My letter To Rabbi Michael Harris – Israeli action over Gaza violence

Dear Rabbi Dr Harris,

Thank you so much for your response to my critique of your ‘Israeli response to the Gaza border violence’ sermon.

Over Shabbat, a number of people discussed with me what we both wrote and indeed it is only a positive thing that we all care as we do about Israel that makes us want to debate and express our views.

I totally agree with you that war and death of innocent civilians is bad, we want Israel to have a good image on the PR front and yes, when non-Jews see Israel and the Jewish people negatively, it’s not good.

We are all on the same side – We love Israel and pray for peace wherever we live. Yes, you did say clearly, that Israel had a right to act as they did over the Gaza border violence a few weeks ago.

However, both in your sermon and response to my critique you were not purely presenting theoretical moral theory or ideals but were referring to and reflecting on Israeli action in the recent Gaza border violence and that is where I still don’t understand some of the points you made, as I discuss here.

The purpose of me writing this blog, is for you to be able to explain and clarify what you wrote.

(The black bold statements and phrases below are direct quotes from your sermon and response to my critique)

1.‘We will not give up either on our love for Israel or on the finest ethical teachings of our faith’

There can be nothing more moral, than Israeli soldiers risking their lives to defending us against terror. Standing up to terrorists, saving life and having to take the necessary action to stop them is the ethical thing to do. Israel is at the forefront of the world war on terror and Tzahal has a moral responsibility to defend us against terrorists who wish to kill, maim and kidnap us. 40,000 armed rioters and terrorists attacked our border at 5 points and only 10 innocent civilians (tragically) were killed.

The Hamas terrorists and their followers were clearly warned and were aware of what would happen if they tried to infiltrate the border. Doesn’t that show you how moral our army is. How many other armies in the world would be able to succeed in minimizing innocent death as Tzahal does?

If this is the case, why did you write, ‘We will not give up either on our love for Israel or on the finest ethical teachings of our faith’. What actions are you specifically referring to which seem to contravene the, ‘finest ethical teachings of our faith’? You are raising, in your words, ‘ethical issues’ – Is that because you have a ethical problem with what in reality Israel had to do? Don’t you think the Israeli army lives up to your ethical standards?

2)’ Death on the Palestinian side of the conflict that are brought about even through legitimate self-defence deepen hatred and enmity and move the goal of peace which we desperately need to attain for our own people further away.’

’With regards to you saying the Gaza violence was bad for Middle East peace. I totally disagree. We are not making peace with Hamas. They have nothing to do with the peace process. Hamas is recognized internationally by the EU, US, as well as by the Arab states, as a terror organisation who want to kill Israelis and if they could destroy Israel.

We were forced to take action to stop them. Dealing with terror organisations like Hamas, has nothing to do with the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. In fact, quite the opposite is true, Hamas are an obstacle to peace. By dealing with them, Israel is bringing peace closer.

3) ‘Thirdly and most importantly: when Jews have to kill even enemies and even in self-defence, that is a bad week, not a glorious or a good one.’

With regards to not rejoicing the failure and death of our enemy. True that the emphasize in the narrative of Jewish History is that we celebrate salvation and praise G-d for it.

However, look at Purim and Pesach. Certainly, we do remember our enemies falling and celebrate them being killed too. Do you think that is bad? The Gemarah in Megillah clearly says the Jewish People (unlike the angels) celebrated and rejoiced at the Egyptians drowning. Why did the angels not rejoice and Moshe and Bnei Yisrael did?

Because the angels lives were not in danger. Moshe and Bnei Yisrael were human beings and their lives were at risk and therefore they had every right to rejoice at their enemy falling.

Furthermore, the Gemarah in Megillah relates Mordechi celebrated Haman’s death – Why? Because Mordechi’s life had been in immediate danger and therefore he had every right to rejoice – Was Moshe/ Bnei Yisrael or Mordechi rejoicing their enemy being killed a bad thing? I don’t think so. It was perfectly natural and the right thing to do. Do you see that approach as morally and ethically problematic?

What about many of our tehilim where we praise G-d and celebrate our enemies falling – Are you saying these tehilim are bad and dangerous for our ethical and moral standards?

I think it’s a good thing that when our enemies who wanted to kill us fall and that is certainly something to celebrate. This is a totally natural, human and justified reaction. What’s your point??

When Adolf Eichman was caught by the Mossad and brought to trial in 1960, did the Jewish People not have a right to celebrate? Of course we did!! Do you feel there was an ethical problem with this??

4) What ethical issues are you talking about when fighting a terror organization like Hamas? In your sermon you wrote up on facebook, you refer to, ‘difficult and controversial issues’ – What are you referring to ? You say, ‘my community is entitled to hear my religious perspective on this difficult subject, for what is worth, so I will not shy away from it’. What are you talking about??

When you are defending yourself and your people against Hamas wanting to carry out carnage, killing and kidnappings, what’s so ‘difficult and controversial’ ( in your words) about the action the Israeli army took?

