TO STAND IN THE SITUATION:
– Paul Celan
In the presence of what is happening in Israel, it is not easy, sometimes it hardly feels right, to turn our thoughts to what is happening to *us* in this connection. Yet, we are part of "the situation" too. "The situation" is a system that includes us. Yehudah Amichai’s "The Diameter of the Bomb" is frequently quoted these days. That diameter reaches to us, and intentionally so. Terror is a psychological weapon, aimed not only at its immediate victims but at anyone who hears of it. But as the shock of terror reaches us, it encounters our strength – and each of us has a chance to turn or transform a little bit of it. Each of us has some power; and the question of prayer in any situation is: "How can I use the power that is mine?" In an article entitled "Coping with the Fear of Terror,"Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf, an American-born psychologist and director of MATAN, Crisis Intervention Services headquartered in Israel, writes that those who manage to function most effectively in the presence of terror are those who have managed to maintain "a sense of mastery and control" over their lives. He also states that "Recognizing the right action to take is the key to restoring some sort of self_control and gaining a feeling of mastery over the situation."
An understanding of how terror works can help us to evaluate our own and others’ responses, to know which voices in ourselves to trust, perhaps to strengthen one another. Some of what I say here is derived from my own observation, some of it from the work of Dr. Mansdorf and others. I should ironically dedicate these notes to Simone Weil, who understood so well the dynamic of intimidation, except when it came to her own relations with her people. Some things I set down at the risk of stating the obvious. One feature of the situation is that, unfortunately, the obvious is often ignored. The aim is not to say something original but to try to see what is there, to put the picture together, to orient oneself and hopefully find a way of responding.
The first and most obvious thing to say about terror is that it wants to scare us out of our minds. It confronts us with the prospect of our suddenly becoming nothing, and thus calls into question whatever we have lived by. In ordinary life we go about our business, believing that we are guided by a mixture of self-interest, principle and reason, that we live in a world where we can negotiate and reach an accommodation with others. We picture those others to ourselves as self-interested but basically good, in the sense of desiring goods – which are always limited objectives – for themselves and for others. We believe this because such a belief – which for most of us is bound up with some sort of belief in a benevolent universe, the faith that reason, justice, kindness will eventually triumph – is the only possible basis for social functioning. Even the societies that produce terror function internally, to the extent that they function, on this basis. When this belief is challenged, it is hard to think rationally about the challenge.
One response is denial. Faced with an adversary who is in the grip of a destructive frenzy, a death-cult, whose plainly-stated goal is our annihilation, we want to go on living for a little longer in the "safe" mental world that we have constructed. So we recharacterize the terrorist who obtrudes himself on our attention as a person from our own world, a person who is rationally in search of some good, some limited objective, with whom negotiation is possible. If he is angry, it must be that he has some legitimate grievance with us. If he is very angry, it must be that we have been very bad. And of course since we are only human beings (and human beings under heavy pressure, at that), we know we’ve done/are doing things that could be a cause of legitimate anger, especially if committed in this rational, benevolent universe where an adversary obsessed with annihilating us is a logical impossibility. All we have to do is approach the Other with reason and empathy, find what we’ve done wrong and fix it, find what the Other really wants and give it to him, and again we shall be in our rational, benevolent universe. Of course this "coping" strategy – which the terrorists know well how to manipulate – is ultimately self-destructive. To maintain the illusion as long as possible, we make concession after concession, feeding others to the crocodile, as Churchill put it, in the hope that it will eat us last.
This dynamic applies, of course, not only to Jews but also to non-Jews, in America and Europe, who are also in the "diameter of the bomb." In the case of some non-Jews, this dynamic may be reinforced by an underlying anti-Semitism. (Unless anti-Semitism itself is rooted in this dynamic, a thought to which I’ll return.) But the European or American who ends up in a demonstration yelling slogans in support of the suicide bombers may be standing shoulder to shoulder with a Jew, and for the same reasons that affect certain Israeli factions. The "outsider" (and intended future target) goes through the same process of delusive reasoning that affects the more immediate target. Only here, instead of "X is angry with me, so I must have done something wrong," the reasoning is "X is angry with Y, so Y must have done something wrong." The corollary is "If I dissociate from Y, X will not be angry with me." And so the adversary is able to pick off the opponents one by one, as in those words by Martin Niemoller of which A.M. Rosenthal has recently reminded us: "In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Catholic. Then they came for me __ and by that time there was nobody left to speak up."
Of course, in this analysis we must not overlook the role of the destructive impulse, the yetser hara, to which none of us is a total stranger; the destructive urge welcomes anything that "justifies" the identification of a certain person or group as a target, and thereby removes inhibitions for its expression, "gives a license to the destroyer." The "they" of Niemoller’s passage is composed of people who have been recruited in this manner.
