perpetrators as well.

A former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando, after one of the darkest periods of our history wrote that evil — no matter who perpetrates it — “should continue to awaken our sense of outrage, because not to be outraged is to cease to be human.”

And now? We are no longer at the mercy of our enemies. We are no longer subject to the whims of those who would force us to betray our own. Yes, we face enemies of all kinds beyond our borders, who have made no secret of their intentions to wipe us out. Nevertheless, the greatest enemy we face is within ourselves. In the immortal words of an unlikely philosopher: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The Jewish youths who killed a mother of eight children are not “the settlers.” They are not “the other.” If only they were! But no, they are not Them; they are Us. They are a warning of what we can become—of what we must not become.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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