Malka Chana Roth (1985-2001).
Global Terrorism and the Role of its Victims
Remarks given at Temple Beth Hillel Beth El, Wynnewood, PA.
-- Arnold Roth
Standing here today, on American soil, the distance to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot where my wife and I settled nearly nineteen years ago seems especially great.
The view from my family’s living room takes in a tremendous vista. We live on a hill with much of northern Jerusalem within sight. When journalists have come to our home, and there have been dozens such visits in the past five years, I routinely try to draw their attention to the shell of a building --- a very large building
--- off to the left side. It is on a hill somewhat higher than ours. I tell them to look carefully, to pick out the large exposed cement pillars, the enormous flat roof. I tell them that this is a building site that has remained essentially untouched, certainly unfinished, for more than forty years. It was intended to be the palace of Jordan’s King Hussein, constructed by him as a kind of celebration of nearly two decades of domination by the ruling Hashemite family of the city below, of Jerusalem. Indeed of the entire region that these journalists and their editors and colleagues have grown accustomed to calling the Israeli Occupied Territories.
I have not yet met a single journalist or press photographer or film crew or stringer or editor who admits to knowing about Hussein’s partly constructed palace or what it means.
I am the sort of person who is disinclined to accept the professional standing and competence of people from the media at face value. I want to see the evidence, just as I do when it comes to the competence of other professionals – a dentist, a tax adviser. With media people in particular, I have never felt the need to give an easy pass. If the work in which they engage daily involves delivering news, analysis, reportage, images to people in far-way places who cannot or will not come and see for themselves, then this --- to me --- is a serious piece of work. They are taking on a large responsibility with significant consequences:
- The responsibility to tell the truth, of course.
- The responsibility to place matters in perspective.
- The responsibility to interpret the interaction between current events and history.
- The responsibility to give meaning to the confusing interweaving of claims and counterclaims.
It is my belief that many of the people who do this work are poorly prepared to do it. In varying measures, they lack knowledge of the history and of the geography of what goes on in our part of the world. In many cases they also lack objectivity and sometimes even good sense.
Or to say this differently, they are about as competent in their work as some professionals are in their own fields. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse.
But given the very serious stakes in the ongoing war between the Arabs and the Moslems against Israel, it has to be said that this is a matter of the deepest concern. To illustrate what it can mean, I point out that not knowing about King Hussein’s palace means they are also, by and large, unaware of several related and quite important matters. Such as that during the period between 1948 and 1967, the Arab population of East Jerusalem, and of the villages around the construction site, of the villages and towns and cities throughout the West Bank of the Jordan River were - as far as most people can tell - perfectly content to be living under Hashemite rule. No suicide bombings at the entrances to Royal Jordanian army emplacements. No shooting attacks on Jordanian government ministers in Ramallah. No rock-throwing protests outside official Hashemite regime offices in Nablus. No self-immolations in Hebron. And no desperate cries to the United Nations Security Council for urgent intervention to prevent the Palestinian nature of those places from being trampled under the treads of the Jordanian king’s tanks and mobile artillery.
What implications does this lack of awareness have for enabling us to better understand media coverage of the Palestinian issue that so vexes our region today? What does it mean for our understanding of the rage and violence we see today in the Arab street, in the Islamic world?
Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a lot.
Before I go further, I feel the need to state my credentials. My professional training in the matters on which I am speaking today are nil. I am neither a pundit nor an academician. I have no involvement in political life and no aspiration to change that. Nor do I have political views that I care to share with you or with anyone else. Of course, like almost everyone, I do have a viewpoint about politics in general and about the politics of the Middle East conflict. But it seems to me that these ought to be kept very separate from the issues I have come to discuss with you.
Let me also make clear that most of the knowledge of the facts that I do have is gotten from the conventional media and via the Internet. It’s as accessible to you as to me and everyone else. But while it’s widely and easily available, my experience is that people often fail to look at the news and the reports. They fail to analyze for themselves, and even to think about, what the analysis means.
