The Banality of Evil
Aaron J. Hahn Trapper is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus and the Co-Executive Director and Founder or Abraham’s Vision [www.abrahamsvision.org], a conflict transformation organization working with Jews, Muslims, Israelis, and Palestinians. He is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he is the founding director of the school’s new Jewish Studies and Social Justice program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Muslims are infiltrating the US,” the Board President said. “Our synagogue needs to know about The Third Jihad because these people are going to lead us into WWIII.”
I found my mind wandering away to an experience I had a few years before, when I actually did meet with someone who almost started WWIII.
It was April 2005. I was in Jerusalem conducting PhD research. Heading over to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I had a meeting with an extraordinary person named Yoel Lerner. In 1982 an Israeli judge convicted him of attempting to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
I arrived in Lerner’s neighborhood a bit early so I decided to check out a nearby bookstore. A decade or so prior, when I lived in this same neighborhood as a yeshivah student, I had bought some books there.
I was searching for a text I had just learned about called Baruch Hagever [lit. blessed is the man]. Published in 1995 with the help of Lerner, among others, the book is a homage to Baruch Goldstein, the infamous American-born Jewish Israeli who murdered 29 and maimed more than 100 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.
When I entered the bookstore I headed for the front counter. I asked the bearded salesman if they had Baruch Hagever. The man’s friendly demeanor quickly evaporated. In a disgusted affect he told me that they don’t carry such books in his shop.
“Leave that to the fanatics in Hevron,” he said. Not looking for a fight, I quickly thanked him and proceeded to mill about.
A few minutes later an idea popped into my head. I returned to the salesman. I asked if they had any books written by Meir Kahane,* who had been Goldstein’s personal rabbi. Without missing a beat he pointed to the back left-hand side of the store.
“Check that bookcase over there,” he said nonchalantly. Sure enough, there were 10 or so books written by Kahane tucked away between texts by Shlomo Karlebach and Rav Kook.
The incident in the bookstore left me feeling unsettled. Thankfully the store was not selling Baruch Hagever. But despite the Israeli government having outlawed Kahane’s organization, his ideas persist. Now that my eyes were open to it, it didn’t take long to find Kahane’s dangerous ideas in Jewish-owned stores throughout Jerusalem.
Like all communities, the Jewish milieu is complex; our political orientations run the gamut. And like many in the Jewish community, I often struggle with which battles to fight. Recently I have been challenged by some of the teachings our community supports, ideas we seem to propagate more often because of inertia than because of active intention.
When my synagogue’s Board Chair decided to show The Third Jihad—a rabidly polemical movie produced by the Aish Hatorah-affiliated Clarion Fund—I was angry. Among other things, the movie both implicitly and explicitly accuses mainstream Muslim American organizations of conspiracy to overthrow the US government. I can’t even imagine if such a thing was said about a mainstream Jewish organization.
It was that much more of a challenge for me because I founded and Co-Direct a conflict transformation organization that works with Jews, Muslims, Israelis, and Palestinians. How could I stay silent on a matter in my personal life that I dedicated my professional life to combating?
I spoke with my synagogue’s Board Chair a number of times in hopes of explaining another way to understand the movie’s hateful propaganda, eventually meeting with him and the rabbi face-to-face. They decided to show the movie at a private home rather than the synagogue.
Despite this small concession, when reviewing the episode I am reminded that in my two years of belonging to the synagogue there has never been more publicity for any other event, not even when encouraging congregants to volunteer at our local homeless shelter on Thanksgiving Day or preparing for Yom Kippur, spiritually or otherwise. I challenged both the rabbi and the Board Chair to consider what this says about our community’s ethos. Neither one responded. And then I stepped back and moved on.
I don’t have a tidy ending to this story for which I am sorry. Instead, I am left with the ambiguity of leadership, the nebulous line between free speech and hate speech, between the personal and professional, between knowing when to challenge and when to stay silent.
I continue to challenge myself and our community with deepening our awareness of what ideas we stand for, as individuals and members of larger collectives. But whether selling Kahane’s books or supporting other racist ideas, I am left with the comforting/unsettling words of the Mishnah’s Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not upon you to finish the work, nor can you remove yourself from the struggle.” Perhaps being a leader means, above all else, taking responsibility for the work.
* Kahane, who was an outspoken critic of the Israeli government, spent the last decade-plus of his life haranguing the Jewish community to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through “transfer,” the forced removal of Palestinians from both the occupied Palestinian territories and the state of Israel. He believed that Jews’ souls are inherently better than that of non-Jews; when it came to Palestinians his word choice could easily be confused with scripts utilized by the Klu Klux Klan when referring to Blacks or Jews. But more to the point, Kahane was also Baruch Goldstein’s rabbi. In 1984, when Kahane and his Kach political party won their first and only seat in the Israeli parliament, Goldstein was listed as number three on Kach’s list. In other words, if Kach had gotten three seats instead of one, Goldstein himself would have been a member of parliament. Fortunately this did not happen, and soon after Kach’s first win their political party was officially removed from parliament and declared illegal.