In response to the charge that the opera The Death of Klinghoffer humanizes the Palestinian terrorists who pushed a wheelchair bound old man off the Achilles Lauro cruise ship to his death, Paul Berman responds: "It is true that Klinghoffer looks for the humanity in the terrorists. Is this bad? To look for the humanity of anyone at all cannot be bad, and this would be true even if Klinghoffer manages to overlook a few of the human dimensions of the victims."
When "humanization" is employed in the service of political propaganda, it dulls our moral sense more than it increases our humanity. As Floyd Abrams, the leader of the First Amendment bar, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: Can we imagine an opera exploring the early life and travails of James Earl Ray, the assassin of the Reverend Martine Luther King? Should we wish for such a thing? Or should we seek to preserve the horror of the deed and magnitude of the loss?
Whatever The Death of Klinghoffer's merits as opera, there can be little doubt that librettist Alice Goodman, born to a staunchly Zionist family and today a church vicar in England, has written a work of crude propaganda, bordering on the anti-Semitic. Berman describes the contrast between the opening Chorus of Palestinian Exiles and the opening Chorus of Jewish Exiles, both roles sung by the same singers:
"The Palestinian Exiles are dark, clumped together, visibly oppressed, singing of their destroyed houses and their defeat, and their performance is powerful, sung to the churning rhythms, at once stately and frenetic of the hardworking orchestra. . . . The Chorus of Jewish Exiles goes about planting trees. Their desert blooms. The Jewish Exiles do not appear to be oppressed. Nor does their tragic history figure visibly on the stage . . . . "
In an earlier 1991 version of the opera, "there was a scene of American Jewish life, portraying New Jersey friends of the Klinghoffer family in their quotidian pettiness, preoccupied with bodily needs and the almighty dollar." Even in the current version, the Klinghoffers remain preoccupied for most of the opera with various medical issues, from sunburn to hip replacements, unlike the Palestinian hijackers, who see themselves as men of ideals.
The "humanization" takes the form of grievance mongering. But, in fact, the grievance mongering – "root cause" theory Berman calls it – elides what is most important and becomes itself a form of dehumanization: It reduces people to the sum of their various grievances, and deprives them of any agency – what we call bechira (free will). It can never explain why one person from a deprived background makes a great success of his life and another from the same background follows a statistically predictable path, which he consistently views as something that just "happens" to him and over which he has no control.
On a national level, the grievance mongers can never tell us why the Palestinians – 700,000 out of the forty to fifty millions of refugees from ethnic strife since the end of World War II -- developed an ideology that justifies dumping an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair overboard and claims that doing so might somehow advance their cause. Berman himself makes the point well: "Many millions of people and entire ethnic and religious groups were displaced and exiled in the course of the turmoil that accompanied the end of World War II, and not all of those millions responded by forming terrorist movements."
"[S]omething else, apart from suffering and dispossession, is required for terrorist crazies to emerge," Berman continues. It is worth studying how and why some movements prove to be lightning rods for psychopaths, who find ideological cover for their proclivities within the movement. Dostoievsky's The Possessed remains the classic literary treatment of the phenomenon. Yet it is still alive and well today. ISIS is the most recent example of a congenial home for some truly sick people; the Palestinian cause has long been another.
Grievance mongering distracts us from noticing the psychopathic nature of the actions. Berman himself (as quoted in last week's column) has mocked those who witness an ISIS beheading and temper their repugnance with the thought "here is what comes of failing to provide adequate social services to young men in blighted neighborhoods." That is not humanization; it is desensitization to a rightful sense of horror.
"HUMANIZATION" OF TERRORISTS allows for crude political manipulation, either in the form of false equivalences or in choices about just who is going to be humanized. Years ago, an eighteen-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up in an Israeli store. One of the victims was an eighteen-year-old Jewish woman. Some journalist from the prestige press eagerly seized on the coincidence to recount the lives of both the Palestinian suicide bomber and the Jewish victim. The implication was that they were linked in some more fundamental way than the coincidence of their deaths. Both were really nice young women; both were somehow equally "victims" of their circumstances.
And so does the methodology of humanization proceed. An old French adage puts it, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner – When everything is understood, everything is forgiven." Even leaving aside how much is inevitably elided or not understood, do we want to live in a society in which everything is forgiven? To return to Floyd Abrams question: Does anyone expect to see an opera trying to "understand" James Earl Ray?
