‘Our’ murderers – what would Arendt and Buber say?

There is soul-searching and there is the self-gratifying appearance of soul-searching. The deception of the latter lies within the words: ‘Tear out these wild weeds from among us.’

Confession: I held out hope, to the last minute, that the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir would not be “mine” – Israeli, Jewish.

The hope that they would belong to some other group, even, god help me, Mohammed’s own people, is primitive. I must acknowledge, helplessly, that at this moment, I felt a greater sense of identification with the presumed killers due to tribal and arbitrary designation of birth: Jewish (assuming none of us are converts by choice). It feels as if their crime reflects on me more than a crime committed by the so-called “other.” As if the “other” is fundamentally different from me.

But I was not surprised. Jews, like every community in the world, contain good and evil people, and hopefully a few really good folks, like Martin Buber. Jews, like every other religious tradition in the world have a culture of goodness, schools of thought that nurture constructive, harmonious values; we also have culture, schools of thought, environments, politics and history too, that nurture violence, devalue human life, twist the straight tree of morality into the crooked timbre of humanity.


On the morning after the news that six Jews have been arrested as the main suspects, descriptions are flying around. The Israeli authorities called them “Jewish extremists”; followed by immediate insistence that they are terrorists, including from security figures such as the Israeli defense minister.

Those distinctions give political insight and have legal consequences. “Jewish extremists” shows that Jewish Israelis have no trouble distinguishing regular people from fanatics when they’re our own. We don’t describe a Palestinian who kills a Jew as “Palestinian extremist.” For most Israelis “Palestinian” is sufficiently synonymous with extremism. Indeed, many Israelis hardly notice Palestinians except to point out acts of violence.

The terrorist label is important because it means the authorities can use extraordinary legal measures rather than due process. But “extraordinary” is misleading: those actions are daily fare for the many Palestinians unlucky enough to go through the military court system. There is much talk of destroying the Jewish families’ homes – from outraged rabbis to the mother of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. That’s precisely because it’s not “extraordinary”: home demolitions and other facets of non-democratic military rule have become the norm for occupier and occupied alike.


The other common response is to call the killers names that place them outside the Israeli, Jewish or human community. Noting attempts to make them into “wild weeds,” or “vermin,” Haaretz’s editorial warns, “But the vermin is huge and many legged.” Dror Ider, writing in Israel Hayom called them the “impure margins” of society and Labor MK Eitan Cabel was quoted by Haaretz from his Facebook page: “They are not Jews – animals are not part of any religion.” This made brief waves on the Internet and the status was apparently edited, because it now reads:

[the killers] are not Jews. They are probably Jews in their own eyes, on their ID cards and even according to Halacha [Jewish law – ds]; but monsters do not belong to any religion – certainly not to Judaism.

The updated status is not much different: Monsters, animals, vermin, impure.

These responses are natural. After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, so many tried to say of Yigal Amir, “he’s not one of us.”

They mask a deep denial: that the Jewish people contain not only good and bad individuals, but also culture that can nurture hatred, vengeance, violence, if we so choose.

There is soul-searching and there is the self-gratifying appearance of soul-searching. The deception of the latter lies within the words: “uproot them!” “Tear out these wild weeds from among us.”

Jews must look at the incubators of violence in our communities, not just within individuals: the sports fans chanting “death to Arabs,” the extremist interpretations of religious sources, the pulsa denuras, the macho aggression of everyday life, the banal militarism of our rule over Palestinians.

These states of mind have generous physical manifestations, but the violence is so common as to be invisible; many Israelis do not even identify it as violence. Even when nearly 7,000 Palestinians  have died since 2000 (over 1,600 of them children and women – and 1,230 Jews, 99 of them women or children); we cannot see that we perpetrate violence.

Seen in this light, the obsession with Palestinian incitement is little more than a psychological escape hatch from our own incitement, dressed up differently, with its regular crop of death.


I am left thinking of Hannah Arendt, excoriated for observing the all-too-average nature of a mass murderer. Maybe the murderers of Naftali, Eyal, Gilad and Mohammed are no less awful and calculating, only their options were more limited.

For Arendt, Auschwitz was an “unprecedented crime.” But paradoxically, she means that it was unprecedented not in terms of tribal uniqueness – a crime against Jews – but because it was a crime against all of humanity. Eichmann too emerged from all of humanity. This is why she gently critiques Martin Buber for saying that he could not feel that “common humanity” with Nazis or Eichmann.

It was disappointing to find him dodging, on the highest possible level, the very problem Eichmann and his deeds had posed.

But since the world is not yet one true global human community, let’s start with our own. Jews and Israelis must not dodge, at the highest and deepest levels, the problem that the Jewish Israeli murderers of a 17-year-old Palestinian old pose for us.