Let's Not Turn Judaism Into a Death Cult

In countering the Palestinian attempt to 'contextualize' Tuesday's slaughter in a Jerusalem synagogue, we must avoid glorifying Jewish martyrdom.

Emil Salman

Tuesday was the shloshim for my stylish grandmother, Claire Pfeffer, who passed away last month. The family was planning to gather in the afternoon at her grave in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery, but as the place was packed with mourners arriving for the funerals of the four men who were murdered that morning in the synagogue in Har Nof, we decided to make do with bagels, cheesecake and mishnayot at my parents’ house.

While some of my relatives were perturbed that we had not recited Kaddish over her kever, I personally felt relief at the end of a day that had focused on so much death – to instead just celebrate the memory of a woman who, after so prematurely burying her husband (for whom I am privileged to be named), lived her life to the fullest, raising her children on her own while playing tennis and bridge, traveling, skiing and giving of her time and money to a wide range of good causes.

But as the family began to leave, and we began to clear away the remains of the meal, my sole remaining grandparent came over and caught hold of my arm. “You know,” he whispered to me in his halting Hebrew. “What happened in the shul this morning was just like back then.”

Normally I have zero patience for people making that sort of comparison, and anyone else saying such a thing to me would have earned a short and rude response. But I didn’t need the 90-year-old’s vise-like grip to remind me that he had his years of slave labor in the camps to thank for his still-iron-strong muscles, and that he was one of the few who had earned the right to speak of “back then.”

I tried taking a more optimistic tack. “Go out to the street, find a policeman and check what flag he has on his uniform,” I suggested. “We are not back then. The Germans aren’t in control out there.” He just shook his head at his deluded grandson: “You don’t understand.” There was nothing I could say.

But I do understand why the sight of a shul and siddurim drenched in blood, and the bodies of Yidden who rose early to daven shacharit, wrapped in tallitot, can remind us of only one thing. How could it be otherwise?

And while I can’t tell a man who was there back then not to make comparisons, I can choose to focus on what, to me, is the real heritage of my grandfather and his dwindling generation: The way these traumatized, penniless orphans picked themselves up and, without waiting for handouts, rebuilt their lives and families, providing their children and grandchildren with a future that was not beholden to what had happened back then.

The perniciousness of some Palestinian spokespeople and their cheerleaders in seeking to “contextualize” the depravity of two men who chopped down men at prayer in the broader picture of a national struggle against occupation must not lead us to descend to their level and to exploit understandable memories of such things being done to our grandparents.

Low act of political charlatanism

The despicable way in which Economy Minister Naftali Bennett tried to do this by waving, on BBC television, a photograph of one of the bodies, should be seen for what it is: a low act of political charlatanism that insulted the memory of the dead.

Just as the decision by the government to distribute similar pictures (one PR professional in government service privately told me this week how he and some of his colleagues had opposed the move) was a pointless attempt to counter some of the filthy footage shown on networks such as Al Jazeera (but only on its Arabic channel; it is too sophisticated to broadcast that kind of stuff to its Western audience).

The Israeli media's coverage of the aftermath on Agassi Street and at the funerals focused, among other things, on the fact that there were almost no calls for vengeance, and that those who did turn up to shout “Death to the Arabs” were asked to leave.

The racists congregated instead at their usual stomping grounds – the main entrance to the city and at Zion Square. Some reporters were surprised by this dignified reticence, but they simply are unacquainted with the anglo-Haredi expatriate community to which the four victims belonged.

I am not idealizing this largely insular community. They certainly can’t be defined as liberal or left-wing in any sense of those labels. Those of them who have Israeli citizenship as well won’t have voted for Meretz in the last election.

Among them are Holocaust survivors, while many of those under 70 are the children of survivors, who grew up in a world without grandparents, aunts and uncles.

They will all have been reminded on Tuesday morning of the identical scenes from back then.

There were no calls for retribution on Agassi Street and at the Givat Shaul funerals – just eulogies of lives spent in piety and righteous deeds – because only last month they read in that shul, on Shabbat Ha’azinu, that “vengeance and retribution is mine.”

Meanwhile, a Jew has to get on with the business of living in a world of goyim. And that didn’t change when they emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, to live in a Yerushalayim that for them should have had no part in the conflict.

Es iz shver tzu zein a yid, they would have sighed (Google it if you don’t know what it means), but it’s our life to lead. We learnt the necessity of that from our fathers and their fathers before them. They understood that dying for kiddush hashem, for all its exalted status, wasn’t something to aspire to, but a dreadful and – too often in their generation – inescapable martyrdom. And we should never allow it to become a death cult.