After Murder – the Paradox of Memory

By Rabbis Arthur Waskow & Phyllis Berman *

While most of the world has been riveted this past week on Japan’s cascading disasters, most Israelis and Palestinians have focused on death closer to home – the murder of an Israeli settler family in the Occupied Territories,  including an infant. (The murderer, and even his ethnic identity, have as of this writing not yet been definitely identified.)

The murders and the response to them of Israeli and Palestinian authorities raise some profound spiritual as well as “political” issues. The questions are all the more poignant because they arise in a week that is set aside by Jewish tradition for reading what seems to be a paradoxical ancient text about remembering/ forgetting murders of the weak and defenseless in the readings of what is known as Shabbat Zakhor – the Sabbath of “Remember.”

What is the story? As ancient Israelites moved from slavery toward freedom in community, they were assaulted by a tribal community called Amalek, in a way that scarred their memories. Or –-  maybe scarred them so badly that they could not bear to remember? 

So they wrote a memorandum to themselves: “Remember how Amalek attacked when you were faint and weary. When YHWH  your God has given you safety from all your enemies that surround you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget!”  (Deut. 25: 17-19)

Is this paragraph a bed of paradoxes? "Remember! Blot out the memory!  Don't forget!"  Is there any way to make sense of it?

In the generation after the Nazi Holocaust, this archetypal myth of disaster bit home to Jews with intense cruelty and fear. Suddenly, Jews for whom the Amalek mythos had become somewhat quiescent, became attuned to it.

And then, once that nerve of stark terror had been plucked, it would not stop quivering. As the memory of the Holocaust became intense ritual and literature, powerful museums, and agonizing music – many Jews locked themselves into that memory as if it were the whole future, not only one part of the past.

For some Jews, all Palestinians, or even all Arabs, or even all Muslims became Amalek. Indeed, the Israeli government responded to the recent murders in this mode -- by announcing that as punishment for them, thousands more homes for Israelis would be built on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

And since this way of thinking and feeling is hardly limited to Jews, some other version of "Amalek" came to reside in their own memoriesfor members of other communities, :

For some Palestinians, it may be Israel. All Israelis. Or all Israelis who have come to live in what Palestinians experience as the final theft of the last slivers of land remaining to them, making finally impossible the creation of their own self-governing society. 

[The original version of this essay assumed the accuracy of early assertions that the perpetrator of the murders in Itamar on the West Bank was a Palestinian.

[Later reports are unsure.

[What is clear is that the facts are unclear.

[Perhaps the early assertions and assumptions were all that survived a tsunami of Israeli fears, in which the facts were swept away?? Perhaps the assumptions were -- consciously or not -- rooted in a desire to use the moment, whatever the facts, to expand Israeli settlements still more and subjugate Palestinians still more thoroughly? Perhaps it will turn out that the original assertions were true after all.

[For myself (this is Arthur now, because I was responsible for this part of the essay), I am horrified and shaken that I accepted what I was first told without more thorough checking. I apologize, profoundly.

What this teaches me is that none of us is immune to the spiritual/ political failing of seeing "Amalek" only outside ourselves, and demonizing a whole community as "Amalek."

[Rereading the rest of what I and we wrote, I think our views about the underlying spiritual, ethical, and political issues stand up, regardless of who the murderer was. The uncertainty makes it all the more certain that the Netanyahu's government's response of collective punishment is morally debased. And the uncertainty makes it even clearer that the "Amalek memory" (which was what we explored in most of what we wrote, and what follows now)  must not be allowed to become a way of demonizing an entire people. And that the fullness of the "Amalek wisdom" must teach us that we need to absorb and then transcend the trauma that gave rise to that teaching in the first place.]

 For some Americans since 9/11, "Amalek" may be "jihadis," or "radical Islamists." Or even all Muslims.

For some Iraqis and some Afghans, it may be America. For some Americans –- especially some soldiers stretched beyond their limits by repetitive calls to duty in two endless wars -- it may be Iraqis, any and all of them, or Afghans, any or all of them.

For people who have been abused as children, it may be a terrifying vision of all priests. Or of all men. Or of the entire world.

We want to address both the most immediate case of the “Amalek consciousness” –- the murders in the occupied West Bank and the Israeli responses –-  and then to look at the broader and deeper issues that we think lie beneath this immediate violence – the issues raised by the seeming paradox of the “Remember Amalek” text.

As we have both affirmed for decades, the murder of civilians is vile, disgusting, immoral, unacceptable.  If it is possible to say “more so,” even more so the murder of children. 

Was the settler family living on stolen land, the last piece of land on which could be built a self-confident and peaceful Palestinian state? We think so. AND --the worthy response to this robbery would be nonviolent resistance  -- general strikes, boycotts, etc.

It must be noted that some Palestinians have used exactly such approaches,  and have been met only very rarely with accommodations  by the Israeli government, let alone with freedom.  Such acts of nonviolent resistance have inspired some individual Israelis and internationals to stand with the resisters. But the “Free Gaza” flotilla –-  a classic nonviolent tactic –- was met with attacks by the Israeli navy on the high seas, and the Israeli Knesset is close to criminalizing efforts to boycott even “Israeli” products produced not in Israel proper but on stolen land in the West Bank.

