The late Rabbi Meir Kahane often liked to say that we either have the choice of sinking to the level of our enemies or sinking six feet under them. Kahane is gone, but his false dichotomy of choosing between either a physical or spiritual survival of the Jewish People – but not both – unfortunately lives on.
If we descend to the level of our enemies, to the antithesis of the core ethos of Judaism and Zionism – so succinctly summed up by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he stated that our enemies “sanctify death, we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty, we sanctify mercy” – what is the point of having a Jewish State? Or of being Jewish at all? A Jewish State must mean more than having just another ethnic polity. It means having a state that is governed by, and acts in accordance with, Jewish values, the same values for which we endured 2,000 years of persecution and for which we refused to fade away into history. Zionism and Judaism come with an ethical and moral mandate. Murder, revenge, cruelty, extremist violence, vigilantism are emphatically not our way.
Many have exploited the tragic murders of the three innocent and beautiful Israeli Jewish youth, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah (may their memory be for eternal blessing), to give vent to their pre-existing hatred of the Palestinians and lust for vengeance. Another innocent and beautiful child, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, was brutally murdered as a result of this overflow of hatred. Astonishingly, these murderers think to act in the name of Judaism, Zionism and Israeli patriotism. The very notion is preposterous. Thankfully, the majority of Israel’s Jews have proven that by rejecting these people and their extremist views as well as their murderous actions.They do not honor the memory of these youths or Israel with their views or the murder of an innocent child; instead, by associating them with criminal acts and calls for Palestinian blood, they dishonor these beautiful children whose Zionism was based on love: love of the people of Israel, love of the entire Land of Israel, and love of the Torah. Theirs was a positive nationalism, built on a positive ethos, not a nationalism whose only foot to stand on is one of hatred of “the other.” The parents of the youths – the people with the most reason to be angry, to call for blood and to ask for revenge – have condemned these hateful views, unequivocally rejecting the call for more blood, and reached out in solidarity to Abu Khdeir’s family. As have our Prime Minister, President, President-elect and the rank and file of Israel’s right-wing and left-wing political figures.
A recent article appeared in Times of Israel berating Israelis as being on a “moral high horse” for condemning violence against Palestinians as a response to the murders of the three innocent youths. The author tried to disguise her views as being motivated by Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, but all that flowed forth was a hatred eerily similar to that which is produced by our enemies. Yes, there should be a military response. Yes, it should be decisive, and Hamas must be punished for the murder of our boys. I would not dream for one second to say that Israel’s right to defend its citizens should be constrained by world opinion and international condemnation. But Israel’s response must be constrained by International Law, the Laws of War, and – above all – Judaism’s moral values.
To say that the Palestinians as a whole deserve no mercy – as this author has done – is beyond reprehensible, even though their reactions to the murder of innocent Israelis is often appalling and immoral. Even if each and every Palestinian is an inhumane barbarian – which is not the case – mercilessness is never justified. The mercy we exhibit in war and in peace is not for their sake alone, it is also for our sake. The Talmud states that one of the main attributes of the Children of Israel is mercy, and Maimonides says that if an individual is not merciful, we should suspect his status as a Jew. And this author calls for us to eliminate this most fundamental character trait of our people?
We do not take the moral high-ground to please anyone, out of fear of the world’s opprobrium, or out of a weakness of nerve. We are merciful, we do the most out of any Western army to minimize enemy civilian casualties, because that is who we are as the Jewish People. “Better to be forbearing than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city,” King Solomon said famously. We are a moral society, we are a merciful people that is forbearing and has self-control. We do not desire blood, even that of our sworn enemies. We kill in self-defense, we do not murder. What our enemies do, how they act, how they conduct war, or how they portray us in their media is entirely irrelevant.
We must act decisively militarily to preserve our physical existence. But when we act, when we bring down the iron-mailed fist on Hamas, we must do so morally in order that we do not lose ourselves and our essence as a people in this interminable war. We will fight morally and with mercy because the nightmare of victory through Hamas’ methods, of becoming indistinguishable from Hamas, to ourselves more so than the world, is just as frightening as physical destruction. Hamas must be crushed and taught that Jewish blood should not be shed with impunity. Yes, it is an asymmetrical war, but proportionality must still control the IDF’s response. While that does not necessitate that the response should be governed by a one-for-one equation – Hamas must go – it does necessitate that the collateral damage to non-combatant Palestinians must be minimized as much as possible. This is a mercy imposed upon us not just by international law, but by our fundamental Jewish values. We will not become murderers to win this war, for that is no victory at all.
The writer of this article, and many like her, are too obsessed with “the world.” They feel that to be proud Jews, we must act with the same impunity and disregard for human life as our enemies, otherwise we are still subservient “Exile Jews.” Let us forget about the world. It’s not about them. It’s about us. We are the People that Dwells Alone, the people commanded to be a Light unto the Nations. How the West would handle a war and what they would do or not in our situation is just as irrelevant as the behavior of Hamas, Hezbollah and our other enemies. We must demand more of ourselves than simply being better than the tyrannies that surround us, and even more than the Democracies of the West. Because the point is not just about being “better” than others, but about looking at ourselves in the mirror and realizing that we have not lost what it means to be Jewish. We cannot hinge our morality and our national values – the source of our strength and secret of our national longevity – on the whims of murderers and barbarians like Hamas, or even the actions of enlightened democrats. We must hinge our behavior only on the rigorous demands of our values. “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” the Torah tells us, and that alone will inform our actions.
Paraphrasing former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, Israel might have to fight with a hand tied behind its back. Our Jewish and Zionist ethos, our concept of “tohar haneshek”, necessitate that not all of the means or viciousness employed by our enemies are available to us. Nonetheless, we still have the upper hand. Our respect of human rights, our rejection of barbarity, and our ability to fight like lions against Hamas without resorting to its brutality and disregard for human life, these are our strengths. They show our strength of spirit, something Hamas and its like will never have. “Who is strong? He who controls his passions,” it says in Pirkei Avot. We will win this war, no matter how long it takes; but we will win it as Zionist Jews. The People of Israel lives and will continue to live, spiritually and physically.