I’m terrified for the Israeli soldiers who will be going into Gaza any day now. I remember how bad the street fighting was at times during the Second Intifada, particularly in Jenin in 2005, but this will be 10, 100, 1,000 times worse, as Hamas know the terrain while Israelis have not been there for over 15 years. Hamas have had time to set all kinds of booby traps, there will be snipers everywhere and it will be impossible to tell genuine civilians from terrorists (snipers, suicide bombers) disguised as such. Worse yet is the “Gaza Metro” a vast network of underground tunnels (longer than the London Underground if Hamas are to be believed and, on this occasion, we have to fear they are) and bunkers used by Hamas for command centres and to travel under Gaza and surprise Israeli forces. The Israel Air Force has been trying to destroy as much of this as they can in the last two weeks (nearly), hence bombing roads and tower blocks with no obvious military purpose from above ground (i.e. to TV cameras) – it’s not the road or building itself, but what’s underneath it that’s the target. And somewhere in the midst of this are over 200 hostages who Israel wants to recover alive.
(Incidentally, if you listened to the anti-Zionists in the past and wondered why Israel was “so cruel” as to prohibit the entry of cement and other construction materials to Gaza as if it was a military component – this is why. Israel knew what Hamas was doing, that the materials were not being used for civilian construction. But the world wouldn’t listen.)
The world will scream “war crimes” when Israel takes hard decisions or makes mistakes (which it will do; with the best will in the world, anyone would). In fact, the world already is screaming “war crimes” at Israel, even though everything Hamas has done until now is a war crime. I’m not worried about that. The last few days have shown that, for a considerable portion of the world’s population, there is nothing that could happen to Israel that could justify any kind of response, because Jewish autonomy and Jewish self-defence is the “problem.” What I worry about is boys of 18 or 19 getting blown to pieces or shot or taken hostage or goodness knows what else. And they’re going to do it for me. Not just for the State of Israel, but so that ALL Jews, everywhere in the world can be safe. And there is nothing, nothing I can do that will ever be enough to repay them.
I just keep thinking of those dark streets and dark tunnels, full of booby traps and hidden enemies… It’s something from a nightmare, a horror film, not real life for citizens of a Western state in the twenty-first century. This is what the world just does not understand.
I find myself a lot more worried for these soldiers than I am for Palestinian civilians, even the children. I don’t want Palestinian children to die (God forbid), but, emotionally, my mind is with those 18 or 19 year old Israeli soldiers. I have found, in the last week, that I really care about Jews who I don’t know a lot more than I care about non-Jews who I don’t know. Again, not that I want bad things to happen to non-Jews, including Palestinians, but emotionally, viscerally, I see Jews as “family” even if I don’t know them personally. I don’t value non-Jews less as people, but the emotional connection is stronger with Jews.
This is what the Torah teaches us to feel, but it’s diametrically opposed to what Western philosophy has preached since the Enlightenment: universalism and equality in all respects, not just legally, but cognitively. But Enlightenment universalism didn’t lead to people loving others all as much, but all as little. The Soviet Union, the most universalist state (in theory), found that if you loved everyone equally, you (or Stalin) could kill your mother as easily as a stranger. When everyone is the same, people become substitutable, then replaceable, then disposable.
Incidentally, pretty much every culture in the world before the Enlightenment, and every culture that has avoided Enlightenment ethics (most of the developed world) and every culture experiencing a conservative backlash against Enlightenment ethics agrees with the Jews here. It’s just normal and praiseworthy to love your own people. It doesn’t mean you hate other people. Only (some) Western progressives feel the urge to hate their own people to show how sophisticated they are. But Jews are judged by the standards of Western progressives in Islington or the San Francisco Bay Area, despite having a homeland in a region where the Enlightenment was something that happened to other people.
Philosophy aside, it is the prevalence of Jew hate in this last week that has brought up this deep swelling of emotion. If we don’t look after each other, who will? With the best will in the world, Biden, Sunak, Macron et al can’t save everyone, even without the domestic pushback they’ll face once the Palestinian civilian casualties mount up, and they will (and, again, as we’ve seen with the hospital explosion, Hamas count terrorist fatalities as civilians and the world will accept this unquestioningly, because they always do).
The Torah commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves and some (not all) commentators say that this means non-Jews as well as Jews. However, the Torah does not command us to love our enemies or the wicked. We are to ignore insults and pray that the wicked repent rather than die, but we are not required to love them or to be naive and place our lives in their hands. We are allowed to defend ourselves, with lethal force if necessary. Again, we do not value non-Jews less, but we care more about Jews with whom we share a common history and destiny, common values and culture. Jewish law regarding tzedaka (charity) mandates that we give first to anyone in life-threatening need, but then to other Jews, first family, then to the local community, then outward in widening circles. It’s not just that we know the needs of those close to us better than those far away, but that we owe those close to us our loyalty for the care they have shown us.
It is not that we don’t care about non-Jews. Rather, we believe it is naive to expect people to care about the “out group” as much as the “in group.” Moreover, it is through understanding our feelings towards our “in group” that we come to learn compassion towards the “out group,” through empathy, not through learning abstract philosophical rules like Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We learn from what we feel for our family, our community, our nation, what other people feel for their families, their communities, their nations.
When Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl was a student at Cambridge University during the sixties, he became more interested in Judaism as a result of the powerful identification of secular diaspora Jews with Israel before and during the Six Day War. This seemed to run counter to the universalist ethos of the era, as well as to the universalist and rationalist ethos of the philosophers he was studying, who were dismissive of ties of family, religion and nationality as superstitious relics of a bygone age. He sought answers in America, where he spent a summer speaking to as many prominent rabbis and Jewish theologians as he could.
The one who made the greatest impact on him was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Rabbi Sacks (or Jonathan Sacks, as he then was) spent Shabbat with the Lubavitch Hasidim in Brooklyn. Afterwards, he felt torn by inner conflict and wrote to the Rebbe for guidance. He was deeply moved by the piety and spirituality of Shabbat with the Hasidim, but he felt that he was being asked to abandon his interest in Western philosophy and culture if he wanted to become more religious.
The Rebbe responded with a parable: there were two men, one who was paid to carry sacks of diamonds and one who was paid to carry sacks of rocks. One day, they were both asked to carry a sack of rubies. To the man used to carrying diamonds, these were still precious stones, perhaps not as precious as diamonds, but still of great value. To the man used to carrying rocks, however, a sack of rubies was just another sack of rocks. So too, said the Rebbe, the more you understand and appreciate your own culture, the more you will be able to appreciate and understand other cultures.
The Rebbe didn’t say this, but I would add that by caring for our own families and communities, we learn to appreciate the similarities and the differences with others and to learn to love them too, not as much as we love those closest to us, but enough to live in peace.