Nevertheless, for reasons of both morality and efficacy, murder is absolutely not the answer. As a study recently reported in the NY Times shows, for the last half-century nonviolent resistance to oppression has won victories more often than violence, precisely because the moral appeal of nonviolent resistance is much clearer to those “in-betweeners” who make the difference when they choose whether to support oppression or freedom.

But this moral standard –-  that the killing of civilians is vile and immoral -- applies to everyone. There were hundreds of  Palestinian children killed in the Israeli invasion of Gaza last year. The fact that the killers wore uniforms and carried flags does not lessen the crime. 

The argument that these children were killed “by accident,” as “collateral damage,” not by some individual’s deliberate choice, may lessen the individual guilt of the soldiers who fired or bombed. But it does not lessen the institutional guilt of the government that ordered the operation and knew it would inevitably kill children.

And the argument that there was no alternative to the invasion as a way of protecting Israelis from rocket attack is simply not true. Hamas had proposed extending the cease-fire that for six months in Gaza had worked brilliantly, if the blockade of civilian goods from entering or leaving Gaza were ended.

Are rage, revenge, retaliation,  the only possible response to the murder of children? Not so. All of us might want to read a book by a Palestinian physician, Izzedin Abuelaish, whose children were killed by Israeli soldiers. The book is called I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey.

And all of us might want to read David Grossman’s extraordinary novel, The End of the Land. His own son – a soldier in the Israeli Army -- was killed in the last days of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But his book is filled not with rage and revenge on anyone, but with tears and hope and pain and compassion that lift and move and educate the open heart.

These books are hints, pointers.  How do we get beyond the Amalek consciousness that has so shaped Israeli behavior that it results in the collective punishment of thousands of Palestinians for the crime of one? How do we get beyond the same consciousness with a different label that has brought some Palestinians to the point of murdering children?

We mentioned the reactions of some adults who have been abused as children to see all of some category of people – all priests, all men – as abusers. And sometimes,  when abused children grow into powerful grown-ups, their need to prevent abuse and the tug to reenact it fuse into becoming preemptive abusers. The vengeful fantasies of the powerless become the oppressive actions of the powerful.

For one of the most dangerous stances in the world is thinking you are a powerless victim when you actually have great power. We live in a generation when Jews are vulnerable – but also have great power.  Rockets landing on Haifa or a murder in the West Bank remind Jews so sharply that we are vulnerable, that fear often makes us forget we also have – and have used -- enough power to occupy and smash another nation.

Similarly, the America that was vulnerable to a terrorist attack can destroy the world and has indeed ruined Iraq.

So each people must re-imagine how to deal with its own Amalek.

Dr. Barbara Breitman, a psychotherapist and spiritual director who teaches Pastoral Counseling at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, sees the three separate moments in the command about Amalek – “Remember; blot out the memory; don’t forget” as parallel to the process of recovery from abuse.

She explains that when people move through a process of healing from childhood abuse:

•    First,  the victim needs to acknowledge there has been a history of abuse and recovering the memories in the body and the mind.
•    But then, when the survivor is no longer weak and powerless but safe in a good place, s/he needs to let go of an obsession with the abuser so s/he can shift  identification from victim to survivor; for it is when people cling to a sense  of self as victim and/or harbor unrealistic and obsessive fears and rage about  the abuser that they place themselves in positions to be re-victimized or  become abusers themselves .

•    Finally, s/he must learn to hold all this in exquisite balance.  Do not forget! -- that evil does exist in the world, both beyond us and within us.

 Jews, Christians, and Muslims must all face, understand, and transcend the bloody streaks in each of our own different religious traditions that lead to the dehumanization and murder of others. If we pretend they are not there, we are ignoring the wisdom of this interlinked commandment. We can heal each other by healing our selves, heal our selves by healing the other.

We must take this step not only in political policy,  but in public psychospiritual cleansing. Rituals to remember the abuse must be followed by rituals to celebrate the liberation. The bitter herb of Passover must not consume the meal: there must also be the joy of communal song and wine. 

Just as Biblical Judaism  followed the mournful commemoration of the Destruction of the Temple (the 9th of Av) with a day (the 15th of Av) of public dance and joyful marriage;  just as Rabbinic Judaism followed the same mournful anniversary with seven weeks of Prophetic consolation leading to renewal of the year and the soul on Rosh Hashanah --  so must the Jews of our generation create the celebratory forms that transcend the Holocaust, for otherwise we are doomed only to reexperience it. 

And Palestinians, even when still living under occupation, must learn to encode this transcendence of their own Naqba, their own Disaster, into resistance that is firm, compassionate, and joyful. A resistance that multitudes can join, with persistence even in the face of death, as the Egyptians of Tahrir Square did. A resistance that dances.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace —  Arthur & Phyllis
* Parts of this essay draw on our just-published book Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights), avaiklable from The Shalom Center's "Shouk Shalom" bookstore. Click the brown banner in the left-hand column.


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