What then stands behind the temerity that brings me here today? To answer this, I need to take you back to several dates in the recent past.
I’ll start with 9/11.
On September 11, 2001, my family and I, along with neighbors and friends, held a ceremony in a public park just a few minutes walk from our home. It was the end of summer, still very warm. The lawns and paths was filled with a quiet crowd of perhaps a thousand people. Two girls, one fifteen and one sixteen, from our local community, next-door neighbors of one another and the closest of friends, had been murdered thirty days earlier in a massacre carried out by the revolutionary forces of Hamas. One was my daughter Malki. The other was her friend Michal Raziel. Two pretty and lively girls, standing together in a crowded restaurant in the very centre of the capital city of Israel. This was a school vacation day. Women and children were everywhere. At 2 in the afternoon, one of the more popular places in Jerusalem was that very spot. I know from the trial of the woman who engineered this massacre - a young woman, 21 years old at the time, serving fifteen life sentences in an Israeli prison; a woman who, despite official denials, is said by some to be a candidate for release to the Palestinian Authority in a prisoner deal now being negotiated with Israel – I know from that woman’s court testimony that the man who carried the bomb was meant to explode it in the street – in the middle of the busiest intersection in Jerusalem.
On a summer afternoon, when the crosswalk lights turn to green, scores of people cross in four directions at that spot, most of them mothers, teenagers and children. But this young man, a wealthy young man from an established, land-owning family in the vicinity of Jenin; a young man who had recently become fanatically religious in a way that no person of the Jewish or Christian faith who understands the meaning of the word “religious” can ever comprehend; a young man who at that moment was carrying a guitar case on his back and who looked like a safe and friendly musician – this young man must have looked beyond that busy intersection of King George V Avenue and Jaffa Road and into the plate glass windows of the restaurant on the corner: Sbarro, a pizza restaurant. He must have seen how crowded it was with precisely the kind of strategic target which his handlers had identified for this military mission. Women pushing strollers. Children. Teenage boys and girls. So he walked through the intersection and into Sbarro and exploded the guitar case.
I have been told by several reporters at various times that this young man and others who have done similar things act out of desperation. I know enough now to realize what nonsense this is. When the murderer of my daughter and of fifteen other
persons* killed there that day went to what he had been told were 72 eager virgins, he was happier than at any other moment in his wasted, pointless, regrettable life.
Those who were and are desperate are people like my wife and me; like the five or six thousand other Israelis who have lost a parent, a sibling or a child since the start of the Arafat War of Terror in September 2000. Desperate is the right word, the only word, for people who will do anything, and are willing for anything to be done, if only there will be peace with the people who live on the other side of the fence, and an end to the hateful destruction of constructive, useful, beautiful lives.
Based on things I learned during those first thirty days of life after my daughter’s murder, it would fit the expectations of many of the media people if I were to say that on the night of 9/11, we fired our weapons into the air to signify our grief. That we chanted blood-curdling cries for the violent deaths of Arab mothers and their children, born and unborn. That we whipped one another into a mass frenzy of group hate while being urged onwards by our fanatical religious leaders.
But in truth, this was a terribly sad night, a quiet night. The two girls had hundreds of friends of their own ages and many of them were there. The unfairness of what was done to them resonated throughout our community, inducing a large number of ordinary Jerusalemites to take part as an act of solidarity and of shared pain.
Though not a single journalist tried to report on this large gathering, I can tell you that the simple speeches focused on loss, on grief, on hope. The somber mood had an additional edge because for the seven or eight hours before the start of the Azkara memorial, most people present had been transfixed by television coverage of the events of earlier that day in far-away New York and Washington DC.
There’s a long list of additional aspects of life in Israel and the region that I wish the journalists knew about. For instance, if they were to set their Google search bar to the term “Fatah Day,” they would learn that this day of belligerent and threatening speeches so faithfully recorded and reported by them in fact commemorates the bombing by Palestinian terrorists of the National Water Carrier. The Carrier, the Movil Ha-artzi in Hebrew, is one of Israel’s great engineering achievements: a system of aqueducts, tunnels, reservoirs and large scale pumping stations that literally changed the face of Israel a generation ago and provided invaluable infrastructure that allowed new towns and communities to be built in places that had known only dust.
