On a recent Shabbos morning, Palestinian terrorists burst into the bedroom of Shiri Shefi, took aim, and sprayed her and her three children with bullets using M-16 assault rifles. Mrs. Shefi, her 4-year-old son Uriel, and her 2-year-old son Eliad were wounded. Five-year-old Danielle, who was shot in the head, was killed.
Last year, a Palestinian sniper trained his high-powered rifle on 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass and killed the little girl in her father's arms. Six months earlier, Vadim Novesche and Yosef Avrahami, two Israeli reserve officers abducted by Palestinian police, were beaten until their heads were unrecognizable pulp and were then disemboweled by a waiting crowd outside the Palestinian Authority's Ramallah headquarters -- who then danced, entrails in hand, through the city's streets.
Beneath the strata of Islamic unity is a delight in cruelty that boggles the Western mind.
Cases like these stand out amidst the hundreds of murders of Israelis and foreign visitors here in recent months, not because of their evil -- for the value of every human life is infinite -- but because of their inhumanity. They reveal a terrifying layer in the story of this intifada. Beneath the strata of Islamic unity, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian national aspiration -- at the root of this great campaign engineered by Arab leaders -- is pure, unbridled sadism, a delight in cruelty that boggles the Western mind.
And even if this lust for savagery is slightly less evident in the "ordinary" shootings and suicide bombings (ordinary?!) that people suffer in Israel on a daily basis, there is a growing suspicion that much of this violence flows from a visceral, Palestinian truculence -- a craving for Jewish pain. For blood.
Those of conscience ask not only what practical steps we can take to escape this nightmare, but also how it could ever have been conceived. What great power have Palestinian leaders tapped into? How do they draw forth so much human energy and direct it for evil?
Perhaps we can learn from them how to harness the same energy and use it for good.
"The sword and the book descended intertwined." (Midrash Rabbah)
Palestinian leadership takes education very seriously. When visiting the Palestinian National Authority website (www.pna.org), you notice that the first three listings are "Ministry of Higher Education," "Ministry of Information," and "Ministry of Education" -- before the Ministries of Labor, Health, or Water.
Since September 2000, despite their economic crisis and the instabilities of war, the PA managed to compose and introduce into their elementary and high schools 58 new textbooks, replacing the anti-Zionist but relatively benign Egyptian and Jordanian texts used previously. We are not surprised that the new, homegrown books obliterate the State of Israel from history and maps, showing instead a greater Palestine that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea -- with Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State.
Textbooks describe the waves of aliyah as "infiltration," characterize Jews as being full of trickery and barbarity.
We should not be surprised that these texts present the liberation of Palestine as a struggle against Jewish occupation, describe the waves of aliyah as "infiltration," characterize Jews as being full of trickery, greed, and barbarity, and glorify Jihad and martyrdom. (See examples at www.edume.org.)
Beyond its local educational products, the Palestinian Authority also imports a wealth of educational materials from her neighbors: A 30-part series -- produced by Arab Radio and Television, featuring a cast of 400, and aired during the second half of Ramadan this year -- "dramatized" the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Arab viewers were also recently treated to a popular political satire showing Ariel Sharon drinking the blood of Palestinian children. The myth that Jews sprinkle the blood of Arab children into their matzah is graphically described in "The Matzah of Zion," published in 1983 by the current Syrian Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlas.
The Egyptian mass circulation daily al-Ahram also recently reported "many cases of the bodies of [Palestinian] children who had disappeared being found, torn to pieces, without a single drop of blood. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews." And of course this Purim we were treated to an article in the Saudi government daily, Al-Riyadh, describing in great detail the Jewish method of draining the blood of Muslim children to be used in baking Hamantashen.
We might (or might not) be able to imagine the effect academic and media presentations like these have on the Palestinian soul.
HARDWIRING FOR SADISM
However frightening this propaganda and its effects might be, we must confront the possibility that an even more hideous engine drives the terrorists' cruelty. Relative to the West, life in Arab countries has always been harsh. Corporal punishment of children is thoroughly imbedded in the culture. No mainstream Islamic authority has yet spoken out against slapping children's faces, dragging them by their hair, or any of the other disciplinary approaches that shock Western onlookers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that approximately 100 million girls from Africa and the Middle East between the ages of 4 and 10 have had their clitoris (and usually surrounding tissue) removed, typically without any anesthesia and while held down forcibly on a table or bench. AAP said the procedure, typically performed with "instruments such as knives, razor blades, broken glass, or scissors," is performed 4-5 million times annually.
An estimated 100 million Arab girls have had female circumcision, typically using crude instruments and without any anesthesia.
Survival in such a culture necessitates some numbing. But this psychological component might be insignificant relative to the neurobiological effects of being beaten and tortured in childhood. It was Harvard researchers who first revealed that stress hormones released when children experience physical and sexual abuse actually impede development of that part of the brain responsible for empathy and conscience.
Brain scans of those who suffered through events common in the childhood of Palestinian children reveal an underdeveloped hippocampus and vermis. Among the behaviors associated with this sort of brain damage: impulsivity, sadism, and suicide.
It is almost too frightening to consider that Israel today faces a population, many of whom are hardwired for the sort of violence we have been witnessing.
More terrifying is the long-term prognosis for Palestinian society. Martin Teicher, a lead researcher in the Harvard study, reports in Scientific American (March 2002) that sadistic parents neurobiologically infect their children with the same trait:
Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children... Whether it comes in the form of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma, or through exposure to warfare, famine, or pestilence, stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child's brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next.
EXTRACTING LIGHT FROM THE DARKNESS
In the near term, it is unlikely that Israel will do much to stem the flow of anti-Semitic propaganda, or reduce the violence that Palestinians do to their own children. We must accept that Israel is locked in a battle with a population many of whom are programmed for inconceivable callousness and hatred.
Ironically, we can learn from our neighbor's example:
Just as Palestinians take education very seriously and produce sadism, so can we dedicate the lion's share of our resources to Jewish education in order to produce sensitivity, altruism, and righteousness. The percentage of Jewish charitable funds directed to teaching Torah to Jewish youth is miniscule, obscenely small. Just as Palestinian political and lay leaders obsess over immersing their children in the details of Palestinian history and culture, so can our political and lay leaders.
The percentage of Jewish charities directed to teaching Torah to Jewish youth is obscenely small.
Israeli leaders and heads of major Jewish organizations in the Diaspora all too often play down (or outright deny) the value of an immersion in Judaism. Just as Palestinian parents speak to their children about the need to "sacrifice for our national dream," so too we can speak to our children about giving of themselves to achieve real Tikkun Olam.
Perhaps our children hear too much about how to get what they want, and not enough about how to let go of what they want for the sake of something or Someone bigger than them.
And just as the harshness of Palestinian childhood might be wiring children for hatred and violence, so too perhaps attentive, loving parenting might wire our children for goodness. (I have summarized the considerable evidence for this possibility in my book, "To Kindle a Soul.")
Perhaps the moment has arrived to rethink the amount of time we spend (or don't spend) with our children; the way we discipline them; the media we expose them to. Perhaps we can be inspired by the intifada to commit ourselves, 24/7, to raising a different sort of child. Perhaps those of us who survive the current crisis can emerge different, better, for the horrors we have seen.