The year was 1961, and President Kennedy was still basking in the adulation that often accompanies a president during his first one hundred days. That adulation was soon tested when Kennedy gave the green light to an ill-fated operation cooked up by the CIA during the Eisenhower administration to invade Cuba by landing 1400 Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, which, combined with air strikes against Cuban air bases and a second, smaller invasion on the other side of the island, would supposedly foment a popular revolution, leading to the ouster of the Castro regime. The operation failed miserably: 1200 of the exiles were captured and imprisoned, 100 were killed, the Cuban population did not revolt, and Castro appeared even more entrenched after the invasion than before. The White House responded four days after the April 17th operation by releasing a statement which said, in part, “President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as President he bears sole responsibility… The President is strongly opposed to anyone within or without the administration attempting to shift the responsibility.”
Kennedy was echoing the thinking of his Democratic predecessor, Harry Truman, who famously kept a sign on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here” (although, in the interest of historical accuracy, Truman actually didn’t keep his sign in the Oval Office for very long). It did not matter, in other words, that Kennedy merely signed off on an existing plan that had been approved by President Eisenhower and that was backed by the CIA; what mattered is that he was the President, and all credit and blame rightly attached themselves to him. That’s simply how responsibility works.
In the days and weeks following the October 7th massacre, it has become a pathetic, running joke to count the days until Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepts any responsibility for what occurred that day, as well as during the weeks, months, and years leading up to it. When asked about assuming responsibility, Netanyahu always responds that there will be time for that later; now is the time to unite to win the war. While he is certainly right about the need for victory and national unity, his refusal to accept responsibility is absurd – an excuse to avoid taking blame and forthrightly dealing with accusations of bad policymaking, ignoring intelligence, widening societal divisions that were capitalized upon by Hamas, and more. Asserting that assigning blame must wait until later is clearly a way to avoid dealing with the issue of responsibility at all.
Something obviously went very wrong under the current government. What that was, exactly, will require the research of an independent commission of inquiry; jumping to conclusions today is both premature and foolhardy. Nonetheless, that fact should not preclude the Prime Minister’s simple admission that the Hamas invasion happened under his watch, and for that reason he is responsible by definition. To put it differently: if the buck stops with the Prime Minister, then Netanyahu must take the blame. If the buck does not stop with the Prime Minister, then Netanyahu is a Prime Minister in name only and deserves to be removed forthwith. I don’t see a realistic third option.
Some people will argue that national unity demands that we give the current government a pass until such time as we have the luxury to debate politics again. But that ignores the fact that the Israeli public deserves to have the current war against Hamas prosecuted by people who are most qualified to do so; and avoiding all discussion of responsibility is effectively withholding important information from the body politic. Moreover, experience has shown that any delay in assigning blame generally serves to help those who would likely be blamed: wait until the outrage subsides, delay so that there is time to shape the narrative to their advantage, and hope that new crises and human forgetfulness combine to relegate the ultimate assigning of blame to an easily ignored footnote.
Few Israelis can forget the Meron disaster of 2021, when 45 people were killed and 150 injured in a crowd crush that had been predicted for years by the state comptroller and the police. Despite the site’s obvious structural flaws and the massive crowds, politicians from the Chareidi parties pressured officials not to limit the number of people who would be allowed to attend. The public declarations of these Members of Knesset are on the public record; yet not one of them took responsibility, not one lost a Knesset seat as a consequence, and not one of them was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter, or anything else. Waiting until later to take responsibility is a secret sauce for political survival, even as it is a blatant violation of fundamental Jewish values.
We need look no further than Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance (2:5):
It is very praiseworthy for the one repenting that he confess in public and inform his wrongdoing to people, revealing his interpersonal misdeeds to others, saying, “Indeed, I sinned to so-and-so and did the following to him, and from today I repent and regret what I did.” Anyone who is arrogant and does not reveal, but instead hides his sins – his repentance is not complete.
In modern political terms, Jewish values demand that we take responsibility for what we have done; and if the misdeed involved other people rather than God, we need to assume responsibility in public.
There is another example of neglected responsibility that I hesitate to mention, but I nonetheless feel must be called out.
It is well established that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities generally avoid serving in the Israeli army. Their justification is often primarily theological: namely, that some Torah sources indicate that Torah study protects the country as much or more than the army protects it. For this reason, young men help the country by learning Torah in yeshivot, rather than by fighting on the front lines.
I think that this argument is flawed for numerous reasons which lie beyond the scope of this article. Still, let’s work with the assumption that the Chareidi position is valid, and that a population of hundreds of thousands of individuals learning Torah is an essential part of Israel’s security. According to this logic, the success or failure of the army is at least somewhat – and likely more than somewhat – proportional to the quality and quantity of learning taking place in the yeshivot. If that is not accurate, then their argument for military exemptions makes no sense.
This attitude was stated explicitly in a local ultra-Orthodox newspaper here in Beit Shemesh during Operation Cast Lead, which Israel fought against Hamas in 2014. While there were sirens in Beit Shemesh over the course of the 51-day conflict, no one in the city was killed as a result. The newspaper noted that because of the intensity of the fighting near the Gaza border, a yeshiva had moved temporarily to Beit Shemesh until the conflict had ended. The newspaper confidently asserted that the learning in that yeshiva was “the real Iron Dome of the city,” and was the reason that Beit Shemesh did not materially suffer from Hamas rockets.
Of course, the selfishness implicit in this story is almost astounding. If those learning in the yeshiva believed that their study was assisting the city in which they resided – which is a reasonable conclusion from Yerushalmi Chagiga 6b – then how dare they leave an area which actually needed their protection, decamping for relatively quiet Beit Shemesh which was doing quite well before they arrived? On the other hand, if they didn’t believe that their learning was helping the local area, then what, exactly, was their excuse for continuing to learn while others were risking and losing their lives on the battlefield?
But again, I am willing to assume that many members of the Chareidi world believe that their Torah study directly impacts Israel’s military successes and failures. That means that if Israel is currently winning its war against Hamas – and we pray to God that this is accurate – then, at least according to the Chareidi weltanschauung, they deserve a share of the credit for that success.
The corollary to this, of course, is that the massive failure on October 7th is not merely the fault of the security establishment and the current government, but also the fault of the people whose learning is ostensibly protecting the country. If people who learn deserve exemptions from military service based on the assumption that their learning has a tangible, this-worldly effect on Israel’s security, then they also deserve blame when Israel suffers a security breakdown. You can’t have it both ways: you’re either responsible for the good and the bad, or you’re responsible for neither. And I certainly have not heard a mea culpa coming from those whose Torah, by their own admission, must have been faulty.
When we begin doing our collective soul searching to see what changes are necessary moving forward, let’s make sure to recall those who abdicated responsibility in Israel’s hour of need. Let’s make sure that those who assume responsibility bear the consequences of that responsibility, whether it paints them as heroes or as villains. If they feel that this portrayal is unfair, then perhaps they never should have publicly taken on that responsibility in the first place.