The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Emotion and Meaning
Published on March 21, 2012

When horrible things happen, like the terror attack on a Jewish school in southern France on Monday, our emotions churn and sometimes get the better of our capacity for reason. One commentator, an old friend who will remain nameless, blames the slimy subterranean anti-Semitism of contemporary Europe––much of the time masquerading in anti-Israel drag––for supplying the ammunition for Monday’s attack. He and others have singled out Lady Catherine Ashton’s remarks as evidence not just of garden-variety moral equivalence but of “contributing to the demonization of Jews and Israel.”

I take the general point, and I do not quibble with the charge that demonization is afoot. It’s true: Outright fabrications purporting to show Israeli atrocities against Arab children, for example, are very common, and lots of people believe them because they want to, have been conditioned to, and mere facts and reason will not stop them. They remind me of some Arab films from the early 1950s that portray Jews doing awful things to Arabs in Palestine in 1948 that happened only in the fetid imagination of the filmmakers. But I think in this case that the ammunition argument is a bit much. It seems to me unlikely that Mohammed Merah, a self-described 24-year-old al-Qaeda associate of Algerian origins, was influenced significantly one way or the other by the still mild but thickening stench of European anti-Semitism, and particularly by the chic leftwing version of it so popular in so-called intellectual circles. The poisons motivating him came from a far more toxic brew than that.

As for Lady Ashton, she isn’t contributing much to the demonization of anything. She’s just an imbecile out of central casting, and has been ever since the days when she advocated unilateral Western disarmament as head of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. A perfect example of everything that is wrong with the mush-headed Left, she believes in the five big whoppers of that school: (1) the fewer weapons, the fewer wars; (2) the United Nations is a positive and independent international actor; (3) poverty causes terrorism; (4) the use of force should always be conceived of as a last resort; and (5) bad actors can never take advantage of meliorative diplomacy (just exactly like Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of Kofi Annan at this very moment).

There is of course no evidence for any of these beliefs, and plenty of evidence pointing in exactly the opposite direction, but that doesn’t stop people like Lady Ashton from believing them. She believes them the same way a child believes a fable, because it makes her feel good and helps her convince herself that she is of the best intentions. She reminds me of a character from a bad Monty Python skit lampooning the inbred idiocy of the British upper classes. Her statement after the Toulouse attack was run-of-the-mill pseudo-ecumenical crap. I would not even dignify it by calling it demonization, and I would not waste so much as a droplet of my adrenalin on her account.

But the Toulouse attack evokes other kinds of emotions—emotions that, particularly for Jews but also for many others, pose real dilemmas. I have two in mind.

First, news of atrocities such as occurred on Monday challenge us to maintain a balance between a healthy stoicism and a necessary compassion. We must be stoic at such times, lest we help the murderers achieve their aims. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Similarly, no one can terrorize you or turn you into a vicarious victim without your consent. That consent should not, absolutely must not, be granted. As a former boss of mine used to say, “never let them see you sweat, or cry.” Over the years Israelis have come to understand this very well indeed. I only wish that more Americans, including some very high-ranking official Americans, had understood this better in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001.

One can overdo it, however. If our stoicism becomes too steely, our upper lip too stiff, we risk paralyzing the sense of compassion that makes us human. To think of an eight-year-old girl being grabbed by the hair and methodically murdered while the gunmen switched weapons is very close to an unbearable thought. Who cannot feel anguish and compassion for her friends and family at a time like this? Who cannot feel utter repugnance for anyone who could do such a thing? The question, again, is how do we balance our need to keep levelheaded with our need to remain fully human. This is a very hard question for which there is no stock or standard answer. Everyone needs to come to terms with it in his or her own way. But come to terms, everyone must.

Second—and this observation applies mainly to Jews—at times like these the history of Jewish persecution can rise up into the back of our throats, its bilious and bitter taste vying to overcome us, even to drive us crazy. It can suggest to the emotionally mobilized that, indeed, it is just as it says in the Psalms (44:22): “For Thy sake they kill us all the day long; we are like sheep led to the slaughter.” But this is a highly truncated and dangerous way to characterize the Jewish people’s relationship to God and to Judaism.

Judaism is about life, not death; joy more than sadness; optimism more than futility. The Jewish ethic is about repairing a torn world, not about giving in to evil by exaggerating its power. When tragedy befalls us, we rend our garment; but then in due course we make a new and better garment.

The optic of Jewish history in our times has been distorted by the horrors of the 20th century. Nearly two millennia of exile have been bad, yes, in many ways, in many places and at many times, but it has not been two thousands years of one unrelieved holocaust after another. To allow events like that of this past Monday to distort our understanding and motivation for what keeps us faithful to our tradition is to harm that tradition’s future. It is very difficult, if not impossible in the long run, to transmit a capacious and beautiful heritage to future generations on the basis of a backward-looking narrative of catastrophe, murder and fear. Turning Judaism into a death cult by allowing tragedy to trump hope in our own hearts only vindicates the acts of depraved men like Mohammed Merah.

We need always to teach our children that the most important moment in Jewish history was not Abraham’s hearing the word of the Almighty, it was not the splitting of the Red Sea, it was not the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it was not the consecration of Solomon’s Temple. The most important moment in Jewish history is the one happening right now, because it’s the only moment we can do something about. Knowing that is what helps us to transmute our pain into purposefulness. Knowing that helps us find the emotional and intellectual balances we seek, and need.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.