Again, I hope you’ll be patient with me if I seem to fall into banalities. What scapegoating is, is common knowledge. The "Stockholm syndrome," whereby hostages have been known to bond and identify with their captors, has been widely discussed. Anna Freud’s term "identification with the aggressor" is also a well-known concept. And yet it is not so firmly established in our consciousness but that one very intelligent writer could wonder why, after September 11, the religion of the attackers fared *better* in American polls than before. Such is the terrible persuasiveness of force. And we have also heard in various contexts about "blaming the victim" (the other side of the identification-with-the-aggressor coin); but again, the pattern is not always recognized in *this* context. Terror seems to have a sort of scattering effect on thoughts.
But what I want to focus on is not the aspect of identification with the aggressor, but the aspect of *disidentification – dissociation – from the target,* from the scapegoat whom the aggressor not only attacks but, by attacking, isolates. For the bystanders, it’s a natural reaction to try to think of reasons why the current target has been singled out. The bystanders differentiate themselves, separate themselves, from the target, in the belief that this will protect them from being eventually targeted themselves, though the result is likely to be just the opposite. To some extent they also tend to dissociate from one another, because each one sees in the other a resemblance to the current target!
Thus we see why the impact of terror on the target community is *shattering.* It is exactly analogous to the impact of the bomb on the bodies of those who have the ill fate to be in close proximity to its explosion. As body parts are strewn all over the street, so Israeli, Jewish, Western society seems, at the encounter with terror, to shatter into factions. *It is this effect which prevents the targets from cohering into a community that can mount a steadfast resistance to terror. But it is just at this point of the process where there is, I believe, the most possibility of our beginning to exert control.*
Again, the phenomenon I’m talking about isn’t unfamiliar. It is frequently noted that misfortunes too often divide those to whom they happen, *even where the misfortune is not caused by human malevolence.* Perhaps sometimes suffering brings people together, as we reach out to those who share and may therefore understand our pain – but too often it is just the opposite. Lawyers will tell you that lawsuits among children after their parents’ deaths are not infrequent. After the death of a child, the chances increase that the parents will divorce. To our inmost sense of vulnerability, the reasoning of that line from Browning’s "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" – "He must be wicked to deserve such pain!" – has a perennial appeal.
This appeal may well be at the bottom of what our sages called "sinat chinnam" – gratuitous hatred. They said that whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of the three cardinal transgressions of idolatry, forbidden unions, and murder, the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinnam. But as we look at the way things are developing now, we see that sinat chinnam was not "gratuitous" in the sense of coming out of the blue. Certainly it was gratuitous in being not merited, not caused, by the actions of those hated. And by characterizing this hatred as "gratuitous," our sages help us to recognize it as such and resist it. But, psychologically speaking, sinat chinnam may well have had a cause in the oppression of the Jewish people by the Romans. Under the impact of Roman oppression, the Jewish people splintered into mutually hostile factions – and Christianity split off from Judaism. Christianity’s initial appeal was to people who likewise felt oppressed by Roman rule; unfortunately, in Christianity the anger was deflected from the Romans onto the Jews, with the millennia-long consequences we know too well. If this analysis is correct, then *the anti-Semitism element in Christianity was at least in part a result of the same dynamic we are observing today.* To the extent that this dynamic is made conscious, acknowledged, and resolved against, perhaps there is some basis for an alliance between Jews and Christians in the face of a common danger.
The analysis of this dynamic can inform our response to what is going on, help us to take a "centered" stance, as the martial experts say. Those who understand clearly the nature of the threat will also understand the sense of vulnerability from which the denial reaction springs – in Jew and non-Jew alike. Perhaps that may help us to keep from walling ourselves off against the Christian world at a time when it is of utmost importance to perceive commonalities and to seek connections. In recent months the opening lines of Kipling’s "If" (I once saw this poem in Hebrew translation posted on a Jerusalem rebbitzin’s wall) have often come back to me:
If you can keep you head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
Those of us who see the threat for what it is and identify with Israel must realize that, however isolated and frustrated we may feel at times, we are the ones left in charge. We have the job of communicating with those who have lost their heads, of restoring sanity and coherency.
How do we do this? Getting our own thoughts together is at least a step. And putting our heads together is a second step – not an easy one. A poem of mine from 1981 raises the question:
Why is it hates so easily combine,
And evil wills soon reach an understanding,
While love is fenced from love by its own will,
And hands that yearn can seldom join to save?