From personal experience, I know that if I were to tackle one or another of the 250 or so reporters with whom my wife and I have had contact since 2001 and asked them whether there’s anything puzzling or odd about the annual celebration of an event that took place on 1st January 1965, the response would most likely be a blank stare.
I would need to spoon feed them the following analysis:
In 1965, the total number of occupied settlements and square miles of Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation was precisely zero. Israel’s defensive campaign called the Six Day War did not take place until two years later.
- The act of trying to destroy a project that brought precious water from Israel’s north and the Sea of Galilee to the parched south where there is effectively zero rainfall ought to tell you something about the goals of these people. Thousands of Arabs – among others - benefited from the first-ever piped water to reach their communities in the south. But this was of no consequence to the terrorists.
- The attempted terrorism took place within the so-called green line, a jagged border demarcation almost universally deemed today as having near-sacred significance… but which, in 1965, was rejected by every Arab and Islamic entity with no exceptions.
I mention this analysis not because I want to convince you or them of my views about the Middle East conflict or about which side has suffered the greater historical injustice. I say it because it’s appalling to me that professional reporters of the news find it possible to uncritically repeat absurd self-justifications by those who execute acts of the most cold-blooded terror and hatred - without making the effort to critically examine whether there is a real argument there.
The willingness to swallow, and then to regurgitate for a much larger and more remote audience like this one, the chip-on-shoulder grievances of people wearing a kafiye, a rifle and a fierce look are perhaps understandable at the human level. Most people, when intimidated or in fear of their lives, can be induced to do almost anything. But if you are a journalist and your going to do your job by those rules, be prepared to acknowledge this. Let your audience know and drop the pretence at objectivity. In particular, show your readers or viewers how - despite bombastic and fierce assertions to the contrary by one Arab spokesperson after another - the conflict that has exacted such a high price among Israeli families has never been about the fact that the Palestinian Arabs do not have a homeland. It’s about the fact that the Jews of Israel do. This is a home-truth that I have never heard or seen acknowledged by any of the hundreds of reporters with whom I have had contact.
The damage caused to us Israelis by the shallow and cowardly practice of journalism of this sort came home to me quite sharply in an encounter of which I was part in Europe. In February 2004, I was invited to join a small delegation of Israelis, all of us victims of terror because of things done to us or our loved ones by terrorists. The purpose of the delegation was to go to a first-of-its-kind event - an international congress of victims of terror from many countries, organized in a major European capital and intended to provided a voice for the victims - a voice, as all of us know, that is rarely heard. And in particular to let the voices of Israel’s victims be heard.
In the week before our departure from Israel, word came back from the organizers of the conference, hearing that we were about to arrive. They said: If you plan to come as a delegation representing Israel, it would be better not to come. If you insist, then you will be invited to pay at the door and to take a seat in the audience, but we have no desire for you to speak or to be official recognized. It would be better for everyone if you stayed home.
Needless to say we went, and on the morning of the congress, I found myself sitting in a hall with nearly two thousand people, most of them victims of terror. Some minutes before the proceedings got underway, a man I now know to be a prominent political figure in that European country walked over and introduced himself. He said he could arrange for me to take a seat in the opening panel which was about to address the congress and asked me if I was willing. I said “certainly,” and he said “But please don’t make it political.”
