A young American soldier finds himself in a forward base camp deep in the heart of Taliban country in Afghanistan. The soldier is keenly aware of the nearly 3,000 American lives brutally snuffed out by the attack by Afghanistan-based terrorists just a few months earlier on September 11, 2001.
The soldier huddles in a group of warriors. He listens intently as his commander gives the group a motivational talk prior to its mission.
“As you all know, the enemy has attacked our base as well as villages in this area. Your mission is to seek out and destroy that enemy.”
The commander details the stages of the soldiers’ mission and then pauses. There is silence except for the sound of a hot wind blowing against the canvas walls of the tent. Then the commander’s final words:
“Remember men. Above all, be compassionate toward your enemy.”
This never happened.
No commander would counsel compassion in the heat of a military mission. No one has to say the obvious: In fighting a violent enemy every soldier needs to pluck up his courage. He does not have the luxury of thinking about compassion. He does not have the luxury of doing anything that would diminish his fighting effectiveness.
Do we, the Jewish people, have the luxury of counseling compassion toward our enemies?
The Essence of Compassion
The dictionary defines compassion as “sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help.”
Compassion is what makes us human. It reflects the uniquely human ability to place oneself in the other’s shoes. The willingness to act on our feelings of compassion is what makes us moral actors. It is the glue that keeps people in communities emotionally and spiritually linked and it is the basis for our Jewish peoplehood.
Without it, would we be Jews?
But there is another side to compassion. That side is illustrated by the soldier described above, who risks his life to protect himself and his people from a determined enemy.
There is a time when compassion for one’s enemy is corrosive. It corrodes the will to survive and to ensure survival of one’s group.
How many times in our long history as Jews have we faced the dilemma of the soldier in that tent, preparing for battle? Fight or die.
Sometimes it is obvious that those who counsel compassion toward our enemies are not compassionate at all. They are narcissists. Their motivation—whether it is obvious to them or not—-is to win the approval of others by pretending to be more moral than they are. If they condemn Israel for its defensive actions but live elsewhere, their feigned compassion bears no costs because it is not their children who will die. We should ignore such people.
Compassion and Strength
The common argument today for compassion toward the enemies of Israel is that Israel is strong and its enemies weak. Israel can afford to be compassionate, so the argument goes.
It is true that the terrorist groups that seek to destroy Israel are weaker than Israel. But Israel is not fighting just the Palestinians. Israel is in a fight for survival against powerful actors: Iran, Turkey, Qatar and in some ways the entire Muslim world, with the help of an endlessly anti-Semitic Europe. Every year many Jews die in this fight. Our children die in this fight.
And if it is true that Israel’s enemies cannot defeat it in a single blow, will Israel die instead from a thousand cuts? From the pressure of endless attacks?
A Moral Decision
I believe it is the right of every person to decide that compassion is more important than his own survival. He has the right to refrain from fighting back.
I don’t believe any person has the right to make that decision for others.
I worry that if we Jews make compassion for others our central concern, then more Jewish children will die.
Compassion and Victory
The Jews of Israel face enemies that want to expel us from our native land. They want to expel us from the only home in this world where we can defend ourselves. They kill Jews and Jewish children regularly. They want to do a lot more killing and will do so if we let down our guard.
It may be that the Arab Palestinian people are not the enemy. But their leaders are. And it is their leaders who count in the battle.
Compassion for the enemy is misguided until we Jews have achieved a complete victory over them.
It is often said that Israelis live in a dangerous neighborhood. They are surrounded by enemies. Those enemies play by Middle Eastern rules, which are harsh and unforgiving.
I have a friend who lives in the heart of the Arab world. He tells me, “In the Middle East you are either eating the food on the plate or you are the food.”
I am not happy about that. But I think my friend is right.