You write, ‘ That is the beauty and subtlety and richness of the Torah, a Torah which refuses to see complex issues in a one-dimensional way’ . Again, what are you talking about in this context  of Israel defending itself against an attempt of Hamas infiltrating our border and carrying out carnage and terror? What complexity are you referring to? Since when is believing we have a right to defend ourselves against terror simplistic and ‘one-dimensional’ . The Torah is VERY clear as what to do when your life is being threatened by an enemy. What’s your point??

You write, ‘Morality and the sanctity of human life exist even when performing the mitzvah of self-defence. They always come into the equation.’ Why are you saying that in this specific context of the Israeli action on the Gaza border? Are you implying that you feel there were ethical and moral problems with the actions of Tzahal? According to Halacha, when you are stopping Hamas terrorists who want to kill you, then the only objective is defending yourself and your borders, not ‘morality or the sanctity of human life.’

Furthermore, you write, ‘Because the sanctity of all human life is a supreme value of the Torah.’ Yes, it is. But in defending yourself and your country against Hamas terrorists which is the context in which you are writing, self defense and protecting human life on your side, is the supreme value of the Torah.

I disagree with you. According to Halacha, when fighting terrorists, the ‘sanctity of human life’ of the enemy who openly want to kill, maim and kidnap doesn’t come into the equation. The ultimate ethical act, is to stop the terrorists. The Gemarah in Sanhedrin clearly says, one can act in self-defense and if someone is threatening to kill you, you can kill them. ‘Morality and the sanctity of human life’ doesn’t come into it when your life and that of your country you are defending is in immediate danger. It’s very simple – You defend your border, or they will kill or kidnap you as they are trying to do on a daily basis at the moment. What’s your point??

Clearly, we are in a continual milchemet mitzvah against Hamas. Just this morning they fired a barrage of missiles on children on their way to nursery school. In practical terms, we have no choice but to fight and win. Was the fact that Tzahal managed to secure our borders with just minimal casualties a good thing? Of course – Yes . Does the fact they did so damage us morally or ethically? No – Why on earth should it have?

As long as Israel follows the Halachot of war and the rules of engagement which they do, scrupulously, that’s all we need to worry about.

In Halacha where ‘morality and the sanctity of human life’ would be relevant is for instance where your life wasn’t in immediate danger. An example being with a neutralized terrorist, where yes, it is forbidden to take action and you need to respect the sanctity of human life.

5) With regards to Israel’s image and not looking bad in the eyes of the non-Jews. Yes, it’s sad that Israel took such a battering on social media over the Gaza violence.  You wrote,’ So if Israel acts in legitimate self-defence but is made to look as if it isn’t, that is a bad week’. Again, the reality is, as you agreed, the Israel army had to act how it did in self-defense and as ever there are consequences we have to deal with. But, what other choice was there? I work in hasbara and have seen the types of captions that have been posted on social media criticizing Israel. The anti-Israel reaction on social media was pure antisemitism and something we can’t take into consideration when acting in self-defense.

6) You wrote,’ Of course defending oneself against terror is not a chilul HaShem. My point was simply that the existence of the concept of chilul HaShem entails that it is important what decent non-Jews think about Israel’s actions, and that it should therefore be a cause of sadness when they think, even incorrectly, that we are acting unethically.’ Yes, I agree 100% that Chilul Hashem isn’t good, but, practically Israel can’t afford to take that into account when defending itself against terror. Again, I really don’t think when fighting terror, that we need to worry too much about what the BBC or New York Times are saying about us. Israel acting in self defense can’t be influenced by antisemites and those who wish to delegitimize our right to live here.

So again, like the image point above, what the non-Jews will think is not a significant factor when you have to defend your country against an imminent and real threat of mass terror as was the case in the situation your are referring to by the Gaza border.

If Israel took into account what the antisemitic and anti-Israel media and press would report and say before we defended ourselves against terror and our enemies, Israel would probably not exist.

My own question I would like to finish with – Should Rabbis in the Diaspora be writing on Facebook, concerning ethical issues in connection with the actions of the Israeli army? Is a well-respected Orthodox Rabbi giving ammunition to those who wish to attack Israel on social media and in the press a wise or responsible way to behave? Don’t you think that associating Israel’s actions with being,’ difficult and controversial’  and saying things like , ‘deaths on the Palestinian side of the conflict that are brought about even through legitimate self-defense deepen hatred and enmity and move the goal of peace which we desperately need to attain for our own people further away’ when Israel is anyway taking such a battering at the UN and in the media, is ill advised and just adds fuel to the fire and creates damage and more Chilul Hashem than anything else? After all, those against Israel will certainly say, ‘If their Rabbis are saying that about the action of the Israeli army then we must be right…’

Just my thoughts…

Bivracha,

Benjy Singer.

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About the Author
Benjy Singer works in social media, content writing and editing. He runs a popular online community, IsraelB.org, which is a very useful resource, especially for Olim. A graduate of the LSE, UCL and Yeshivat Har Etzion, Benjy enjoys writing, teaching and connecting people.
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