The truth is that there are many things I want to say to and about victims of terror, but they’re not political things. I readily agreed and took my place on the stage a few minutes later, the sole speaker to be without a sign stating name and country. Those before me, representing France, Colombia, Algeria, Spain, Ireland and the fire-fighting department of New York City, addressed the congress in terms which were, to my ears, sometimes political. When my turn came, I rose and spoke about the silence that all of us know in our homes after the murder of a loved one; about the friends who turn away when they see us coming; about the isolation, the confusion, the pain. When I finished, I found myself surrounded by a small group of widows, terror victims by reason of the murder of a husband, and who, in a language I do not speak, told me via a translator how much they appreciated hearing someone who seemed to speak for them after years of lacking a voice. At the end of the two-day congress and after many meaningful and moving encounters with people with whom we had little in common but for being victims of the same kind of hate-based barbarism, we came face to face with the secretary of state for foreign affairs of that country. One of my Israeli colleagues lapelled him and said in words which I shall simplify: “For turning us into personae non gratae
, while simultaneously inviting to this congress as VIP observers the ambassadors of Lebanon and Syria and the Palestinian Authority, you ought to be ashamed.” The man is not a politician for nothing and he promptly and calmly invited our group for a discussion of this complaint in his country’s foreign ministry the following day.
It turned out that the meeting included several of top-level officials in the foreign ministry of that European country. It was, as diplomats like to say, a full and frank exchange of views; not an easy conversation. Towards the end, the secretary of state told us that, for the next such congress of terror victims, his government would take steps to bring a delegation of Palestinian victims of Israeli terror. In this way, he said, both sides of the argument would be presented, rather than just ours. I rose to the challenge, and said that if they managed to bring Palestinians who would link arms with the rest of us, as we had the day before, and declare total rejection and opposition to terror in any form, then we would all be the beneficiaries; Palestinian Arabs, Israelis and even the citizens of that European country. This was not the response the politician wanted, I guessed. He retorted that we Israelis were not really suffering from terror at all but from a political situation that demanded a political
solution. The real victims of terror, the innocent victims, were the people of his own country. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the perpetrators had nothing but hatred on their minds. He added that steps like Israel’s building of a security barrier (he called it something else) and armed security checkpoints were making the situation in our country worse and not better. My response was to point out that terror is no respecter of international boundaries and that the innocent of his country were neither more nor less innocent in the eyes of the terrorists than us Israelis. This, again, was not a view he seemed to want to hear.
Four weeks later, the trains exploded in Madrid. The government of Spain fell in an election three days later. Spaniards learned to their great sorrow that the curse of jihadism
and of Islamic terror has other countries on its agenda beyond little Israel.
Many within western societies honor events like 9/11, 7/7 (the name given to the day of London’s tube bombings
) and 11-M (when Madrid was bombed on 11th March 2004) as if they refer to far-off historical events whose lesson is clear and well understood and which reflect a dynamic that has run its course. But the reality is that these are battles in an ongoing war that is not only still underway but gaining in intensity as the availability of ever more destructive weaponry becomes easily available. It is a dangerous act of self-delusion to look at the relative absence of acts of high-casualty terror and to imagine that the threat has passed or, worse, has been neutralized or defeated. The opposite is the case.
Victor Davis Hanson, an especially eloquent political analyst, has written of the growing number of cases where individuals are convicted in the U.S. for Islamist terrorist activities. Some are American citizens but more are aliens, legal and illegal, living in out-of-the-way places on work or study visas.
- Mukhtar al-Bakri, for instance, of Lackawanna, New York - sentenced to ten years for providing support to al-Qaida.
- Ibrahim Ahmed Al-Hamdi of northern Virginia - 15 years for firearm violations in connection with terrorist activities.
- Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed of Brooklyn - 45 years for providing support to al-Qaida and Hamas.
The list is long and getting longer, quite quickly.
In September 2005, an illegal alien called Mahmoud Maawad was charged by federal authorities in this country with wire fraud and fraudulent use of a Social Security number. Beyond those relatively benign charges was evidence that this Egyptian student had recently ordered thousands of dollars worth of video disks with names like “Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings” and “Mental Math for Pilots.”
