Rabbi's Message December 17, 2015 Extremism Runs Rampant: No One Is Immune


I am afraid. I know that the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are less than the chance of being struck by lightning. That’s not the source of my fear. I will not stop traveling or going to public events.

What frightens me is that violent extremism is leading to more violent extremism. I’m afraid that the inflammatory rhetoric of many who condemn such extremism only exacerbate it. In fact, all extreme rhetoric can lead to similar outcomes, no matter what its source.

What frightens me is the effectiveness of ramping up fear and extolling the glory of victory, at any price. I’ve become a fan of the podcast “Hidden Brain” with science writer, Shankar Vedantam. The most recent podcast describes how ISIS succeeds in recruiting young, marginalized individuals by connecting their personal story with a larger narrative of revolution.  

Revolutions, from the Russian Revolution to the Nazis to “freedom fighters” for any cause, attract young people with the promise of glorious victory. The podcast explained that, counter-intuitively, these young recruits may be acting out of idealism, rather than nihilism. They seek to defend their principles and to protect victims of what they perceive as dangerous enemies.

Seen this way, I can begin to understand extremists, freedom-fighters and revolutionaries. I can see them human beings, like me, though I disagree with and condemn their decision to embrace violence. But I also recognize that loyalty to a cause is vital to human beings and is at the heart every movement, including the non-violence of Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement. Group loyalty usually serves as a force for good, for mutual support, and for changing the world. But it has its dangerous side as well.

I know it is shocking to compare Gandhi to ISIS. The question is, how does one movement succeed in minimizing bloodshed while the other revels in brutality?

It is up to the leaders of these movements to think carefully about the potential outcome of their words and actions. All leaders have the power to connect with their followers in a personal way, tying the personal narrative to the group’s goals. They also have the power to inspire self-sacrifice and murder.

This week, two events made this truth abundantly clear to me. First, the Republican debate highlighted a breach between those who continue to embrace anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and those who denounce it. Polls show that more people prefer to follow leaders who promise simple and glorious victory over any “enemy.” The polls favor the extremists, because these leaders feed on fear.

This week in Israel, a group of anti-democratic extremists, Im Tirtzu, released a video targeting four Israeli human rights leaders and labeling them as "foreign plants" who are at war with Israel. Several Jewish groups have denounced the video, including two progressive Zionist movements, ARZA and Ameinu, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We can follow their lead and take action.

The Torah names the power of violent destruction “Mashchit” (Destroyer). This is the force that God unleashed at the 10th plague (see Exodus 12:23). It had the power to murder every firstborn in the land. But because of the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, our ancestors were spared. The Midrash comments that this force, once unleashed, cannot discern between the innocent and the guilty. This warning reminds us that the cycle of violence obeys no moral boundaries.

It is a precarious time for our nation and our world. Terrorism lies in wait in all quarters, whether among those who oppose abortion, Western values, Jews, or immigrants. The Destroyer knows no moral boundaries.

While I began with the words “I am afraid,” I am keenly aware that my fear is also capable of incitement. My intention is to change the conversation. We need to acknowledge our fears, but not allow them to rule over us.

The only way to close the door on the Destroyer is for us to stand together, not apart. It is up to us to create more human connections, not cut ourselves off. We must be ready to put the proverbial blood on our doorposts, to proclaim that we will not allow the Destroyer to invade our moral universe.

Posted on December 17, 2015 .