A symbolic strike

August 18, 2002|By Warren Bass

THE FRANK Sinatra Cafeteria is - was - a pleasantly utilitarian place, with drab, workaday decor, unwieldy triangular trays and a reliably cheerful old gent who'd slap burekas, rice and schnitzel onto the plates of students with a democratic enthusiasm that cared not a whit whether they were Jewish or Arab.

During my own college days, on a junior year abroad spent at the Hebrew University's majestic perch, looking down on the deceptively still city of Jerusalem, my friends and I ate there so often that we coined our own Hebrew verb for eating at Frank's. Hamas blew it up July 31.

The explosion killed nine people, five of them Americans, and wounded more than 90 others.

Even by the dismal standards of Israel's terrorism ordeal, that blast carries infuriating echoes. It should be unnecessary to say that Frank's was not a military target. Quite the opposite. Say what you will about Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, Oslo, settlements, occupation and collateral damage - blowing up college students eating lunch is inexcusably vile.

Indeed, bombing a university is singularly ugly, even for Hamas. True, it's possible that the Palestinian Islamist group didn't much care that it was targeting a university; having scared Israelis out of restaurants in downtown Jerusalem, Hamas' killers might have just seen Frank's as an enclosed space conveniently packed with bodies. At a minimum, putting a university in the crosshairs did not trouble Hamas.

But the choice could well have been more calculating than that. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an intimate one, and the terrorists know the terrain of their victims well. Moreover, terrorism is symbolic violence - a deliberate targeting of civilians designed to leverage bloodshed into attention, overreaction, sympathy and group solidarity. So the symbolism of mass murder at a university is worth thinking about, particularly when it's the Hebrew University.

Hebrew U., as it's often known, was a telling component of the early Zionist project, a projection of Enlightenment values of cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness into the Jewish push for self-determination. Opened in 1925, its early supporters included not only Chaim Weizmann, the urbane chemist who fathered the Balfour Declaration, but also Albert Einstein, the philosopher Martin Buber and the university's first president, Judah Magnes.

Both Mr. Buber and Mr. Magnes made themselves wildly unpopular in the Yishuv, the pre-state Zionist community in British Mandatory Palestine, by urging their fellow nationalists not to create a Jewish state but a bi-national one in which Arabs and Jews would live together, subordinating the claims of nationalism to those of universalism.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and amid the chaos of the collapse of British rule in Palestine, that vision was quixotic at best, and it seems unimaginable now - a noble if unworkable idea long since curdled into the sour 1970s-era Palestinian call to replace Israel with a PLO-run "secular, democratic" state.

But the best part of Mr. Magnes and Mr. Buber - their unflagging humanism, their insistence that the Holy Land was "a land of two peoples," their determination to find some way for Arabs and Jews to coexist peacefully, respectfully and to their mutual benefit - remains alive today in the university they helped found.

No mean feat, that.

When the university's Mount Scopus campus was cut off from Jewish West Jerusalem after Israel's 1948 War of Independence, Jordan defied its own armistice agreement and cut Israeli access to the Hebrew University, which built an unlovely satellite campus near the Knesset, or parliament. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Mount Scopus campus was revived, ultimately becoming the university's central hub.

Today, it teaches Shakespeare, law, science and Middle East history to about 23,000 Jewish, Arab and overseas students - a bastion of disciplined reason and academic rigor committed to the Enlightenment project. When students from the United States, Canada, France and South Korea went to Hebrew University - and found themselves eating lunch two weeks ago at Frank's - their presence implicitly nodded respectfully not only to the university's standards but also to an Israel that cherishes universities.

And that, in part, is what Hamas hates. Yes, it vowed to "shatter Zionist bodies into pieces in every restaurant, every bus station, every bus" after a reckless Israeli airstrike killed both a founder of Hamas' terror wing and 14 Palestinian civilians.

But an atrocity at a university goes beyond Hamas' immediate thirst for revenge, gore and publicity and its standard enthusiasm for killing Jews; it scorns the very notions of secular knowledge, humanism and Arab-Jewish coexistence. Attacking a university is yet another reminder that, for Hamas, despite its protestations of religiosity, nothing is sacred. Buber wept.

Warren Bass is director of the Special Projects/Terrorism Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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