Several weeks after September 11, three US-based imams took the opportunity to broadcast live from the National Press Club on the C-SPAN network. Theirs was a proclamation of empathy for Taliban, of hatred for Jews, of understanding for the murderers of nearly 3,000 Americans. One spoke of the “grand strike against New York and Washington” and of the “twin evils in this world” --- “the decision makers in Washington and the decision makers in Tel Aviv.” Not only was such a broadcast allowed to be freely made to a mass audience. Your government subsidized it, and so did you.
I mentioned desperation before. Hanson points out that terrorism is not the
desperate resort of this enemy. It is its first --- a deliberate, cold-blooded implementation of a strategy that jives well with a massive, collective sense of resentment, with racist hatred, with a triumphant outlook on life and on history.
In post 7/7 Britain, a poll of British Moslems and published by the Daily Telegraph found that one in five voiced little loyalty toward Britain; one in four sympathized with the motives of the subway killers; and one in three were willing to say that Western culture is “decadent” and that they should help “to bring it to an end.” One in three.
In the face of media opacity and irresponsibility, of head-in-the-sand complacency by great swathes of Western populations, what can terror victims do? What’s our role? It’s been suggested we are like the canaries in the coalmines. It’s an interesting analogy. Life for a canary in a
19th century coal mine has been called short but meaningful. Coal mines lacked ventilation systems. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide. This makes them ideal for detecting dangerous gas build-ups. Miners used to bring them to work and keep listening. A singing canary meant the air supply was safe. A dead canary was the sign to get out urgently.
But in reality, if you reflect on what we know about terror and its practitioners, there’s no need for canaries in these times. The facts about terror are there in the open for all to analyze. The problem is not that we don’t know it’s there. It’s that we look away. We pretend it didn’t happen and that if it did, it couldn’t possibly happen again. This might be accurate and insightful, of course. But if it’s not then we are growing more and more threatened with each passing day. My role here today is to point out that by the time we discover how wrong we were, the price of that mistake may be unbearably high.
A significant piece of the “looking away” I just mentioned is related to what can only be termed “moral confusion.” In the United States, in Australia, in Europe, fair-minded people listen to the way events are reported and ask what seem like pointed and thoughtful questions. Such as this imaginary one I composed on the basis of several conversations I had in Europe in the recent past:
It is terrible when a young man of
any religion straps a bomb to his body and walks into a train carriage or a public place and blows up innocent people without any care for the damage or the consequences. But isn’t it the same thing when someone from another culture - might be a Christian, might be a Jew - straps himself into a fighter plane and goes out and drops a bomb on innocent people in Iraq or Afghanistan or Gaza? And doesn’t care about the outcome or the consequences? Isn’t that really the same? How can you judge one as being bad and not the other?
Questions like this leave many people - and in particular many people among the educated elite in all of the societies I have mentioned - wondering whether the model we have been discussing, a model that posits a struggle between terrorists on one hand and civilized societies on the other, is really the right way to look at things. Are the terrorists the vicious and amoral enemies of modern thought and western cultural values? Or are they simply the latest evolution of the global persecuted, the deserving under-privileged?
Confusion on this issue is the deadliest factor in this entire equation. It is a murderous confusion that causes paralysis of action and worse.
In Spain, in the year after the international congress of terror victims I mentioned earlier, I was personally invited to visit twice and to speak, all-expenses paid, as an Israeli about Israel’s experience with terror. The mood had altogether changed compared with the pre-11M days. I found local journalists and political figures perfectly willing to speak directly and openly about what they now evidently regard as a fifth column in their midst - Moslems, Spanish-born and yet bent on destruction of the society that had nurtured them and given their parents economic and social opportunity. Their recourse to such a politically incorrect terminology was surprising to me, and frankly startling. But I have learned that the terminology does change when people are directly confronted with the unthinkable.
I have become friendly with one of the Spanish lawyers involved in the prosecution of the March 11 terrorists. While his government still exhibits what seems to many an ambivalence towards identifying Moslems as a hostile presence within their society, large segments of the general Spanish public seem a good deal less reticent. In part, this is plainly based on racist and xenophobic ideas. But it also appears to be an acknowledgement of a new reality that has overtaken their society.
