Self-defence shouldn’t be fun

My mobile ’phone is on 24 hours a day at the moment, because the youth movement I work for has 40 chanichim on Israel Tour and at any time I might receive a call with an emergency update from them. That’s entirely normal, because every year a few Tourniks sustain minor injuries, dehydration and viruses.

But this year there’s the added threat of rocket attacks from Hamas.

The Israeli government is fond of saying – and they’re absolutely right – that no other country would be expected to tolerate such a situation. ‘Operation Protective Edge’ is the latest series of air strikes against Gaza intended to quell the hail of rockets.

Photo credit: CC-BY eddiedangerous, Flickr
The puzzle of peace in the Middle East (photo credit: CC-BY eddiedangerous, Flickr)

It is a classic example of self-defence: Israel has to prevent rockets being fired at its civilian population, and the only way of achieving that is to take out Hamas.

But self-defence shouldn’t be fun. Being in a situation where self-defence is the only option is not anything to be proud of.

If someone finds themselves in the unfortunate position where they have no choice but to kill other human beings – terrorists or otherwise – how should they feel? Sad, is the answer. Regretful. Perhaps even heartbroken. I’m not saying they shouldn’t kill terrorists to prevent further civilian casualties; just that they shouldn’t enjoy it.

Judaism is a life-affirming religion. We spill wine to remember the Egyptian firstborn, and the Talmud tells us that when their fathers were drowning in the Red Sea, God told the angels not to celebrate: “My people are perishing, and you would sing and dance?”

There is a lot of singing and dancing going on at the moment. “Hamas say they love death, so our interests are aligned!” gleefully tweeted one person, along with a picture of the IDF logo above the text: “F*cking the Arabs’ sh*t up since 1948” – but at least the apostrophe was in the right place, eh.

Another person posts a photo of Israeli tanks with the caption, “Hamas: I did tell you not to p*ss Israel off!”

Now to be fair, if God struggled to control the angels in Heaven, controlling social media would be a gargantuan task! But as humans who are part of a religion which prides itself on its ethics, we are supposed to exercise some measure of self-control.

Belligerent agitation along the lines of ‘go get ’em’ should be no part of a defensive war. The object of a defensive war is, plainly, to defend. And while there is no question in my mind that Israel isnow in a position where it has no choice but to use violence in self-defence, to be a just war – rather than merely a justified war – there is an additional criterion.

That is “right intention”. It is not enough that the war is necessary for achieving the object of self-defence. It must be waged for that purpose and for that purpose alone.

Bloodlust, rabble-rousing and a desire to ‘f*ck Arabs’ sh*t up’ are considerations that have no place in self-defence. “Peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence,” in the words of Tomas Aquinas.

The BBC website (yes, I read the BBC website) rather neatly summed up the current skirmish thus: “It took seven days for the war that no-one seemed to want to become the war that no-one seems to know how to stop.”

An important element to knowing how to stop it is wanting to stop it. Hamas don’t especially want to stop it because they’re a terrorist organisation so rocket fire is the sort of thing one would expect them to enjoy.

Israel, though, is a democratic state with a parliament and a religion that forms the basis of civilisation’s moral code. Its supporters are right to uphold its right to exist and they are right to uphold its right to self-defence – and, incidentally, right to stress the importance of taking every conceivable step to avoid harming innocent people, and I’m genuinely pleased that most seem to be doing that.

But I wish some of said supporters could look a little less like they’re having the time of their lives while fellow human beings are meeting their deaths. Even if those fellow human beings are also killers and terrorists.

Israel has every right to defend itself and, with my chanichim and friends and family there, I hope and pray that it will be successful.

But it could do so just as successfully without the rest of the world bloodthirstily egging it on.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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