One of our challenges is to remain moral and just in an environment that is contrary to this. Last week the SAJR, the Jewish Community Newspaper of South Africa, was taken to task for including the terrorists in the death toll of those who had lost their lives in the horrific attack in Har Nof. The headline listed the number of dead as Seven and not Five, and many readers objected to this. The newspaper and the reporter are Zionists and open supporters of Israel but no one is above criticism if it is valid and due. And whereas the headline could quite easily have been altered to indicate the five plus two, I am more interested in the debate around the issue. Because something does make me uncomfortable about the notion that they are not to be counted as people, evil though they might be.
Append this to the debate about the returning of the bodies of the terrorist to their families and we find ourselves in a moral, ethical and interesting dilemma. It would seem that Israel has had, until now at least, the policy of returning the bodies of the guilty to their people for burial. In the current case, a decision was taken to withhold the bodies as a deterrent to those contemplating such an act. Israel has long had the strategy of destroying the homes of the perpetrators of terror, and although this seems to have been accepted by the families as a consequence of their son’s actions, withholding the bodies is not. Of course, the magnificent irony is that the mothers of the murderers have taken the matter to the Israel courts and appealing the judiciary to allow for the release for burial, indicating again the dual systems that operate in the country.
It goes without saying that these discussions pale into insignificance if contrasted with the vile act carried out by the perpetrators and there can be no parallels. Clearly the terrorists relinquished certain rights the minute they walked into the shul with the intent to kill. The question is if they are doing further damage, not just by their slaughter, but by forcing us to become that which we have spent generations avoiding. In essence they killed five magnificent souls and they left wives and children and parents and brothers and sisters and friends. The damage is monumental and real. But as a people, when we are angry and devastated and we refuse to acknowledge them in a body count, are we in danger of being morally contaminated by their actions?
The two dilemmas are very different in the sense that the returning of the bodies will either become policy or it will not and a precedent will be set. Of course in the upside down world that is the Middle East, by withholding the bodies Israel will be accused of provocation, but this is not news and shouldn’t be a factor in the decision. The issue of the headline is more complex as it indicates a message that the perpetrators are not people and the dangers of this cannot be ignored. When we dehumanize anyone it becomes easier to act with impunity. It is a line that is a very dangerous one to cross because once over that Rubicon there is no going back. When then does a terrorist lose his right to be considered human? When he has killed, or when he walks through the door to kill, or when he buys the knives or when he attends his first meeting. I am not willing to make that choice simply because of what it does to me, and not because of the them.
I do believe that whose killed commiting an act of terror should not have their bodies returned for the celebration of martyrdom. I believe that that right is relinquished, but I would not like to be the one to determine who can be called a person and who should not be.
Again we have been forced into a situation that we didn’t ask to be in. But in the same way that the shul opened its doors to prayers the very next day so as to ensure that the damage did not extend to the next day’s minyan, so we need to make sure that they do not drag us down into the cesspool of moral decay.