Yakir Englander

The Thin Line Between Laughter and Mockery – The Role of Humor in the Gaza War

The Book of Exodus describes how the Children of Israel cross through the Red Sea, then see the parted waters crash back, obliterating the Egyptian army. In response, the Israelites burst into a song of gratitude to the Divine, with graphic descriptions of the Egyptians’ defeat and death by drowning. Centuries later, the compilers of the Jewish cycle of daily prayer included this song in the morning service, thus emphasizing the importance of these descriptions in forging Jewish resilience.

Jewish tradition famously does not settle for simply reading the biblical text, but develops extensive interpretations allowing for new and deeper meanings. Jewish commentators, reading of the Exodus miracle and the Israelites’ song, decide to go further, describing what follows. They write, that not only did the Children of Israel begin their grateful song, but the angels of heaven sought also to sing, thanking the Divine for Israel’s redemption. According to the Talmud, the Divine rebuked the angels, with one of the most critical utterances in Jewish discourse: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs?” In other words – how can you want to sing, while I myself am mourning thousands of Egyptians, each of whom was the child of a human mother and father, each uniquely created in my own divine image?

This critical addition of the Talmud, with its meaning practically the inverse of the biblical text, prompts three insights. First, angels and human beings are not the same, and what is true for angels cannot be expected of humans. In an ideal world, it would be appropriate for the Israelites not to rejoice over the death of the Egyptians –  but to expect this is unrealistic. Secondly, when our enemies suffer harm, sometimes joy and laughter are permissible, but sometimes not. Lastly, the decision to include in Jewish daily prayer this song celebrating the death of the Egyptians teaches us, that it has a role in Jewish life. Certain utterances, for example, allow for a release of tension, replacing violent actions. Throughout history, wherever Jews have been victims of antisemitic abuse, they have sometimes used offensive expressions for their non-Jewish neighbors, allowing these feelings to remain in the verbal realm rather than escalating into violence. My grandfather, who survived Auschwitz but lost his entire family, including his infant son, during the Holocaust, used to curse the Germans and Poles, but he never considered physically harming any of them.

Not every harsh expression or mocking remark is permissible. As Jews and Americans, we are aware that sometimes an expression itself constitutes an act of violence. For example, offensive terms like the “N-word” or the “J-word” are forbidden, indicating that every expression and insult must be examined sensitively.

A recent article published in the New York Times criticizes IDF soldiers for resorting to humor while battling the Hamas in Gaza. The videos, uploaded by the soldiers themselves, show troops smoking a hookah before pressing a button to demolish structures and a tunnel, or a soldier expressing jubilation while operating a bulldozer to flatten buildings in Gaza. According to the NYT, beyond actual harm to Palestinian individuals and infrastructure, the Israeli soldiers’ attitude of humor or happiness proves that they are enjoying the process, mocking Palestinians, and thus acting immorally.

Since the beginning of this war, I have viewed hundreds of videos of soldiers from Gaza. In many of them, soldiers do in fact show excitement and humor. However, while the NYT article’s authors see this as moral recklessness, they overlook another aspect. Historically, humor has always played an important role in traumatic events like war. In this case, laughter allows brief moments of relief to soldiers in the midst of the absurd brutality of warfare. Documented evidence shows that Hamas fighters use mosques, hospitals and Palestinian civilians as shields, putting unusual stress on advancing Israeli troops, who risk their lives against an enemy who will spare no means to harm them. For the most part, Israel’s armed forces are uniquely comprised, not of career professionals, but of reservists from every walk of life, like the writer of these lines. The soldier next to you might be the rabbi of a synagogue, a yoga instructor, a postmistress or a kindergarten teacher. Humorous interludes let them all relax a bit, breathe, and remember that there is life outside of war.

Humor – as inappropriate as it may seem – also allows for release of tension in controlled ways, avoiding outbursts of violence that are against military ethics. I connect with the NYT article’s romantic view, that in a perfect world, every shot from a soldier’s weapon might be accompanied by regret at harming an enemy, each created in the image of the Divine. However, in human societies, those who must fight to defend the lives of their families and communities know that this is not realistic. IDF soldiers who were required to remember at every moment, that they might kill the imago dei in another, would ultimately be psychologically crippled, unable to achieve their objective – defending the citizens of the State of Israel.

Humor must, however, be strictly controlled on the battlefield. Just as it allows for the reduction of stress, it can also lead – when used in an immoral way – to violence beyond the bounds of the ethics of war, or – in Israeli terms – to a breach of the IDF’s ethical code. According to the terms of this code, IDF soldiers are permitted to harm the enemy under two conditions. The first is that the harm must be necessary to achieve the objective, meaning that the military mission cannot be accomplished without that specific action. For example, soldiers may sometimes need to break through a wall to enter a building where an enemy is positioned; once inside, however, they are not permitted to destroy a television set to vent their anger.

The second condition is that the harm must be proportional – meaning that, while the action may be necessary to achieve a military objective, it must not be executed at an unreasonable cost. For example, it is unconscionable for the military to target a single enemy combatant if it means harming numerous uninvolved civilians. Consequently, every officer in Gaza and each pilot tasked with aerial bombings must ensure that harm to uninvolved civilians is minimized.

Among the hundreds of videos I have seen, several, in my opinion, deviate from the IDF’s ethical code. For instance, one shows a soldier throwing a stun grenade (an ordinance designed to create noise without causing damage) into a Gaza mosque, to silence the muezzin call to prayer. This not only violated the sanctity of Muslim prayer, but also breached the principle of necessity in the IDF’s ethical code. Throwing the grenade was not needed to ensure the soldiers’ safety, as the prayer itself posed no threat. Fortunately, that soldier was identified and brought to military trial, which sent a clear message to other IDF troops.

In another video, a soldier of the IDF Corps of Engineers destroyed a mosque – an action the IDF deemed necessary because Hamas used it as a weapons cache and base of operations against the IDF. The Israeli soldier made use of the mosque’s PA system to loudly broadcast a Jewish prayer, which was heard in the entire neighborhood. He intended to encourage his fellow troops, and perhaps also hoped that the sound of the prayer might reach Israeli hostages imprisoned by Hamas in tunnels under Gaza. His act, however, gave the impression, that the IDF operation in Gaza is a Jewish struggle against Islam – which is false and contrary to reality. In this case, too, the soldier was identified and faced military justice.

In most videos I have reviewed, humor resorted to by IDF soldiers does not lead them to actions beyond what is permitted within the scope of the military mission, and certainly not to humiliation of Palestinians themselves. None of the videos in the NYT article show soldiers shooting at or mocking uninvolved civilians, or damaging property out of mere spite. Moreover, in many of these visual records, humorous or derogatory remarks are directed explicitly against Hamas fighters, not against Palestinians in general. This kind of humor is not to my personal taste. However, to demand that soldiers refrain totally from laughter during combat, seems unrealistic, however easy for someone sitting comfortably in New York, pondering which coffee to choose while writing an article. It also seems to me, that the authors of the article must have chosen not to include those ethically complex instances I have cited above, for a reason. Possibly they were aware, that the IDF dealt strictly with the officers and soldiers involved, an aspect that their article does not even mention. Thus, rather than a nuanced essay about the role and dangers of humor during wartime, we receive a piece that is simplistic and one-dimensional. Readers familiar with the conflict’s complexities will understandably conclude, that the New York Times is again choosing an uncritically negative view of Israel, making it more difficult for us to look to this source as a journalistic space of learning for all.

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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