Habits Kill Hard

The savagery and brutality of the Hamas takeover of Gaza took some of us by surprise. We like to believe that even our bitter enemies are still human, and that in time, those benighted souls will be struck by the rays of enlightenment, and come to think like you and I. Alas, we are sometimes wrong.

Decades ago, Nobel laureate V S Naipaul cautioned the West about its naiveté in believing that all people were essentially the same. He spoke about cultures so different – inferior is what he was really driving at – that they did not sit on the same continuum as those that we value. Parts of the Arab world particularly provoked his ire. Since Edward Said despised him, Naipaul could not have been toם far off. (His analysis was adumbrated by the Rambam. In the Moreh, the Rambam speaks of beings who are called “demons” by Chazal. He explains that they have the intellectual ability of humans, but live completely outside the norms of civilization. They have the destructiveness of dangerous animals, and the human capacity of planning and strategizing their evil. Hence, they are fully demonic.)

Some were not surprised at all. Images of summary executions, mutilations of the dead, burning churches, and saving bullets by hurling Fatah members from tall buildings, did not faze some in the pro-Palestinian camp. Predictably, they blamed it all on Israel. (Some saw the occupation as the ultimate cause and justification for any and all evil committed by Palestinians against each other and against the dream of their own State; others claimed that Israel actively pitted Hamas and Fatah against each other. My guess is that it was the same group of Israelis who were responsible for 9/11 who choreographed the internecine butchery in Gaza. Must have.)

Surprisingly, a different group of people were unsurprised for a very different reason. In a June 16th op-ed, the Wall Street Journal offered this thought:

The deeper lesson here is that a society that has spent the last decade celebrating suicide bombing would inevitably become a victim of its own nihilistic impulses.

Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times on June 20th, amplified upon this theme:

Certain habits, especially bad ones, die hard – and they can end up warping your own society as much as your enemy’s. You can see what’s happened here: If it’s O.K. to wear masks when confronting the Jews, it eventually becomes O.K. to wear masks when confronting other Palestinians. If it becomes O.K. to use suicide bombers against the Jews, it eventually becomes O.K. to use suicide bombers against other Muslims. What goes around comes around.

Even some in the Arab world understood. PA journalist and celebrated poet Ghassan Zaqtan saw it as inevitable in the June 18 edition of the PA’s Al-Ayyam newspaper:

We knew that they would do it, especially in Gaza, where a mother brushes her young son’s hair at 7:00, so that he will be killed at 7:30, and where the children learn that death is preferable to life! We knew that they would do this, it was clear to us: with language overflowing with the rhetoric of death and the norms of killing, in the religious rulings [fatwas] and in Friday and holiday sermons.

Once established, the habit of killing results in much broader killing. Several explanations might account for the Palestinian descent into the netherworld.One might give us reason to reflect about our own lives.

From a Jewish perspective, the restraints that good people live with are not man-made devices invented to stabilize society. “G-d has made Man upright,” said Koheles (7:29). Many have spoken of an innate and G-d given capacity to recognize certain truths. (See, e.g. R. Nissim Gaon’s introduction to Shas.) Once a fundamental truth is compromised or denied, it becomes unavailable in situations never anticipated or intended. Palestinians have approved of suicide bombings by large margins in years of polls. This means that the sanctity of life that is shared in one form or another by most of civilized humanity is a moral tool lost to Palestinian society. Provide a pretext, and the slaughter begins.

Losing or perverting our natural nekudas ha-emes, our precise preconscious grasp of an ethical point, can easily lead to dire consequences. Years ago, I stood on a street corner in Los Angeles with a chaver and a person today regarded as one of the most important halacha resources in New York. He told us terrible, terrible stories about Jews serving time in the Federal prison system. “You would not believe what horrible crimes ostensibly frum people commit sometimes against their own friends and neighbors. In every case I’ve seen, the path was the same. Initially, they regarded themselves as scrupulously honest. They would take liberties, however, with nameless, faceless giant entities, like Federal entitlement programs. After that, they would defraud individuals as well – but only outside the community. Eventually, they lost all compunctions regarding theft, and would go after any convenient victim.”

The Kotzker perhaps said it best. Avraham insisted upon distancing himself from his errant nephew, especially after the latter’s shepherds declared open season on the pasture land of others, claiming it was all part of the territory promised to Avraham. Why didn’t Avraham try to reason with them, to instruct them? Avraham specialized in making Divine Truth available to others! Said the Kotzker, by rationalizing their theft, the shepherds had compromised their nekudas ha-emes. Without it, there was no one to speak to.

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9 Responses

  1. Sarah Shapiro says:

    Bravo, Rabbi Adlerstein!

  2. Garnel Ironheart says:

    It is a sobering reminder that when we rise to God’s challenge, we are little less than angels, yet when we fall prey to our worse inner drives, we are less than angels.

  3. YM says:

    Very thought provoking, but it doesn’t exempt us from our duty to reveal the divine oneness in our thoughts, speech and actions.

  4. Ari says:

    Profoundly true. Thanks for the insight and analysis.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Excellent piece. I like how you took evil done by our sworn enemies, and turned it into a universal Mussar lesson.

  6. Ahron says:

    >“In the Moreh, the Rambam speaks of beings who are called “demons” by Chazal. He explains that they have the intellectual ability of humans, but live completely outside the norms of civilization. They have the destructiveness of dangerous animals, and the human capacity of planning and strategizing their evil. Hence, they are fully demonic.”

    Believe it or not, there is an excellent fictional example of a similar idea that is very illustrative. Michael Crichton’s classic Jurassic Park envisions extinct dinosaurs brought back to life through genetic technology. His portrayal of one of those species, the velociraptors, is an unexpectedly powerful model of a being with intellectual/cognitive powers–i.e. the ability to adapt, detect danger and opportunity, strategize, and execute complex plans–but absolutely no moral harness whatsoever. The usage of the word “reptilian” reflects this deep human identification of unmoderated intellectual prowess with the coldness of the reptile, and our attendant fear of it.

    The Kotzker, and R. Adlerstein, seem to be saying that reptilian behavior, in the human, ends up being contagious across the spectrum of one’s life.

  7. cvmay says:

    People were surprised at the acts of the Arabs, ABSOLUTELY not.
    Any Torah learner, will find in Parshas Lech Lecha, when the angel of gd relates to Hagar, the maid of Sarei, the personality of her future seed, the offspring of Yishmael. It states, he will be a “PERA ADOM”, all biblical commentators explain, on the outside he will resemble a person, camouflaged over the core of an animal. The behaviours of animals are animalistic!! Thank you, R. Adlerstein for re-reminding us who we are dealing with.

  8. Toby Katz says:

    Arabs have always slaughtered other Arabs by the thousands, in Jordan, in Syria, today in Iraq.

  9. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The surprising thing is not that there was some gratuitous violence among the Arabs. That should have been known, since it has been going on for many years, even before the advent of the state of Israel. The chidush is where there was not so much violence. Fatah capitulated in Gaza and turned over its weaponry intact to Hamas. For the analysis, see Francisco Gil-White at: http://www.hirhome.com/israel/fatah_hamas.htm . He thinks that there was total collusion between the two and the violence was just in the lower ranks where they were not in on the deal. The leaders could care less, just as Israel’s elite could care less about the people of Sderot or the soldiers fighting in Lebanon after they had been thrown out of their homes in Gush Katif.

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