We endured a tragedy on Monday, and a tragedy within that tragedy. A Palestinian youth blew himself up outside a fast-food eatery in Tel Aviv, killing nine innocents and wounding several more. A young mother died in her husband’s arms, while her children cried, “Mom! Mom!” This is a favored time for such strikes, because Jews are celebrating Passover, and the terrorists enjoy puncturing the Israeli/Jewish sense of freedom.
The atrocity was “claimed” by Islamic Jihad. This is a grisly sacrament that puts an exclamation point on such events: a claim is entered into the annals of society. A claim for recognition, for identity, for note, for renown, for a place in history…for “credit.” Credit for fracturing civility and gentility. Credit for rending the rhythms of life. Credit for foisting savagery on a peaceable populace. Credit?! This is the first level of tragedy. It ramifies beyond the wounds of the moment into the traumas of the future.
But the second level is many times worse, although its existence in the moment is limited to mere words. The words of the new Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, which justified the bombing as a byproduct of Israeli “aggression.” Until now, when the official Palestinian response belonged to Arafat or Qureia or Abbas, they observed the conventions sufficiently to utter some platitudinous words of condemnation. Even if we knew them to be talking out of both sides of their mealy mouths, there was comfort in the knowledge that mankind still had a common language. So long as such principles command outward obeisance, they sustain the hope that eventually an earnest polity can occupy those social structures.
Now everything has changed. The Palestinian Authority, which exists by Israel’s sufferance, has declared in favor of Israel’s suffering. This falls just short of a de jure state of war, even if the de facto vibe is more one of attrition than overt conflict. A door has been opened to a long, dark corridor into terror. The prospects for that region and the world are very dreary indeed.
The problem is exacerbated by the building bellicosity of Iran. They have been playing a very dangerous game, coupling overt threats against Israel with blustering proclamations of advances in acquiring nuclear technology. Last week, they pledged $50 million to the Hamas government to cover the shortfalls caused by Israel and the United States withholding support. This is a high-stakes gamble by Iran, to defiantly humiliate the U.S. even while our troops are on the ground in Iraq, a country which borders on theirs.
Apparently, our move into Iraq three years ago has worked in a manner similar to the system employed by the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett’s fictional detective. Whenever he could not readily find the guilty party, he would do some act of provocation to the group of suspects to “stir things up” and get the criminals moving again in the hope that they would show themselves. By going after Saddam, we put the region on notice. You’re either for us or against us, the President said. Now it’s shaking out.
On one side, Lebanon evicted Syria and made a move to restore normalcy and a fairly democratic system. Libya decided to curtail its chemical and nuclear adventurism, handing over whatever contraband had been stashed in its armories and laboratories. And Iraq itself takes fitful baby steps toward merging its unruly factions into a government by most of the people for all the people. Syria, whatever its reservations, has mostly been a surly bystander. It may be used by some terrorists as a launching pad and a staging ground, but it has not publicly shown its hand as an enemy.
The same American boldness has flushed out negative responses as well. Iran is making these stunningly subversive moves, flagrantly advertising its nuclear program and supporting Palestinian terrorism while eschewing the language of diplomacy. This has emboldened Hamas to align themselves with this audacious challenge to American hegemony. The Continental Op has done his job well: the bad guys have been identified. But do the cops have the courage to make the arrest?
We stand now at a critical juncture. President Bush is experiencing a sort of Truman moment. The danger goes up as the poll numbers go down. A stretched army and an embattled Defense Secretary must stave off exhaustion. The next battle looms closer than we had hoped. And none of us can properly assay its potential costs. We know only this, that in this sunniest, most prosperous moment in history, while the cornucopia of modernity showers us with plenty, we are called once again to a battlefield stretching ominously off into a murky horizon.
Can we clear this final barrier to the freedom that Passover both celebrates and foretells? That is a matter of faith.
NOTE: We have received numerous inquiries from readers who thought that Passover had ended and were surprised to see it cited as a factor in the news coverage. Briefly, to clarify: Passover is a seven-day holiday, as indicated in Exodus (12:15) and numerous supplementary verses, which is observed by festive activities and refraining from eating bread. Only the first and seventh days require taking off from work and making it a full-fledged party day, as explained there (12:16).
When the Temples stood, Jews had no preset calendar, and months were either twenty-nine or thirty days. If witnesses saw the new moon on the thirtieth, a new month was declared, clipping the prior month to twenty-nine days. Thus, as the month approached, people were not sure which of two days would turn out to be the date for Passover. The court would determine the scheduling, then send messengers out to notify. In the fourteen days allotted, traveling from Jerusalem, they could barely reach beyond the borders of Israel. This caused most communities outside Israel, out of doubt, to observe a two-day festival at the beginning and another two at the end.
Although a preset calendar is now in place, it was decided to memorialize the conditions of the Temple period by continuing the same patterns. In Israel, they continue the 1-5-1 Biblical structure for a seven-day holiday. Outside Israel, it turns into a 2-4-2 breakdown for an eight-day event. Even the famous Seder gathering is affected: Israelis do only one, on the first night, but outside Israel we do two, one on each of the first two nights.
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