This strange difficulty is perhaps the negative, hidden form of sinat chinnam, which may not announce itself as hostile affect, but operates as a kind of subliminal repulsion, an "anti-magnetism" (to adapt a phrase by Paul Celan), that makes one for instance not want to come to a meeting, or find something more important to do, when this is the all-important thing, when words that we recited every year on Yom Ha-Shoah have again become actual: "It’s burning, brothers, it’s burning, our little town is burning, don’t just stand there with folded hands, take the buckets, put out the fire with your own blood."
If we can get over this hump, there is a great deal we can do.
First, we can renew the energies that are often exhausted by our efforts to "make our voices heard" by writing to public officials and to the media, by going to demonstrations, by signing petitions. In all these efforts, communication is directed toward strangers. We receive an automatic reply, we trust that our response has been tabulated, we hope that others do the same; but we know that our adversaries are also making their voices heard, perhaps more loudly. This is a recipe for burnout. Synergy, comradeship, intellectual excitement, the sense that we are building something together, that our efforts add up – these things replenish the batteries.
Second, we can learn from our failures at convincing those whose response to the situation, if the foregoing analysis is correct, takes the form of denial. Denial is based on fear, not reason, and it is fear that must be addressed. After a certain point it is probably counterproductive to try to convince others by producing detailed accounts of what our adversaries have done, are doing and intend to do. This just intensifies the fear from which denial springs. If we want to reach people who still believe that Israeli concessions will bring peace, we need, paradoxically, not to frighten them but to find some way of communicating *reassurance.* And once we have found the strength to come together, we shall be far better able to communicate reassurance.
Moreover, that reassurance can come from the heart of the Jewish tradition, of our Jewish identity.
Late last September, I attended a commemorative concert by a large number of Madison vocal groups who chose their material from a variety of traditions – classical, folk, New Age, blues... But one group sang Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 43, in German, and the words were first read out in English: "Judge me, O GOD, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation: O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man. For thou art the GOD of my strength: why dost thou cast me off? why go I mourning under the oppression of the enemy? O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me to thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling places. Then will I go to the altar of GOD, to GOD my exceeding joy: and I will praise thee with the lyre, O GOD my GOD. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why dost thou moan within me? hope in GOD: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my GOD." (Jerusalem Bible translation.)
These words, and only these throughout that evening, brought tears to my eyes. Evidently, there was something in those words which I needed to hear at that moment. At how many moments throughout Jewish – and Christian – history have those words given what was needed.
What is it, then, that those words give?
First of all, they affirm that there is a standard above the Darwinistic struggle, a standard in the light of which my cause can be "judged" and that rejects "the deceitful and unjust man." Second, they affirm that the One who applies this standard also has the power to "deliver" me from the unjust. How? "With a strong hand and with an outstretched arm" is perhaps implied; the tradition encourages us to believe that miracles have occurred, could occur again, though today we are haunted by recent history in which "the waters did not divide," as the title of one Shoah book has it. But what is emphasized in this particular text is something else. "O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me to thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling places." Thus, we pray for personal guidance from the source of truth and justice – and moreover we pray that by following that guidance we will be led not into a dreadful solitude but to "Thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling places" – to the community.
The Jewish tradition can also help to fortify us against a concept of "peace" which somehow always seems to mean that Israel must make one more dangerous concession, against a "compassion" which somehow always seems to be directed toward the violent rather than the just. ("Those who are merciful to the cruel," as our sages observe, "end by being cruel to the merciful.") The Jewish tradition recognizes that "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...a time of war, and a time of peace." When the other cannot accept our existence then it is just to defend ourselves, and unjust to demand that we make peace. Our power as an interest group may have "peaked," as one speaker recently put it; but we must hope that the voice of justice has an authority which is distinct from the clout of an interest group.
If we can find the resolution, if we can take the initiative, if we can connect our diverse knowledge of how the system in which we are enmeshed works (or doesn’t work), we may also be able to do something in the way of planning for the very hard time which lies ahead, for America as well as Israel. [For further thoughts on this, please to go The Hour’s Direction and Ha’Olam Ha-Katan.]
I would like to conclude with a poem that came to me on Yom Kippur 5763 – new words for the melody of the partisan hymn, "Never say that you now walk the final way." The situation in which most of us live is not a situation of immediate danger; but the danger is none the less real, and part of the danger is the very fact that we cannot always make the danger present to ourselves. Yet if we can overcome the dynamic of denial and isolation, there is still time for action, and there is hope. And I would add that to sing songs like this together again would in itself be a step.
"Never Say That There Is Nothing You Can Do"
Never say that there is nothing you can do
All the questions of the world are intertwined,
Though the sky is shaken with our engines' noise,
When each person brings their special sacrifice,
Never say that there is nothing you can do