Friday, September 17, 2004

The morality of the enemy: Lessons for us

A worthy read and a wakeup call.

Written prior to Beslan, the writers words are particularly relevant, now.

Learning from sadism

Jan 4, 2003


Early last week Revital Ohayon, 34, was reading her sons Matan, five, and Noam, four, a bedtime story when a Fatah terrorist burst into their home on Kibbutz Metzer. She jumped in front of the children to protect them, but he shot all three dead.

A few months ago, on a Shabbat morning, Palestinian terrorists burst into the bedroom of Shiri Shefi, took aim, and sprayed her and her three children with bullets using M-16 assault rifles. Shefi, her four-year-old son Uriel, and her two-year-old son Eliad were wounded. Five-year-old Danielle, who was shot in the head, was killed.

About a year ago, a Palestinian sniper trained his high-powered rifle on 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, killing the baby girl in her father's arms.

About six months before that, Vadim Novesche and Yosef Avrahami, two Israeli reserve officers abducted by Palestinian police, had their heads beaten into unrecognizable pulp and were then disemboweled by a waiting crowd outside the Palestinian Authority's Ramallah headquarters who then danced, entrails in hand, through the city's streets.

Cases like these stand out among the hundreds of murders of Israelis and foreign visitors here in recent months, not because of their evil but because of their inhumanity. They reveal a terrifying angle of the story of this war.

Beneath the strata of Islamic unity, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian national aspiration at the root of this great campaign engineered by Arab leaders is pure, unbridled sadism, a delight in cruelty that boggles the Western mind. And even if this lust for savagery is slightly less evident in the "ordinary" shootings and suicide bombings that people suffer in this country on a daily basis, there is a growing suspicion that much of this violence flows from a visceral, Palestinian truculence a craving for Jewish pain, for blood.

Those of conscience ask not only what practical steps we can take to escape this nightmare, but also how it could ever have been conceived. What great power have Palestinian leaders tapped into? How do they draw forth so much human energy and direct it for evil? And can we learn from them how to harness the same energy and use it for good?

"The sword and the book descended intertwined" (Midrash Rabba)

The Palestinian leadership takes education very seriously. When visiting the Palestinian National Authority Web site (, you will notice that the first three listings are "Ministry of Higher Education," "Ministry of Information," and "Ministry of Education" before the ministries of Labor, Health, or Water.

Since September 2000, the PA composed and introduced into its elementary and high schools a series of new textbooks, replacing Egyptian and Jordanian texts on four grade levels.

These books obliterate the State of Israel from history and maps, showing instead a greater Palestine that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea with Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

These texts present the liberation of Palestine as a struggle against Jewish occupation, describe the waves of aliya as "infiltration," and glorify Jihad and martyrdom.(See examples at

Beyond its local educational products, the PA also imports a wealth of educational materials from its neighbors: a 30-part series produced by Arab Radio and Television, featuring a cast of 400, and aired during the second half of Ramadan last year which "dramatized" the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Arab viewers were also recently treated to a popular political satire showing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drinking the blood of Palestinian children. The myth that Jews sprinkle the blood of Arab children into their matza is graphically described in The Matza of Zion, published in 1983 by the current Syrian minister of defense, Mustafa Tlas. The Egyptian mass circulation daily al-Ahram also recently reported "many cases of the bodies of [Palestinian] children who had disappeared being found, torn to pieces, without a single drop of blood. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews."

One can only imagine the effect academic and media presentations such as these have on the Palestinian soul.

Hardwiring for sadism

However frightening this propaganda and its effects might be, we must confront the possibility that an even more hideous engine drives the terrorists' cruelty. Relative to the West, life in Arab countries has always been harsh. Corporal punishment of children is thoroughly embedded in the culture. No mainstream Islamic authority has yet spoken out against slapping children's faces, dragging them by their hair, or any of the other disciplinary approaches that shock Western onlookers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that approximately 100 million Islamic girls between the ages of four and 10 have had their clitoris (and usually surrounding tissue) removed, typically without any anesthesia and while held down forcibly on a table or bench.

