“The terrorists are firing rockets from schools, from mosques, from hospitals, from heavily civilian populations. We have to try and are doing our best to minimize civilian casualties. But we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”– Benyamin Netanyahu, on July 24, 2014
Instead of using a Torah passage to begin a teaching, I want to start with these words of Netanyahu. On the same day that Bibi spoke them, Israel may have bombed a UN school, which had become a place of refuge for Palestinians who left their homes to escape the shelling – at least fifteen died, and a hundred were wounded. We don’t know for sure if it was Israeli fire that hit this school, but Israel has shelled schools two other times during this war. As Bibi said, “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.” I want to drash these words – explain them – using Torah and rabbinic tradition.
The Talmud (Beitzah 32b) says that the Jews are a compassionate people (rachmanim), and that someone who claims to be Jewish but doesn’t show the quality of compassion is not really a Jew. Sefer Chinukh (Yitro 42) says that Jews are “compassionate people, sons and daughters of compassionate people”. The Zohar (1:174a) even says that when Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling the angel, that this was in order to allow Jacob to become attached to this quality of compassion.
According to rabbinic tradition (both midrash and Kabbalah), the most important name of God, YHVH (often translated as Lord), is also tied to compassion, whereas the name Elohim is tied to God’s judgment. The Zohar explains that Jacob was renamed Israel in order to bring down into the world that quality of YHVH’s compassion.
At the same time, there still is a need for God’s judgment. When is that? Says the Zohar (ibid.), “When the wicked abound in the world, God’s name becomes Elohim” – because God must bring judgment upon the wicked in order to save the world.
Now listen again to what Netanyahu is saying. He is not just prosecuting a war, he is carrying out a judgment, deciding between those who should have immunity, and those who should not. It is as if Bibi were casting the IDF in the role of instrument of God’s judgment. Bibi sounds a note of compassion (“we have to try to minimize civilian casualties”), but he does so in order to validate that what is raining down upon Hamas is truly justice, not just vengeance.
But what is justice, and what is vengeance?
Take a step back, to before this war. One of Hamas’s demands is an end to the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza has been going on since Hamas came to power. The blockade has always had several purposes. One was to stop arms from being smuggled in. But, many say, another goal was to make sure the Gazan Palestinians knew that they had chosen wrongly by electing Hamas, by electing a government that rejects the existence of Israel. To put it bluntly, the people were made to suffer because they had sinned.
When Bibi says that there can be no “immunity or impunity”, it doesn’t just mean impunity for Hamas. It means that there is no place in Gaza safe from Israel’s arm of justice, the arm that brings down God’s judgment. In reality, because of the way Gaza is set up and fenced in, this means no impunity for anyone. There is no place in Gaza where non-combatants, families, children, can be immune from attack – not the beach, not a school, not a hospital.
It is possible to claim that it is right for Israel to enact God’s judgment. After all, the same Zohar passage teaches that even though Jacob became attached to compassion when he was renamed Israel, sometimes Israel must turn back into Jacob: “When Jacob was not in the midst of enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Israel; when he was among enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Jacob.” From the Zohar’s perspective, when Israel is in the midst of enemies, it is both necessary and right for Israel to turn back into Jacob, to embody and become the instrument of God’s judgment.
And yet: “One who shows no compassion, it is known for sure that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Talmud, ibid.) I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Hamas members, being Muslim, are also of the seed of Abraham. That Hamas has been hiding rockets in schools, daring Israel to fire on places that should be safe (see Haaretz.) That Hamas used concrete to build miles of tunnels and no public bomb shelters. And that Hamas’s lack of compassion, to their own people and to Israeli civilians, shows that they are neither true Muslims, nor of the spiritual seed of Abraham.
Yet Netanyahu’s nod to compassion also seems like the nod of one who has lost compassion’s compass, not like one “from the seed of Abraham”. Why must there be no place of “immunity or impunity”? What if Israel decided to never shell schools and hospitals where people were taking refuge?
Surely I will never be called on to make such decisions, and I also know that people in Israel – Jews and Arabs – are traumatized by Gaza’s rocket fire, and that it needs to stop. I know Israel needs to defend itself. And yet…
This shabbat, we read about the city of refuge or “ir miklat”, where someone who has accidentally killed another can flee in order to be safe from punishment. (Numbers 35) Just as happens in war, outside the city of refuge (by analogy, in the chaos of a combat zone), a “blood-redeemer” has the right to avenge the victim’s death. However, if this blood-redeemer attempts to kill a person who has reached a refuge, he or she is counted as a murderer.
But what if there is no refuge? What if the fighting leaves no site of refuge in Gaza to which people can flee? As Netanyahu has clearly said, there will be no place off-limits to Israel’s artillery. If Hamas makes any building a target, the IDF will shoot at it.
The idea of a city of refuge isn’t just an analogy; the idea at its heart threads its way throughout Jewish law, which requires that if one besieges a city, one side of the city must be left open for people who wish to flee. “A place should be left open for fleeing, and for all those who desire to escape with their lives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 6:7)
If one prosecutes a war, in a place where innocents have no place safe to flee to, and no way to leave, then that becomes murder. If the attacking army drops leaflets and calls civilians, telling them to evacuate an area that will be bombed, but there is no place to evacuate to, what compassion is this? How does it affect the “purity of arms” that has always been the hallmark of the IDF?
And yet – such liberal interpretations are good, but this week’s Torah reading is also a bonanza for the most right-wing policies. It defines the borders of the land of Israel in a way that includes all of Gaza and the West Bank (Numbers 34), and in Numbers 33:55, it commands the Israelites to “drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you” because otherwise “they will be thorns in your sides and they will harass you”. The rabbinic response was that these strictures applied only to the original Canaanite nations, and not to anyone else, certainly not to the Palestinians. But that won’t stop those right-wing people who believe that God is on their side, who wish to believe that they are the arm of God’s judgment.
One thing is true, however. If we ever were “compassionate people, the sons and daughters of compassionate people”, we can no longer count on this. Along with hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis who have died, so has our claim as Jews to be the unwavering seed of Abraham. Perhaps if we realized this, we would be ready to make peace, one broken people to another.