The Ugliness inside Us

Last night I was privileged to attend the Tel Aviv premiere of “Hastening the End,” a new play by my friend Motti Lerner.

It was a harrowing experience. I imagine that a colonoscopy administered without an anesthetic might provide a similar sensation of unwelcome and agonizing intrusion – particularly if it detects huge, ugly lumps of malignancy. A highly necessary medical procedure, but one that results in pain, despair and indignity.

“Hastening the End” deals with the murderous rampage of Baruch Goldstein and the spiritual and intellectual milieu in which he operated. Goldstein was an American-born doctor, a settler living in Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, and a prominent member of the fascist Kach movement found by Meir Kahane. One morning in 1994, Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron wearing an army uniform and carrying a rifle and proceeded to open fire on the Moslem worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 125. He was beaten to death by the enraged crowd.

A government commission of inquiry ruled that Goldstein had acted alone and that no-one else bore responsibility for the massacre. His grave in Kiryat Arba has become a place of pilgrimage for the extreme Jewish right-wing, many of whom regard him as the Jewish equivalent of a saint.

Lerner’s script is a play within a play within a play. It concerns a previously religious playwright who discovers that his still religious son (a youth in his late teens) had dressed up as Goldstein on Purim. Enraged but also intrigued by his son’s choice of costume, the playwright begins to investigate the netherworld inhabited by Goldstein and the influences that prevailed on the murderer. Those same influences, it becomes clear, are still at work on the playwright’s son.

His research takes him to the yeshivot, the rabbis and the tracts that are the backbone and the heart of the hard-core settlement fraternity. For those of us who do not share their beliefs, it is a very dark and unsettling place; a fanatical hothouse of dogma and messianic certitude that makes no concessions whatsoever to the last 300 years of relative enlightenment and progressive thought. Goldstein’s peers and successors inhabit a timeless world somewhere in-between the teachings of Maimonides and the arrival of the messiah. And their mission is to hasten the latter (hence the name of the play) by implementing to the letter the racist doctrines of the former, as well as those of his modern-day doppelganers.

The playwright concludes that the xenophobic and imperiously superior habitat inhabited by Goldstein – as expressed in the teachings and writings of such rabbis as Dov Lior, Yitzhak Shapira and Yitzhak Ginsburg – must have influenced Goldstein and provided rabbinical approval for the slaughter he unleashed. It couldn’t have been otherwise in the compressed and overheated environment in which he lived. But the theater manager and her legal adviser are not eager to take on such a hot potato. They recommend that he focus instead on the legal implications of the rampage –the commission’s ruling that Goldstein acted alone – rather than go head-to-head with influential rabbis. The theater, after all, receives state funding and needs donations to survive.

At the same time, the playwright is trapped in a downward spiral with his son, who regards his father as a damned apostate and the root of all the problems in his young and tumultuous life. Thus, the shockingly dry and matter-of-fact rabbinical texts are accompanied by the real drama of a man grappling with the political timidity of his colleagues and the unbearable prospect of losing his son due to his own actions. He could easily drop his research and write a play about something else, but his conscience won’t allow him to do that.

It is a play of words, ideas and clashing beliefs. There is very little physical action on stage; the power and the drama are all in what is said and left unsaid. It is tough theater. In lesser hands (Motti Lerner and director Ron Ninio) it might have been inaccessible to most audiences, but the staging is good and the metaphor of a play within a play works very well. The actors are all casually dressed secular people, even when playing the roles of the rabbis, which adds a subtly Brechtian dimension.

I left the theater feeling dirtied, contaminated – infected even. Though almost 20 years have passed since the Goldstein massacre, the murderer’s spiritual godfathers are still with us – and more prominent than ever. Their yeshivot are a lot bigger than they were in 1994, their students a lot more numerous and their influence has permeated the entire society. Avowed Kahane supporters are today in the Knesset and racist ideas that were once outlawed are now common currency. Most of us don’t even stop to think when we read about the increasing numbers of avowedly racist Jewish attacks on Arabs.

We delude ourselves that the racists and Jewish supremacists are a small and insignificant minority. But they aren’t; they are us. They speak through the arrogantly dismissive mouth of Yair Lapid, the self-satisfied disdain of Naftali Bennett and the casually racist, everyday remarks that just about all of us make. Hebron racism has infected us all.

Thank you, Lerner, Ninio and cast, for reminding us of that. Watching the play was not a pleasant or easy experience, but it was necessary. Just like a colonoscopy when you get to my age.


4 replies on “The Ugliness inside Us”

Maimonides had racist doctrines? Vus? Vus? From where you got this idea? I’ve never come across any – in fact the point about him is that his intellectual masters were ancient Greeks and Arabs ..
Otherwise a fascinating piece …though I suspect the play is about as exciting qua theatre as watching paint dry …

Which goes to show that even the vaunted Gordin intellect is not infallible. There are a number of examples of what today is termed racism in the Rambam’s writings, including in the Laws of Kings (the last two chapters of the Mishneh Torah) and Chapter 51 of the Guide for the Perplexed. One quote from the latter is “Those who are incapable of attaining to supreme religious values include the black coloured people and those who resemble them in their climates. Their nature is like the mute animals. Their level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a monkey.” It can be legitimately argued (and often is) that 12th century thinking and expression cannot be judged by 21st century standards. Which is entirely true. The problem is that the rabbis mentioned in my article (and, of course, in the play) take this stuff at face value. They teach their students that 12th century dogma is not only relevant in the 21st century but is in fact the law by which they should live. That makes Maimonides one of the spiritual fathers of modern Jewish racism, irrespective of his other intellectual virtues.

First of all, the correct quote is to be found in section 3 chapter 51 of the Guide of the Perplexed (correct title) – and it is the learned Maimonides’ gloss on his famous parable. I mention this because the bandying about of “chapter 51” (without noting that it’s in section 3) leads me to believe that a whole bunch of people (see Internet), including you, are repeating this quote without having looked at the original (and even I have had to check in English – Shlomo Pines’ translation) and its context …what Maimonides says is that those who are not “within the city” [i.e. they don’t have doctrinal belief nor “the authority of tradition”] include those in the remote North and “the Negroes in the remote South … the status of those is like that of irrational animals.” [You have to pause and understand that this is not contempt – he is merely saying that they are irrational – like most religiously-bound people – and Maimonides, remember too, has no contempt for “animals”.] “To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of apes.” So we first have to get our translations correct, yeah? All Maimonides is saying is is that the “savage” cultures are irrational and he’s sketching some kind of weird Darwinian hierarchy.
But I don’t want to quibble. The point is that, by modern standards, this sort of stuff is unacceptable in public discourse, even it is not without an element of (cultural) truth. As Saul Bellow asked once: “Where’s the Papuan Tolstoy? Where’s the Zulu Shakespeare?”
But to make Maimonides the spiritual father of our present day rabid ignoramuses – of whom you have many in Israel and close environs – is way too much of a stretch ….It’s like blaming Aristotle for me believing that the sun revolves around the earth etc.

You’re quibbling. What’s important is that the settler neo-nazis regard Maimonides as a spiritual father and quote him at length in their writings. Consult Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira’s “King’s Torah” for example.

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