In 1999, I was invited to address a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the World President’s Organization. One of the sessions was held on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and his compatriots were imprisoned for many years. Many of the Black prisoners returned to the island with us and recalled what it was like. Then, suddenly, a white man with a goatee and tattoos up and down his arms got up to address the crowd.
What was he doing there?
As I recall, he started his story with this: “In the 1970s, I was a white police officer working for the South African government. I was sent to quiet a Black uprising in one of the townships. To teach them a lesson, I ordered my men to torch a home filled with children. Nine people died. I was arrested and tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. With the arrival of the Black African government, I went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and confessed my crimes and was released. What I did was something that I will regret for the rest of my life.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
And then to my amazement hundreds of people who were in the room with me got up and gave him a standing ovation. I was disgusted. I raised my hand and he called on me.
“I will not rise for you sir,” I said, “and I find this standing ovation an insult to decency. You, sir, are a mass murderer and murder is not something you can simply regret, recant and become a hero for. People regret things in life like the fact that they lost money in the stock market not that they killed nine children. You, sir, are evil, and you deserve our contempt, not our applause.”
He was stunned by my words. One of Mandela’s closest friends, who had been with him in prison for several years, a relatively young man, rose in his defense. “Your sentiments, rabbi, are due to the fact that Jews find it difficult to forgive. Indeed, in the entire Hebrew language there is not a single word for forgiveness.”
Whoa – I didn’t expect a response that bordered on antisemitism.
I rose again. “You are wrong, sir,” I replied. “In fact, the Hebrew language has three words for forgiveness: ‘selicha,’ ‘mechila,’ and ‘kapparah.’ The essence of forgiveness is that an individual is so valuable that we allow them the opportunity to start afresh after error. But, since repentance is based on recognizing the infinite value of human life, its premise cannot be simultaneously undermined by offering it to those who have irretrievably debased human life.”
I sat down again to hushes and hisses. I had articulated a vision of Kosher Hate, a moral revulsion for evil, and had made myself immensely unpopular by doing so. But what I expressed was not my opinion but Jewish doctrine. There can be no clemency for terrorists, as in this case, or mass murder. Judaism allows no forgiveness for people who murder innocent children. And while some – including the great Simon Wiesenthal – would say that it’s up to the victim to decide whether to forgive, I believe that life comes from God. It does not belong to man. And it is only for God to decide.
Oddly enough, more hatred was shown to me that day than to the murderer of nine children. The audience was so impressed with his penitence they wanted to suppress any hatred they might have felt and forgive and find goodness in this repulsive individual and overcome any sentiments of hatred.
For a murderer to cry in public and achieve instant absolution is an affront to everything forgiveness stands for. That’s why we should feel no guilt for our feelings of revulsion and kosher hatred toward terrorists. There are some offenses for which there is no forgiveness, some borders whose transgression society cannot tolerate under any circumstances. Mass murder is foremost among them. Hatred has its place.
Indeed, our refusal to hate evil accounts for why it remains so widespread in our day.
The history of the modern world is a history of genocide and the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent men, women and children. Historian Paul Johnson estimates that at least 100 million civilians were murdered in the 20th century alone by murderous tyrants. This is a staggering number. The world could not summon enough hatred of these dictators, or their dastardly deeds, to stop them and bring them to justice.
Depressingly, the trend has continued into the 21st century. December 9, 2004, was the 56th anniversary of the approval of the Genocide Convention by the UN General Assembly. Meanwhile, another genocide was taking place at that very moment in Sudan.
In this, the sixth millennium that Judaism counts since creation, and the third Christian millennium, evil still has not been subdued, with brutal regimes continuing to control hundreds of millions of lives and terrorism striking throughout the world. Seventy years after Adolf Hitler’s demise, madmen run countries, gas their own people, torture men, women and children and fill mass graves with the bodies of innocents. Amid the world’s protests of “Never Again!” and the ratification of the treaty against genocide which was supposed to commit the great powers to step in to stop mass murder, no fewer than five genocides have occurred: perhaps as many as 5.4 million people were killed in the civil war in the Congo, two million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, 800,000 Tutsis died at the hands of machete-wielding Hutus in Rwanda, tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were ethnically cleansed by the Serbs, and at least 400,000 Black Africans were slaughtered by the Islamic Janjaweed militias in Sudan.
Those genocides were in the recent past. Now one is taking place before our eyes in Syria. Since 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has murdered more than 600,000 Syrians and used chemical weapons against his own people. Other than a single missile strike launched by the US following one of the chemical weapons attacks, the world has been a bystander.
Instead of “Never Again!” the reality has been “Again and Again!”
This is evil on a macro level but, of course, it also flourishes at the micro level. According to the FBI, in 2019, the US had more than 1.2 million violent crimes – murder, rape, robbery, pedophilia and aggravated assault. More than 15,000 people were murdered and 90,000 raped.
Could this really be happening in our supposedly advanced societies? How can murder and mayhem be continuing unabated in an age of moral progress and technological sophistication? And why does humanity do so little to stop it? We have made great strides in conquering disease, poverty and even gravity. Yet we have failed to purge the world of awful people who perpetrate the most heinous crimes.