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I had never heard this Martin Luther King Jr quote before I saw it used incessantly to legitimize the infamous George Floyd Riots of 2020:
It’s certainly an evocative line. We as humans are in many ways defined by our ability to express ourselves. Civilization has flourished through the proliferation of free expression of ideas and perspectives. So as one contemplates the profound pain of a person and a group of people feeling unheard and unable to express themselves, a part of us naturally starts to think that maybe it’s true…
Maybe I don’t really know what desperation feels like. Maybe if I didn’t have people in my life who I feel understands me — and felt disenfranchised by my society — I’d be left with no choice but to wreak complete havoc on my surroundings in public view so that I could be finally heard...
My only personal experience in a riot was at 19 years old when my university’s football team won the Ivy League championship. Thousands of fans rushed onto Franklin Field in Philadelphia to do what we had been told was an age-old “Quaker tradition” of tearing down the goal post and disposing of them in the Schuylkill River (the irony of course is that Quakers have been ideologically pacifist since the 1660s). What the mob hadn’t realized was that the university had wisely reinforced the goal posts since the prior championship riot. When the posts didn’t come down as planned, the mob proceeded to find whatever university property it could get its hands on that was not bolted to the ground, and like a termite colony, moved to the South Street bridge to further pollute the already filthy river. The adrenaline was pumping, and the atmosphere was “exhilarating” and “energizing.”
Now, I write the following with complete and utter shame about my idiotic 19-year-old self. A friend next to me pointed out snidely that campus police was doing nothing to stop the crime and chaos. After looking around and agreeing, I chose to highlight the phenomenon by tossing the closest innocuous-looking object (a bright orange traffic cone) into the river below. So dumb. So so dumb. I had failed to see the Chief of Campus Police standing right behind me. He rightfully chose to make an example of me to prove to the rest of the mob of spoiled Penn students that the police would not stand idly by while they inflicted this damage on their campus. (Don’t worry, I managed to make a decent citizen of myself after this incident of total stupidity.)
Mobs, it turns out, do not bring out the best in people. Rather, they tend to reduce a group of otherwise thinking humans to the lowest common denominator of reactive animals.
It happens to be that Martin Luther King Jr.’s position on the ethics and efficacy of riots is a matter of debate. According to his oldest son Martin Luther King Jr III, although his father was adamantly against violence against people as a form of protest, MLK saw destruction of property as a legitimate albeit less effective form of activism than disciplined civil disobedience. Others argue that Dr King was completely against rioting as well — he merely meant by that quote that one can understand where oppressed people are coming from when they do riot — but we should, by no means, condone it.
Fast forward to October 8th, 2023. The day after October 7th. Pro-Palestinian groups around the world quickly mobilized to issue statements to condemn Israel before Israel began its retaliation against the Hamas regime.
Here are the choice words of thirty or so student groups on Harvard, comprised of some of the most intelligent, highly educated university students on the planet — the world’s future leaders:
They held Israel responsible for “all unfolding violence.” Hamas could act with impunity because the Palestinian people had suffered so much.
Many of those who used MLKs out-of-context quote about the “language of the unheard” to justify the stealing of Gucci purses from SoHo store fronts in New York City as legitimate acts of civil disobedience — were using the same twisted moral reasoning to justify the murder of civilians in their beds for being de facto “occupiers” of territory their government had unilaterally disengaged from nearly two decades earlier.
Those who rushed to exonerate these thousands of jihadis for a barbaric attack that could have just as easily been against “infidels” like them on American soil were essentially saying the following:
The highly premeditated, exceptionally cruel attack by Hamas terrorists was not their fault, but rather an entirely understandable reaction to the aggression of the Israeli army, and the Israeli government’s policies of settlement-expansion in the West Bank.
There are many critical facts to consider here. To name a few:
Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and has been under the autonomous rule of Hamas since 2007.
All Israeli attacks since then were in retaliation to Hamas rocket fire.
Hamas aims its weapons indiscriminately at civilians, while the IDF targets military sites.
Hamas terrorists openly recognize that they put Palestinian civilians in harm’s way in order to protect their soldiers and weapons caches.
All of this is true, but if you can, try to put aside the facts in order to focus on the moral logic that is under attack.
Although facts are essential to the conversation — in our "post-truth” world, all the verified facts under the sun will only further support the agenda of the one who has decided to defend any criminal activity as a “justified reaction to institutionalized oppression.” This, to me, from a practical point of view, makes the conversation about the moral confusion that plagues our modern world more vital at this moment than the conversation about the historical and tactical facts.
In addition to the war in Gaza, and the imminent war with Hezbollah, the Houthis of Yemen, the Syrian government, and the mothership of Middle Eastern Terror that is the Iranian Regime — and aside from the war being waged against Jews around the world — there is a war for the soul of humanity. There is a war for moral clarity.
Although I believe that Jews need to invest considerable energy in political activism, and in self-defense for ourselves and our communities, I believe that Jews need to take a lead in this war of ideas.
If we lose the war of ideas we will ultimately lose all other wars as well.
What follows is a further exploration of reactivity as the source of evil.