In conversation with my friend the Spanish lawyer and with other Spanish intellectuals and thought-leaders, I sensed a trend towards a sort of patronization. If we would only do more to integrate such people into our societies, it was said, if we were to find the way to provide them with greater access to opportunities, to blunt their frustration and misery by somehow inviting them into the salons and living rooms of our society...and so on. I have heard similar comments in Belgium, in France, in the Netherland, in the United Kingdom, in Germany, and in Israel.
But from conversations with other terror victims, and I have spoken with many, I have noticed how they seem to identify with a different view, one characterized by less doubt, more determination. They notice how the terrorists who brought such pain into their lives tend to be drawn not from the under-classes of society but from the better educated and privileged parts.
In 2002, I wrote an op-ed piece for one of Australia’s largest newspapers, the Herald-Sun. It was the only time an editor
had approached me to ask for an article. A day before, a massacre had been perpetrated in the night-life zone of the Indonesian island of Bali at Kuta Beach. The paper’s request to me was: Speak as an Australian terror victim to Australia’s new victims, and tell them what you have learned that might help them. (I am a native of Australia. So was Malki.) I did, and while it took an investment of emotion that was difficult for me at the time, just months after my daughter’s death, it came out as a strong piece that I was told by friends was well-written. Addressing them directly in the course of a passionate essay, I wrote:
It’s a certainty you are thinking about the people who did this. You may be imagining them getting out of bed that day, praying to their god, storing their equipment and driving the lethal load to a site of pleasure and enjoyment - their minds focused on a lust for the destruction and death of others. Like me, you may feel this was barbarism: cold-blooded, primal, bestial - an act of pure hatred. But get ready for the cold, clinical analysis of others. For them, the terrorists are “militants.” The hatred is “desperation.” The pointless destruction of life is “strategic.”
Subsequently, I learned that the bomb-maker believed responsible for the Bali massacre, a Malaysian, had studied at an Australian university before earning a doctorate in the United Kingdom. With all the media coverage in Australia of impoverished, seething Moslems with grievances on their minds, it seemed to me that terror victims more than other segments of society could be counted on to understand how this has little to do with education or privilege and much to do with hatred and racism.
You may be interested to learn that, for reasons never explained to me, the invited article was never published by that Melbourne newspaper. The Jerusalem Post picked it up, but I was left wondering at the ostrich-like outlook of the people who set the agenda of the day even in relatively enlightened places like my
George Santayana famously wrote that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We are living in times when a sense of history is a powerful aid to understanding the present. Unfortunately we are not well served by those charged with helping us make sense of history and adjust to what the present is telling us about the future.
We have people all around us, wherever we live, who are burying their heads in the sands. Of all possible postures, this one - in these dangerous times - is the most dangerous and the most irresponsible.
At the same time, as anyone who has watched the very slick English version of Al-Jazeera knows, a well-crafted but quite dishonest Arab and Islamic message of indignation, outrage, disenfranchisement and threat grows louder and more intrusive just as our ability and that of many of our neighbors to make sense of it grows increasingly impaired.
If terror victims have a voice, it’s a voice of clarity and determination, of optimism and hope. But it’s not heard much and our societies are paying a steep price for that.
Arnold Roth has practiced law in Australia and Israel, and served as chief executive of several private and public technology companies in Israel, the United States and Australia. Today he is chief executive of the Feuerstein Center in Jerusalem.
In 2001, he and his wife formed the
Malki Foundation in their daughter's memory. Together they write a blog called This Ongoing War. Contact him at Post Office Box 23637 Jerusalem 91236, or email
* The official death toll from the Sbarro massacre of 9th August 2001 is fifteen people including Malki and Michal. But among the hundreds of injured, one young mother --- Chana Nachenberg --- has remained unconscious from that day to the present. Though she is technically still alive, everything valuable in her life ended with that explosion. For this reason, I say that there were 15 other persons killed.
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