Can’t We Just Call It Evil?

Call it a grisly historical coincidence, but this year, Tisha B’Av corresponds to the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires.

When the terrorists drove their explosive-laden truck into the communal center of Argentine Jewry, they succeeded in killing 85 people and injuring hundreds more. The planning for these attacks was carried out by the Iranian government and Hezbollah. But despite the strong evidence linking them to the bombing, they continue to deny their culpability and make a mockery of the case by circumventing the Argentine justice system.

It was the worst terrorist attack in the history of the Western Hemisphere – that is, until Oklahoma City and, of course, the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Right after the attack on the AMIA Building, I visited Buenos Aires on a rabbinic mission of mercy to the bereaved Jews of that community, sponsored by New York Federation. We engaged in impromptu pastoral counseling, reaching out to numerous Jews who had lost loved ones, especially kids and teenagers.

Together, our small group of rabbis stood in the rubble of the AMIA Building for a memorial service. There, one of my colleagues offered a eulogy for the victims: “This is what happens when there is mental illness in the world. This is what happens when there is depravity in the world. What happened in this place is the triumph of psychological disease.”

Only my manners and my good breeding restrained me from grabbing his lapels and shrieking in his ear: “Forget psychological disease! Forget symptoms! This is not the DSM III (or IV or V) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is not simply about getting a better therapist who will accept your health insurance. This is evil! Name it. Speak of it. Call it what it is.”

I will never forget what my colleague said to me at that moment. He turned to me and said, softly: “Don’t you think that’s being a little bit judgmental?”

Well, yes – as a matter of fact, I do think that it is more than a little judgmental.

And I would do it again.

Before that day in Buenos Aires, and since that day in Buenos Aires, there have been numerous terrorist attacks. What continues to shock me, and even depress me, is the hesitation on the part of good people to call it like it is: evil. Actually, I overstate the case. People do call things evil – as long as the victims are first-world people who might have been the descendants of colonizers, and as long as the perpetrators come from among the ranks of the aggrieved.

It falls to me to note that, more often than not, it is the Jewish state and the Jewish people who fall victim to this way of thinking. Which is to say – attacks on Jews and Israel are rarely referred to as evil. It is far more likely that a laundry list of reasons for such attacks will be compiled.

But the problem with such lists is that the search for reasons often segues into the proclamation of reasonableness – as if to say that the victims of terror are somehow responsible for their own pain.

It is at this point that I resort to the Bible. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). And even more pointed, I turn to the words of Midrash, Kohelet Rabbah 7:16 – “Those who are kind to the cruel will wind up being cruel to the kind.”

That is why we dare not resort to pop psychology in our assessment of international terrorism. In the case of the AMIA building, the perpetrators were real, as were their victims. They were not mere ideas, and they were not mere pathologies.

That is why we will continue to demand justice. And it is why we will never turn our backs on Iran.

About Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.
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