Todd Berman
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The moral failure of refusing to condemn murder

The toxic mix of contextualizing terror, removing agency from terrorists, and demonizing settlers masks the cold-blooded murder of teenagers
Mourners carry the body of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb, who was killed by a bomb in a terror attack while visiting a spring near Dolev in the West Bank, during her funeral in the city of Lod on August 23, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP); inset: Rina Shnerb (Courtesy)
Mourners carry the body of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb, who was killed by a bomb in a terror attack while visiting a spring near Dolev in the West Bank, during her funeral in the city of Lod on August 23, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP); inset: Rina Shnerb (Courtesy)

The end of this summer was emotionally draining. Three terrorist attacks which injured or killed five teenagers left much of the country in a daze. Two of the attacks occurred close to my home. A yeshiva student, returning from shopping for a present for his teacher, was brutally stabbed to death. In another, a terrorist used his car as a battering ram to attack teens waiting at a bus stop. And in the last attack, Palestinian terrorists planted a bomb at a spring. All three instances share several elements in common: unsuspecting murderous cruelty aimed at young people engaged in peaceful activities. It is also true that all three attacks took place in Judea and Samaria.

Judaism views the preservation of life as one of the highest values. Regarding the warning of witnesses of capital crimes our rabbis taught, “in capital cases, the blood of [the victim [and all his future offspring hang upon you [the witnesses] until the end of time. For thus we find regarding Cain, who killed his brother, “The bloods of your brother scream out!” (Genesis 4:10) — the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring [screaming out]!” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) In the taking of life, the terrorist erases not only the victim but all future generations. Murder is an eternal crime as our rabbis continue, “for this reason man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world.”

Who cannot cry when hearing of the destroyed worlds of Rina Shnerb and Dvir Sorek? Rina had just celebrated her 17th birthday. Dvir was a soft-spoken yeshiva student who actively engaged in pursuing peace through dialogue. Rina died while on a hike with her father and brother who were also injured in the attack. Dvir was murdered carrying a book by celebrated Israeli author David Grossman. Grossman, well known as a peacenik whose son Uri had been killed in one of the last actions by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, eulogized Dvir.

Indeed, one is not surprised when hearing of the cheers coming from the likes of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Both groups dedicate themselves to the destruction of the Jewish state. Murder and terrorism are their chosen methods to pursue their religious and political ambitions of driving the Jews out of the land of Israel.

Yet, I was shocked and dismayed to hear hand-wringing and rationalizations coming from other sectors. In a tweet, supposedly not supported by the entire membership, the group IfNotNow directed a warning to Israel: “We are mourning the death of Rina Shnerb, who was only 17 years old. Our thoughts are with her friends and family. We’re not confused: the rightward drift of Israeli and US govts [sic] make the situation on the ground less safe for Israelis and Palestinians.” To be clear, Rina did not “die,” but rather was murdered. The main point of their message was that Israel and America’s political direction, and not the terrorists with blood-stained hands, is to blame.

Even more surprising was a lengthy Facebook post translated and published with permission by the webzine Jewschool where Tel-Aviv University’s Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi vocally explains his “silence”: “Why do I want to write and yet I am not able to? I asked myself this question often in the past few weeks and I think I understand now: because it demands lying. Plain and simple. Because you have to collude with the make-believe that there is no context, that everything is serendipitous, that there is no connection to the larger picture.” Admitting his lack of basic “human empathy,” he continues to place the blame on Israel. It is true, he protests that “we are not, of course, dealing in justifications (does one have to even say that?) but, rather, in understanding.”

Surely, every act has a context. Yet, I believe, Rosen-Zvi’s “understanding” in actuality is the flipside of justification. I am reminded of Michael Waltzer’s controversial essay in Dissent, “Can There Be A Decent Left” where he puzzles at the obtuseness of those who elide the difference between the terrorists of 9/11 and the US Army in Afghanistan. Waltzer, one of the great theorists of Just War Theory, accuses the Left of “[denying] one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing.” Here, in our “context,” it is hard to deny that the victims were murdered with clear intent by Palestinian terrorists.

The frame of his post, “Why are leftists quiet after terrorist attacks in the occupied territories,” seems to imply that he, at least, thinks he represents all leftist in this inability to “express simple, human empathy?” Yet, I, for one, am not sure how wide-spread his attitude is. I hope not very.

Where does this lack of empathy — or ability to express empathy originate? At first blush, one can see a twisted logic and misconstrued view of justice preventing them from seeing murder for what it is. Indeed, I think some spend so much time trying to locate their reactions on a contextual map that I fear they lose their moral compass. As Rabbi A. J. Heschel once remarked, “How often does justice lapse into cruelty and righteousness into hypocrisy?” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 343)

Seeing oneself as the sole judge of justice, an omniscient reader of the political and psychological landscape seems to blind one to the fundamental horror of terrorism. Rina and Dvir were brutally murdered in the prime of life by people who hate. (How much hatred does it take to stab another, unarmed, person, to death?) In the moral calculus of some, it doesn’t matter; murder is only murder when there is no greater context. However, there is always and in almost all situations a context: “the murderer was poor,” “he had a rough upbringing,” “he was indoctrinated,” etc. These “root causes” do not mitigate the crime and certainly do not ease the suffering of the victims, survivors, and their families. That most Palestinians do not resort to blowing up hikers or murdering unarmed civilians should be enough to demonstrate, even according to this twisted logic, that the terrorists are to blame. It should go without saying.

But there may be something much deeper going on here. In laying all or the bulk of the blame for terrorism on Israeli policy, I fear Rosen-Zvi and his enablers at Jewschool and in INN stumble into a classic moral failure: the racism of low expectations. By denying Palestinian terrorists their moral agency and being hobbled by “the greater context,” they remove the burden from the criminals themselves. Removing agency from the terrorists denies them their humanity.

Removing agency from the terrorists also allows such writers to place the blame where they want, on their real enemies — the settlers. A couple of years ago in an opinion piece in Haaretz, Sara Yael Hirschhorn spelled this out powerfully: “If You Can’t Say Israeli Settlers Are Civilians Too, You’re Propping Up Apologists for Terror: To those activists on the left and for Palestinian human rights who deny West Bank settlers can be terror victims: ‘Thou shalt not kill’ isn’t conditional.”

Through the toxic mixture of contextualizing terror, removing agency from the terrorists, and the demonization of settlers and the State of Israel, Rosen-Zvi and his friends have forced themselves to be silent and do so in a very loud and public manner. It seems to me, if one cannot unequivocally condemn the murder of innocent teenagers, then one has sacrificed a piece of one’s own humanity for a pocketful of political posturing and self-indulgent self-righteousness.

Perhaps, the professor of Talmud and his promoters would have done better to take another rabbinic maxim to heart. “Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.” (Avot 1:17) Sometimes it is better to say nothing than to insult the memories of the dead.

It is the month of Elul, when according to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and the whole world, prepare to be judged by The Judge. It is a time of introspection and personal growth. We hope and pray for a time of peace when terrorism is removed, and we can all live together in peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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