When a Jordanian Army corporal killed seven Israeli schoolgirls 20 years ago, King Hussein traveled to Israel to kneel before the parents of the victims.
In what may have been his finest moment as a leader, he told them: “Your daughter is like my daughter. Your loss is my loss." Hussein's profoundly moving gesture generated a flicker of hope for Jordanians and Israelis. From the public reaction to the recent release of the schoolgirls' killer, Ahmed Daqamseh, however, we learn that the late monarch’s humanity is no match for the hatred generated by Muslim clerics.
During his lifetime, King Hussein saw it all. As a teenager, he was at the side of his grandfather, King Abdullah I, when he was assassinated at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, for his willingness to seek peace with the Jews. The assassin was a former terrorist connected with Haj Amin Al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, collaborator with Hitler, and architect of a militant Palestinian anti-Semitism. Fifty years ago, Hussein joined in Abdel Nasser’s war with Israel in 1967, only to lose half his kingdom.
In the end, he rose above the hate and fear to make peace with Israel. And on that day in northern Israel, King Hussein displayed a nobility of compassion the world will never forget.
That nobility did not find its way to the people. Before Daqamseh’s trial, 200 lawyers and the Jordanian Bar Association competed for the privilege of defending him. Four years later, his mother reflected, "I am proud of my son, and I hold my head high. My son did a heroic deed and has pleased God and his own conscience. My son lifts my head and the head of the entire Arab and Islamic nation. I am proud of any Muslim who does what Ahmad did.”
Ahmed Daqamseh had 20 years in prison to reflect on his murder of the seventh- and eighth-grade students as they alighted from a bus at the “Island of Peace,” a joint Jordanian-Israeli tourist location under Jordanian control. He took pains to shoot some of his victims at close range, and later lamented only that his M16 had worked imperfectly, so he was unable to murder the entire busload of students.
Daqamseh learned nothing during his incarceration. After walking out of prison, he said: “They (Jews) are human garbage …This garbage should be burned or buried.” Upon his release, hundreds of enthusiastic supporters traveled to his hometown to welcome their “hero.”
With one exception, his “heroics” went unchallenged in the Jordanian media. Not surprising, when you consider a 2009 Pew poll that reported that negative attitudes toward Jews in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon reached 95-98 percent. The percentage plummeted to 35 percent among Israeli Arabs, who actually live among Jews – demonstrating that indoctrination, rather than personal experience, is the key factor in bigotry. Contempt for the “other” didn’t end with Jews: 40 percent of the Arab respondents held negative views about Christians.
Where does this hate come from? Egypt’s President Al-Sisi challenged the clerics of Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Sunni university, during a 2015 visit:
“Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants -- that is 7 billion -- so that they themselves may live? Impossible! I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah.”
Attitudes in the Middle East are shaped to an outsize degree by mosque and madrassah, where Muslim clerics hold the keys. Many Muslim religious leaders point fingers at ISIS and Al Qaeda, hoping to distract attention from the fundamentalist message they serve up regularly, teaching contempt – and worse – for Jews, Christians, Westerners and gays. Recently, Mufti Muhammad Hussein, Palestinian President Abbas’ appointee as chief religious authority, publicly stated that killing Jews -- accepted in Islam as the “people of the Book” -- is a Muslim obligation. God knows what fate he will command upon Hindus and Buddhists, who are regarded as pagan.
One Israeli mother harbors a different message. Nurit Fathi’s daughter Sivan was 13 years old when Daqamseh murdered her. Nurit misses “her laughter, her smile, her joy of life,” but insists that, “Despite the murder, we are for peace.”
When the great Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv was asked how a charity campaign was going, he replied that he was halfway there. “I’ve gotten the poor to agree to receive. Now all I have to do is convince the rich to give.” In the Middle East, there are people who lost their children to terrorists, yet still yearn for peace. Others embrace the preachers who teach the “holiness” of hate.
In 2017, it seems, we are barely halfway there.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.