When I graduated Yeshiva College in 1964, the Senior Class officers asked me to solicit funds for the annual yearbook. One ad I solicited was from the Volkswagen dealership from which I had purchased my first car, a classic Volkswagen Beetle, one of the few cars for which a parking space could be found in Manhattan. A few weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from the editor of the yearbook along with the check from the Volkswagen dealership. He informed me that many Holocaust survivors supported Yeshiva University and it would be offensive and painful for them to see the Yeshiva accept money from a German company. Moreover, a week later, while stopped for a red light in the New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, someone from an adjacent car yelled: “Why are you driving that Nazi tuna fish can?” It was an “aha” moment for me. I knew no Holocaust survivors and I assumed in my naivete that as time goes on, we forgive and forget; but the incident reminded me that Jews do not forget the evil of the past.
Remembering evil is the subtext of Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the United States manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the embodiment of evil who commandeered the 9/11 attacks in which 3000 innocents were killed. Spearheading the hunt is a young CIA operative named Maya, who, over a ten-year period, doggedly tries to put together pieces of evidence from a variety of sources. Things begin to fast-track when, in questioning one suspect, she innovates. She decides to lie about the outcome of an attack to a prisoner who has been in total isolation, unaware of events on the outside. Using this ruse, she is able to extract valuable information about the identity of one of the terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks. This eventually leads to the identification of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier.
Maya’s challenge is to provide actionable intelligence that can justify a strike. The Americans track the courier to gain more knowledge about the location and daily routines of Bin Laden. As the data is gathered, Maya pushes for a strike on the house in which she believes Bin Laden lives. Without absolute proof that he is there, her superiors are reluctant to order a strike; but they eventually come around to her way of thinking even though they are not totally convinced. Her sense of mission, coupled with her determination and intelligence, persuade the decision-makers to support her and Bin Laden is killed in the ensuing strike.
Jews are commanded in the Torah to remember Amalek, the arch enemy of the Jewish people who attacked the weak and infirm, the elderly, and the children as they were departing Egypt. Tradition tells us that Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a descendant of Amalek. There is a custom in some communities to write the name of Haman on one’s shoe on the holiday of Purim; and while the story of Purim is being chanted, we stomp with our feet every time the name of Haman is uttered, thus causing the name of Amalek to be eradicated today even though his crimes took place 3000 years ago.
It is similar to what animates today’s present day search for Nazis who committed atrocities against humanity over 60 years ago. Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that the passing of time does not minimize the crime. We still hunt for evildoers because we believe there must be accountability for doing evil. When we remember the past, it guarantees that we will have a future.