Sunday, June 28, 2009


Like all of you, I’m sure, I spent much of last week watching the events in Mumbai unfold, first with a certain detachment and then, as the Jewish angle came more into focus and the murder of Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife became a more prominent part of the story, with ever increasing horror. I spoke about one way to respond to this kind of senseless carnage from the bimah last week, but I’d like to write about it here too.

Like most liberal Westerners, I began by asking myself what these people could possibly want. I hadn’t ever heard of the mysterious group initially credited with the attacks. Nor, frankly, do I know much about the Lashkar-e-Taiba group in Pakistan that the latest media stories say India is accusing of having masterminded the attacks. What did seem clear, at least at the onset, was that this massacre of almost two hundred innocents was somehow related both to the struggle of the Muslims of India’s Kashmir province for independence and to the general tension that seems regularly to erupt between India and Pakistan, and also between the Muslim and Hindu populations of India itself. But that information only brought me back to my initial question: assuming the perpetrators were not deranged, how exactly did they think that murdering so many people would bring them closer to their group’s political goals whatever they specifically turn out eventually to have been? And that was the way I framed my thinking at first.

As the story unfolded and more details became known, however, I found myself reframing the way I was considering the issue. Clearly, murdering a rabbi and his wife—along with so many others unrelated, even tangentially, to the cause of Kashmiri independence—cannot rationally have been considered a means to a specific end. Instead, the larger picture that emerged was of people so enraged at the world that no act of barbarism would be too much to consider if only it could be imagined adequately to express that rage, that anger, that sense that the only way to repair the world is to destroy it by showing the ultimate contempt for its most basic strictures against pointless violence and against the murder of innocents. And, indeed, if the point was not really to move Kashmir closer to home rule, but to reject the world by rejecting the most elemental rules of societal living…then the attacks probably were just as successful as their perpetrators had wished. There were, after all, almost two hundred other victims of Islamic terrorist violence in India in the ten months preceding the Mumbai attacks. None of us was tuned in. Then they launched this latest horror, aiming themselves specifically at targets that they correctly supposed would garner the attention of the world. It worked…and now we’re all tuned in. So the more pressing question to ask is what actually it is that we are all tuned in to. To ask, now that they clearly have our attention, what it precisely is they want us to learn through the contemplation of their horrific crimes.

Judging from the media I read on-line, the world wants to suppose that Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife simply got in the way, that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But which of us really thinks that? Even the New York Times originally described Chabad House as an “accidental” theater of violence, implying that the terrorists seized Mumbai’s most prominent Jewish venue almost inadvertently. (The BBC, which usually resists the temptation to confuse its systemic anti-Israel bias with actual anti-Semitism, initially referred to Nariman House, where Chabad Mumbai was located, as “an office building.”) The world wants there to be no Jewish angle…because the world knows, as do we all, that the Jewish people lives on the cusp, that what first happens to us eventually happens to all, that we bear the brunt of the world’s anger precisely because of the place we have earned at the edge of civilized society, thus, paradoxically, also at the forefront of society’s battle against the forces of darkness. As those of you know hear me preach regularly know, I usually resist that kind of interpretation of current events, a line of thinking I usually deride as self-absorbed and narcissistic. But as I watched the videotape of that poor little boy screaming out for his Imma as they bore his parents’ bodies to their untimely graves, I found myself focused not even slightly on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the struggle for Kashmiri independence, but rather precisely in almost apocalyptic terms about the battle between light and darkness, between good and evil, that seems to be swirling in an ever more violent vortex all around us. Now, they have my attention.

I suppose the world will continue spinning. The Holtzbergs will rest in peace. Their children will be raised, I’m sure, by people who will teach them to revere their parents’ memory, to honor their parents’ commitment to serving the Jewish people, and to recall always their parents’ deaths as true martyrs who died al kiddush Hashem. The battleground will shift to some other place…and, I fear, somehow Jewish people will still be involved. Indeed, as the cycle of senseless violence aimed not at achieving some specific political goal but of destroying society from within becomes even less predictable and concomitantly less controllable, the role of our people in the battle against evil will become, I fear, even more pronounced. Is it the destiny of the House of Israel to be in the forefront of the battle to rescue the world from the forces of evil that threaten to engulf civilization? With each successive example of the degree to which humane, liberal society is losing the battle to stem the tide of violence and mindless terrorism that seems poised to engulf us, I find that that could be precisely what I think.

It’s not always about us, of course. As the citizens of Mumbai were burying their dead, eight hundred people in the Nigerian city of Jos died when violence between Muslims and Christians got so far out of the hand that the city’s police could not control it. That story, as far as I can see, has no Jewish angle, but I find myself wondering why it so often does concern us. Is it because Israel is a perennial thorn in the side of the Muslim world, and the overwhelming number of these terrorist incidents are carried out by angry Muslims? Or does it have more to do with the role of our people in human history…in which case the role played by the State of Israel in the geopolitics of this world is just one more example of our people’s destiny to serve as civilization’s protective shell, bearing the brunt of its enemies attacks not despite the role we’ve staked out for ourselves in human history but precisely because of it.

I want to explore these ideas in more detail and in more detail with you as the weeks and months pass. As noted, I’m not usually given to this kind of apocalypticism in my analysis of world events. But I find myself feeling drawn more and more strongly to the idea that all these incidents will eventually prove to be part of a much bigger picture, one that involves not only us but all humanity. Could it be that we are the chosen people because God chose us to bear witness to the eternal values of faith in a world at war with itself? Or is it we ourselves who have chosen to stand in the breech as the forces of good and evil lash out at each other as part of their eternal struggle for the souls of humankind? (December 5, 2008)

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