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Mar 2003 Journal

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Breaking the cycle of violence

’Jihad’ and ‘Amalek’ are terms which reverberate across the centuries. Intrinsic to Islam and Judaism respectively, they also reflect a group dynamic common to many cultures. This is the split between the desire to nurture and protect one’s own and the urge to project all the negativity one refuses to acknowledge onto the other, the outsider.

The Pentateuch contains many injunctions to blot out the name of Amalek, the archetypal enemy who attacked the Israelites as they were coming out of Egypt, smiting the weakest and the most vulnerable. Jihad, a term all too frequently employed in our day, is believed to have been coined by the prophet Mohamed. It is understood as a holy war against the so-called ‘infidel’ - popularly perceived in the West as all who fail to follow the tenets of Islam. September 11 2001, the most devastating example of Jihad to date, witnessed the harnessing of modern technology to this ideology.

Psychoanalytic literature dwells at length on the twin tendencies of idealisation and demonisation, which flourish in a climate of religious or nationalist fanaticism. In his book Terror and Transformation, James W Jones speaks of the ‘conjunction of an idealised nationalism and religion’, which sanctifies violence against the outsider who is perceived as a threat. Any unwanted feelings of unworthiness, which arise from contact with this idealised concept of nation or religious precept, are projected outwards onto others, who consequently become debased, subhuman and worthy of extinction.

How relevant is this dynamic to the world of the scriptures?  Certainly the biblical Amalek and his own descendants, Agag, the Amalekite king whom King Saul was enjoined to destroy, and Haman, the villain of the Purim story, are portrayed as the embodiment of evil. While Haman clearly sought the destruction of the Jews of King Ahasuerus’s realm, the glee with which Jews throughout the generations have symbolically drowned out his name and the rejoicing which accompanied the wholesale slaughter of his family and followers, suggest that he and they are seen as less than human.

The war against Amalek, the Pentateuch warns, will be pursued from generation to generation. Moreover, it is this struggle with Amalek that the renowned medieval biblical commentator, Maimonides, cites as one of the few instances when war is justified. Indeed, Hitler, Arafat and others are not infrequently labelled as Amalek reincarnate. Similarly, while Islam’s dispute with the Jews may be traced back to the days of the Prophet, the constant stream of vilification and demonisation of Jews spewed out by the Arab media today provides ample justification and incitement for acts of ‘martyrdom’ in the name of Jihad.

Psychotherapist Jenny Beddington, experienced in conflict resolution, explains one major motive for demonising the other as ‘an inability to forgive and move on from past grievances. The history remains in the present.’ Irrespective of historic context, she points out, such splitting can occur whenever a group feels threatened by a culture with different values - for example differing perceptions on the role of women, differing sexual mores or different political systems. Equally, where groups are very similar and feel threatened by loss of power and identity, the same splitting may occur in an effort to preserve separateness and identity. ‘In extreme cases of splitting, where hatred predominates, violence is used to keep the group separate and feeling powerful, to eliminate the other group and to settle past and other conflicts.’

Is there any way of breaking this cycle of violence? Might it be possible to find a new perspective on the war against Amalek and the concept of Jihad? In his book The Eternal Journey, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg cites the Hassidic tradition which interprets the words of the Pentateuch as ‘to you Amalek’, meaning Amalek is within you - within all of us. ‘The war against Amalek’, Wittenberg concludes, ‘means fighting evil both within ourselves and without. If we ignore the former, we too quickly become like Amalek.’

Wittenberg's words found an echo in a recent lecture by the Israeli-born Islamist Sara Sviri. Speaking on ‘The Greater Jihad’, Sviri claimed that ‘the idea conveyed by this term is that the true jihad is not the one against infidels but the one against one’s own inner Self. To struggle with the external “other” is easier than to struggle with the inner “other”.’

And from the crucible of conflict, a glimmer of hope was afforded by the case of a Palestinian suicide bomber who only partially succeeded in detonating his explosives and was taken to a hospital in Israel where he received the best medical treatment alongside survivors of other bombing incidents. ‘Not all Jews are bad’, he declared on leaving hospital. ‘You can have a bad Arab in the same way as a bad Jew.’ In this context, encounter with the ‘other’ can be seen to offer the most effective means of laying the foundations of a process, which might eventually lead to the transformation of perception.
Emma Klein

previous article:Roll of dishonour
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