Martin J. Levine

The Paradox

There is an old story about the rabbi who is asked to settle a dispute. After hearing the first party’s argument, the rabbi says, “You’re right.” Then he hears the other party’s argument and responds, “You’re right, too.” A third party says, “But Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The rabbi thinks a minute and then says, “You’re also right.”

I know this story has been used many times. It was used in Fiddler on the Roof and it has been used before with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but I feel the need to use it here because I think it raises a question that we need to deal with.

Hamas and others have aggressed against Israel and it has the right to defend itself. Israel seems to have tried to use restraint and to minimize civilian casualties in its response to the attacks. Hamas has set up the situation in such a way to make it nearly impossible for Israel to attack military targets without killing non-combatants and destroying their homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals. It is also true that Israel has been agreeing to cease-fires that Hamas has rejected. And yet, I can’t get away from the idea that Israel still bears some responsibility for the death of innocents and the destruction of their property.

How can Israel be responsible and at the same time not responsible? It’s a paradox. But we Jews have set ourselves the task of dealing with such paradoxes. How can a God who is all-powerful and all-good allow the Holocaust to happen? We don’t shy away from such paradoxes. We confront them head on. That is part of the reason there is a Talmud.

When you get behind the wheel of your car to go to the grocery store, you don’t intend to kill anyone, but, through recklessness or sheer bad luck, it is possible that you will do so. Simply getting behind the wheel of a machine you know is capable of dealing death incurs a certain level of responsibility, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive to the grocery store. It does mean that you should recognize the responsibility and take it into account when you plan your actions. Maybe there is a better time to make that trip to the grocery store, when you’re less tired, less stressed, less angry. This is only an example, not a specific suggestion as to how to deal with Gaza, which is a very different situation.

While I have friends who resist any criticism of Israel, I have others who feel that Israel’s actions in Gaza are criminal. These are not bad people. They’re not anti-Semites. They don’t hate anyone. They just feel terrible for the innocent Palestinians. So do I.

In the Star Trek movies, prospective Star Fleet officers are asked to deal with the Kobayashi Maru exercise, a scenario where they are asked to save a space ship in enemy territory. There is no way to get through the exercise without getting the endangered space ship, their own, or both destroyed. The only solution is to change the rules of the exercise.

Perhaps it is time to change the rules of the engagement with Hamas. In the movie The Gatekeepers, former Shin Bet Director Ami Ayalon quotes Carl von Clausewitz to the effect that victory is measured by whether the situation after your actions is better than the situation before. Israel’s right to defend itself doesn’t dictate what strategies and tactics it employs to do so. It needs to consider whether those strategies and tactics are serving its own interests.

One of the factors Israel should not consider is whether its actions will allow Hamas to declare victory. Hamas will declare victory regardless of the outcome. The same cannot be said of the Palestinian moderates: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and the PLO. They badly need a victory to hold on to any popular support that remains to them and Israel has too often withheld that victory from them. When the moderates cannot show that their policy of non-violence and negotiation has made the Palestinians’ lives better, it leads some Palestinians to question the effectiveness of that policy.

There will always be terrorists and extremists, just as there will always be those staunchly dedicated to peace and order. However, there is another group whose members’ sympathies are pulled back and forth between the first two groups. That group is the real, political battleground where the war for Israel’s survival will be won or lost. The only thing that will ultimately win the sympathies of that group among the Palestinians is a Palestinian state, and that state, living in peace, prosperity, and security, alongside an Israel that also lives in peace, prosperity, and security, must be Israel’s ultimate goal when it chooses its strategies and tactics.

About the Author
Martin J. Levine is a volunteer leader at J Street, serving on the Steering Committee of its New Jersey chapter.