The central meditational prayer in Jewish practice is known as the “Shmoneh Esrei,” which literally means “18,” a reference to its original structure as eighteen blessings. During a period of extreme chaos and uncertainty following the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman legions, and one filled with enemies from within, the Shmoneh Esrei was emended to include a nineteenth blessing, which asks God to eliminate evildoers from the world with the phrase:
It’s hard to imagine evil perishing in an an instant.
How can Hamas, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, Hezbollah, Houthis, Boko Haram, the KKK, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, Black Supremacists, the Ayatollahs and all cruel dictators who couldn’t care less about their people or others, and all other individuals who seek to benefit themselves through the plight of others — how could they — and all those who so passionately justify their actions disappear overnight?
Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the 18th century luminary known as “the Vilna Gaon — the Genius of Vilna” has a teaching recorded by his students that seeks to explain the sudden end to evil in the world, which we eagerly await.
It begins by understanding the essence of evil.
The essence of evil is a reactive volatility.
Let’s take a step back to understand what he means.
Over the course of our lives, most of us have grown accustomed to speaking about our emotions as happening to us:
“Someone made me angry”
“I fell in love”
“I fell out of love”
“Sorry, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed”
“I couldn’t help myself but feel jealous”
Although our emotional reactions to different stimuli have been conditioned by our repeated experiences since infancy, and therefore are out of our immediate control, our response to those reactions is completely on us.
The conditioning started at birth — if not before. Babies and children react. If hungry, they cry. If thirsty, they cry. If they’re frustrated, they cry. If their feelings are hurt, they cry.
As we grow up, and begin to take responsibility for our actions, we learn to respond — not merely react.
We don’t have to cry or scream when we are upset. If it happens to be the right time and place, maybe we should.
Parents probably shouldn’t raise their voices as often as we do, but every now and then, when appropriate, raising our voices makes the impression on our kids that needs to be made.
We don’t eat every time we have a craving. But we should when it’s time to eat, and the food in front of us is food we know we won’t regret eating.
What we feel may not be up to us, but how, where, when and why we respond to those feelings is.
If, however, we don’t grow out of our childhood reactivity, the same behavioral patterns in adults will justly earn us the titles of “jerk,” “bad guy,” or even “evil.”
The Vilna Gaon quotes from the portrait of the jerk in Proverbs, “winking his eyes, shuffling his feet, pointing his finger,” mindlessly reacting to his surroundings without concern for the emotional, physical or financial impact of his body language on those around him.
Based on another verse in Isaiah, he compares the jerk to a wave in a storm that is that is moved however the wind blows it. He or she reacts emotionally however their emotions move them.
It is through this prism that the Vilna Gaon explains this line from the Shmoneh Esrei, “All evil should in a moment perish.” Evil is not a thing unto itself, but rather a lack of self — a nurtured lack of resistance to ones cravings, desires and feelings. Evil is allowing oneself into adulthood to be a wave blown by the wind.
When the moment comes — just as this wave was blown by the winds of circumstance, it will crash against the rocks of reality. It is revealed for what it is. A lack of personal responsibility and a void of moral substance.
This distinction between response and reaction is foundational, and has ramifications even in international law. Many have criticized Israel for its apparently “disproportionate” military response to Hamas’s attack. The dark but incisive response many have retorted back with is that a proportionate response would have been to send in thousands of drugged and armed terrorists to torture, dismember, rape and kill 1400 Palestinian soldiers and civilians, and take 242 hostages. But, of course, aside from being unable to find Israelis willing to do such a thing, this is not what the principle of proportionality is about.
According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia:
“…the principle of proportionality means that incidental and involuntary damages caused to the civilian population during a military attack shall not be excessive in comparison to the direct military advantage obtained.”
Proportionality is not about reacting with equal force. It has nothing to do with the past. Reacting about what happened is revenge. And revenge is not a moral notion — it’s an emotional one.
Proportionality in war is about the scale of the response needed to bring about a better future.
It is about a country responding to the cause of the aggression in such a way that it can neutralize it to protect its citizens without collaterally harming the citizens of the aggressor country more than what is called for in that military course of action.
Reacting to those who are reactive indeed leads to the so-called “cycle of violence.” One side is always reacting to the other side’s reaction. On the other hand, for a country to agree to a ceasefire with those sworn to annihilate its citizens would be an immoral betrayal of its citizens.
Proportionality instead allows a country to respond with force in a way that protects its citizens, even if there are lives lost on the other side — as long the course of action is one which, by design, is causing only the minimal loss of civilian life to achieve its security objective.
It is for this reason that the Talmud makes a point to identify the author chosen to compose this nineteenth blessing against evil people as Shmuel Hakatan, “Samuel the Small.” He was chosen because, as a human being, he represented the exact opposite of those he wished would go away. At his funeral he was described as humble and pious. The acid test for these traits is: when a person can “hear others cursing him and remains quiet.” One who has developed himself to not merely react with a personal vendetta has transcended the way physical things react with equal-but-opposite-reaction. He has risen above the level of animal to become human.
Shmuel Hakatan was chosen to write this prayer against those who merely react because he himself developed his ability to not merely react.
His response was to pray for the instantaneous end of those who act and react and destroy everything in their way. We should live to see this with our eyes, and a much better, more humane world on the other side.
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