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Death of Arafat

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-11-12

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

When your enemy falls, do not rejoice! Strange advice that, from the book of Proverbs( 24.17). Why shouldn’t one rejoice?

Well one possibility might be the old English proverb that ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ The other may be that there are always cycles in life and you might be up one moment but down the next. Today’s villain may be tomorrow’s hero. Besides evil has a way of sprouting, like Hydra's heads even after they are cut off.

It has always struck me as significant that the bible does not describe humans as ‘good’ in the moral sense. What the Torah calls ‘good people’ are usually referred to as  ‘Tsadik,’ righteous, ‘Yashar,’ upright, or ‘Tamim ‘ which literally means ‘artless’ but is best translated as straightforward. No one is described as a saint and even the narratives about the Patriarchs are full of what look to us like errors of judgement (even if, for example, Isaac’s favouring Esau over Jacob might have been motivated by the purest of motives).

The message, it seems to me, is that we need to try our best to go in the right direction and live our lives as well as possible. We are bound to make mistakes. ‘There is no person under the sun who only does good and does not err ( Ecclesiastes 7.20). Until one is tested, one never really knows. As Hillel said ‘Do not judge your colleague until you have been in his place.’ Or as they say in another culture ‘ Do not judge another until you have walked hundred paces in his shoes.’  But clearly some people mess up a heck of a lot more than others.

Anyone who sets himself up or allows himself to be put in a position of leadership must be subject to critical judgement. Historians are still at loggerheads over Napoleon for example. The belief that our judgements now, at this moment, will remain valid forever that is myopic.

I remember as a child hearing the dreaded name Jomo Kenyatta who led the Mau Maus in Kenya and killed English farmers including the family who lived next door to Jewish kids from Kenya I went to school with. I still remember how devastated they were. But he became the first and much praised leader of an independent Kenya. Or Archbishop Makarios, that black shrouded Greek Orthodox priest who led the Greek fighters in Cyprus against the British and also killed innocents. They overcame superior forces, won their political battles and transformed themselves into statesmen.

Menachem Begin was branded a terrorist, on the run from the British but ultimately became Prime Minister and made more concessions for peace than any of the accommodating left wing reasonable leaders of Mapai, such as Ben Gurion or Golda Meir. And for years my Israeli left wing friends have been laughing at me for suggesting that Sharon might just be able to go further towards a deal than the Left Wing leaders could.

I detest Arafat’s legacy. To hear the way the world is eulogizing him merely confirms me in my belief that he was a symbol used to attack Israel and America. If he was a figure of admiration or reverence it was to his equally corrupt cronies and those poor people who had no other figure to focus their aspirations on. As Abba Eban said rightly of Arab leaders in general, they  ‘Never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.’ Arafat will indeed go down in history as the man who said ‘No.’ But who kept on encouraging him to say no? There were the Arab armchair leaders who supported his rhetoric but feared his terrorism would be turned on them, as it was on three notorious occasions against Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. One of the worst of those who encouraged him to say ‘no’ was the corrupt French President Jacques Chirac who constantly encouraged Arafat to hold out for more, as much to mess up the Americans as to advance his own interests. But that still does not justify putting ones faith in violence.

I am not suggesting Israeli leaders were always open to compromise or indeed helped the moderates very much. They certainly succeeded in turning the welcome they received when they kicked out the Hashemite occupiers in ‘67 into bitter hatred. But Arafat’s speciality was destruction and I cannot think of any positive achievement other than as being a symbol of meaningless, blind defiance at the expense of his own cannon fodder. If the world argues that Israel was his nemesis then how come he failed to ameliorate the life of Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan? Why are they still living in camps there every bit as depressing as the ones in Gaza?

Yet for all this it would be pointless to establish a latter day Purim Festival to celebrate his passing on. Others will step into his shoes and the issue will not go away if only because Europe and the Arab world refuse to let it because everyone needs scapegoats. Arab countries need one to deflect from their internal problems. Extreme Muslims need one to explain why they do not yet control the world. Europe needs one to deflect attention from its own running sores of welcoming fanatics within their own borders for the price of oil. And the Left Wing need it because otherwise what other tangible, easily identifiable cause would they have to rally round? And of course some Christian groups want it because it will lead according to them to Armageddon and the Second Coming! Not to mention arms dealers who make a living on it (and I hate to have admit that that includes some Jewish ones too).

If Arafat died a failure then we too share in that failure. We failed to solve the problem too. That is why the whole sentence in Proverbs goes like this ‘ When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, when he stumbles don’t let your heart be happy. Lest God sees and is displeased and does the same to you! ‘