Sometimes the distortion comes not via false equivalencies, but through the choice to omit the humanity of one side. Berman argues that the angry Jews rallying to protest the New York Metropolitan Opera's decision to stage The Death of Klinghoffer provided the Jewish chorus missing from the opera itself – one with a sense of history, a feeling of solidarity, an authentic wrath against terrorist movements. . . . "
Just last week, we witnessed example of how that omission of one side works. A knife-wielding Palestinian stabbed to death 26-year-old Dahlia Lemkus at a hitching post outside Alon Shvut.
Sherri Mandel knows something about terrorism, as the mother of a thirteen-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 2001 by Arabs in a cave near Tekoa, where both the Mandel and Lemkus families live. In a blog at Times of Israel posted the day after Dahlia's murder, she noted that the New York Times reporter had time to investigate the life of the thirty-year-old murderer, who returned to the scene after stabbing Dahlia Lemkus to make sure she was dead. The reporter visited the terrorist's website and quoted his intention to be "a thorn in the gullet of the Zionist project to Judaize Jerusalem." The Times piece noted that the murderer had previously served five years in an Israeli jail for firebombing and was accompanied by a picture of the perpetrator.
No photo of Dahlia Lemkus accompanied the report. Nor were readers supplied any details of her life – nothing that would suggest to readers that the pictured Palestinian had taken the life of an exemplary human being.
Mandel supplied what was missing: How Dahlia went to synagogue every Shabbat and smiled at the people in her row before she prayed. How she hitchhiked to Kiryat Gat in order to work there as an occupational therapist for children and was the principal Yad Sarah volunteer in Tekoa, often staying past closing time to supply people with medical supplies. How she did the makeup for kallahs to beautify them before their weddings. And how when her father Nachum, Tekoa's volunteer ambulance driver, had to take adults to the hospital in Jerusalem, Dahlia would stay with the children all night and refuse all payment.
The Times preferred to give a human face to the Palestinian murderer and deny one to his Jewish victim. But we at least must remember Dahlia, Hy'd, and all the other Jewish victims like her.
For the second time in less than three years, a Jerusalem District Court has found novelist Naomi Ragen guilty of plagiarizing a chareidi authoress. In a decision issued last Wednesday, Judge Oded Shacham wrote that the similarities between Chapter 24 in Ragen's book The Sacrifice of Tamar and the story "A Shidduch from Heaven," by Sudy Rosengarten, an octogenarian, Bnei Brak great-grandmother, were of such a magnitude that they could not possibly have resulted from unconscious borrowings or have been a matter of coincidence.
Only deliberate copying could possibly explain the identity of structure and the central plot device between the two works, particularly as Ragen admitted that she had read Mrs. Rosengarten's work, Judge Shacham found. Such details as differed between the two works, he concluded, were either designed to camouflage the copying or necessitated by Ragen's need to integrate the chapter into a larger work of fiction.
Particularly egregious, in Judge's Shacham's opinion, was Ragen's transplanting of Sudy Rosengarten's story, drawing on the story of her own son's shidduch, into "a book that is foreign to views of Mrs. Rosengarten as a charedi woman."
In an interview of Israel's Channel Two nightly news, Rosengarten expressed her pain and shock that someone could have taken "that which is most dear to me, most kadosh to me, and completely distorted its meaning in such a flagrant and unfeeling manner."
In sum, wrote Judge Shacham, Naomi Ragen knew, or should have known, she was making improper use of the creative work of Mrs. Rosengarten without seeking her permission.
I WOULD LEAVE RAGEN to her private humiliation, but for the fact that she has waged such malicious campaigns over the years against those who sued her for plagiarism by misrepresenting legal judgments and impugning the motives of her accusers.
Thus she charged Sarah Shapiro of suing her for plagiarism "out of a desire to silence [her] criticism of the Hareidi community's treatment of women." But Shapiro won the largest judgment for plagiarism in Israel's history, for damages and attorneys fees. The Jerusalem District Court found that Ragen had "stolen" scenes from Shapiro's brave and path-breaking account of her own self-doubts as an overwhelmed young mother, Growing With My Children, for diametrically opposite purposes in her work Sotah.
Later, in return for Ragen's agreement to drop her appeal in the Israeli Supreme Court, Shapiro agreed to donate her damage award to two charities of her own choice. But Ragen was still out of pocket 233,000 shekels, including Shapiro's attorneys' fees, and required to make 25 excisions to Sotah prior to any republication.
Judge Shacham wrote that his award of damages to Mrs. Rosengarten was meant to deter Ragen and others from the temptation to plagiarize in the future. Let's hope it works this time.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Israeli Society, Jewish Ethics, Personalities, Social Issues
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