AAP said the procedure, typically performed with "instruments such as knives, razor blades, broken glass, or scissors," is performed four million to five million times annually. In one of the six undisputed hadith collections (Sunan of Abu Dawud, chapter 1888), Muhammad states, "If you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant to the husband," and "Cut slightly without exaggeration, because it is more pleasant for your husbands."

A report in Pediatrics (102:1 July 1998, pp. 153-156) explains that Muslim parents "feel obligated to request the procedure because they believe their religion requires female genital alteration."

In January 1981, Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the head of the Islamic world's most famous university) stated that "Parents must follow the lessons of Muhammad and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters' clitorises removed." (See

Although Muslim authorities often deny the existence of this custom when speaking with Westerners, Amnesty International recently discovered that in Egypt, the PA's closest neighbor, 97% of little girls have their genitals mutilated. In 1996 the Egyptian minister of health banned FGM, but in 1997 that ruling was challenged by Sheikh Youssef Badri, and the Egyptian courts overturned the ban, permitting FGM once more.

Sheikh Badri commented, "Female circumcision is Islamic; the court has said that the ban violated religious law. There's nothing which says circumcision is a crime." He later told Germany's Der Spiegel,"Many Muslim women are pleased with this victory of Islam over its enemies." According to both Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, the PA has not yet banned FGM.

Survival in such a culture necessitates some numbing. But this psychological component might be insignificant relative to the neurobiological effects of being beaten and tortured in childhood. It was Harvard researchers who first revealed that stress hormones released when children experience physical and sexual abuse actually impede development of that part of the brain responsible for empathy and conscience.

Brain scans of those who suffered through events common in the childhood of Palestinian children reveal an underdeveloped hippocampus and vermis. Among the behaviors associated with this sort of brain damage: impulsivity, sadism, and suicide. It is almost too frightening to consider that Israel today faces a population many of whom are hardwired for the sort of violence we have been witnessing.

More terrifying is the long-term prognosis for Palestinian society. Martin Teicher, a lead researcher in the Harvard study, reports that sadistic parents neurobiologically infect their children with the same trait: Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children.

Whether it comes in the form of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma or through exposure to warfare, famine, or pestilence, stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child's brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next.

Our stark conclusion is that we see the need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once the key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back. (Scientific American, March 2002)

Extracting light from the darkness

In the near term it is unlikely that Israel will do much to stem the flow of anti-Semitic propaganda or reduce the violence that Palestinians commit against their own children. We must accept that Israel is locked in a battle with a population many of whom are programmed for inconceivable callousness and hatred.

Ironically, we can learn from our neighbor's example: Islam is a powerful force. If given a chance, Judaism can be too but in a very different way. The Palestinians use the Koran to teach hatred. We can use the Torah to teach sensitivity, altruism, and righteousness.

But this would require teaching our tradition as passionately as the Palestinians teach theirs. Just as Palestinian parents speak to their children about the need to sacrifice for the Palestinian national dream, so too we can speak to our children about giving of themselves to achieve real tikun olam (mending the world).

To date, we are failing at this mission. The percentage of Jewish charitable funds directed to teaching Jews Torah is minuscule.

And Israeli leaders and heads of major Jewish organizations in the Diaspora all too often play down or outright deny the value of an immersion in Judaism.

The solution might also require changing our parenting habits. Just as the harshness of Palestinian parenthood might be wiring children for hatred and violence, so too might attentive, loving parenting wire our children for goodness.

Perhaps the moment has arrived to rethink the amount of time we spend (or don't spend) with our children; the way we discipline them; and the media we expose them to.

Perhaps, ironically, we can be inspired by the horrors of this war to commit ourselves to raising a different sort of child.

Perhaps those of us who survive the current crisis can emerge different, better, for the horrors we have seen.

Wandering Mind

may not be suitable for political vegans