This week’s Torah portion in Israel is Matot. It contains God’s command to fight an all out war with the Midianites. Because their women tempted the Israelites into idolatry, everybody is to be killed, other than virgin girls The cities are burned to the ground. It is hard for me to understand why God would command such a thing.
What I can point out is that in the Torah the Israelites do not wage war for the sake of waging war, or personal gain. War is conducted for the sake of self defense, or when those we are fighting have taken actions that justify making war against them. Our tradition understands that God could not even give the Promised Land to the Israelites until the inhabitants acted in a way that caused the Land to spit them out. Much later we find the concept of a permitted war for the sake of territorial expansion.
Here in Israel today we have taken military action leading to the death of innocent men, women and children. Thankfully do not aspire to the mass killing of entire peoples.
However, there are entire villages we have intentionally destroyed. Like every year, I will visit destroyed or endangered communities on Tisha B’Av. Please contact me at email@example.com if you live here or are visiting, and wish to join. The question of what people have done to “deserve” having their homes demolished is quite subjective. Israel makes it almost impossible for Palestinians, or even many Israeli Arabs to build legally, and then demolishes the homes they are forced to build without a permit because they are “illegal.” In the Occupied Territories, the very definition of what is legal is unilaterally imposed upon Palestinians by a Knesset they can’t vote for, and planning committees they aren’t a part of. The must appeal to courts where there are no sitting Palestinian judges from the Occupied Territories.
Perhaps all the evils ascribed to the Canaanites were simply excuses for what was no more than a battle for territory. However, at least the Torah gives us the opportunity to believe otherwise. In the Haftarah’s of warning we read for the three Shabbatot leading up to Tisha B’Av the prophets make it clear that the fate of other peoples awaits us when we act unjustly. We all are expected to hold to moral standards, if we don’t want the Land to spit us out.
In recent weeks Israel has been particularly aggressive in its demolition policy.
From 4:00 am on this past Monday I watched families being thrown out of their homes and demolitions proceeding in the Wadi Hummous neighborhood of Tsur Baher in East Jerusalem. Whereas most demolitions take place far from the public eye, and don’t seem to interest anybody, these demolitions were covered around the world because Israel demolished in Area A, where we supposedly have no jurisdiction. Although the Oslo accords give full authority in Area A to the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s High Court incredibly allowed the demolitions to take place. The argument was that the homes were built too close to the Separation Barrier, thereby potentially endangering Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. This argument fails to mention that we decided to run the Barrier through Area A, rather than on the border between Area A and the Jerusalem municipal boundary. In other words, we unilaterally decided to run the Barrier through territory we had theoretically ceded to the Palestinian Authority, then said Palestinians could not exercise their right according to the Oslo Accords to make decisions about land use in that territory. The families who had built, or were in the process of building homes in that area, thought they had gone through all the necessary procedures to get building permits from the recognized sovereign for the area where they were building, the PA.
I and families watched homes and dreams turn into rubble.
Sunday was the 17th of Tammuz, the day we recall the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem, ushering in the “three weeks” leading up to the demolition of the Second Temple (and the First Temple) on Tisha B’Av. On Sunday, we demolished Bedouin homes in Hadidya, in the Jordan Valley. There was no press, and no international outcry. Bedouin families who lived inside Israel before 1948 had wandered from the Hebron area to the Bethlehem area , to the Jordan Valley. This was the third demolition for some of these families, following demolitions in 2015 and 2017. Young children and even a 40 day old baby were left exposed to the sun and heat of the Jordan Valley.
As a human being of flesh and blood, I have to accept that I don’t always understand God’s ways. However, I know that I shouldn’t play God. Just as our sages decided to leave capital punishment to God, even though the Torah names circumstances in which we are to put people to death, today we shouldn’t do everything our State power gives us the ability to do to others.
The fact is that, while we take pride in being a country that does everything according to the law (the law we unilaterally determine and impose), and that Palestinians and Israeli minorities have the full right to beg for justice according to our imposed laws, the real motivation for many actions we take is dispossession. If I can allow myself to accept the Torah’s narrative justifying the actions we take, there can be no illusions regarding our demolition policies. Neither the families in Wadi Humous, nor in Hadidya, nor in the “unrecognized” villages of the Negev “deserve” to have their homes “legally” demolished. We write the laws making these demolitions legal as a part of our inexorable plan to dispossess and expel. That is the true motivation.
When God someday asks us what was the justification for exposing a 40 year old baby to burning sun and heat, what will we say?