Vengeance is an un-Jewish response

The tragic kidnapping of three young Israelis has shaken Israeli society. It has left us feeling shocked, hurt, angry and fragile. The whole country is now focused on how these three much loved sons of Israel can be rescued and returned home.

The concern of Jews and our friends around the world has been moving. Accompanying the supreme efforts being made by our diplomats and the army, magnificent displays of solidarity and uplifting prayer services have taken place around the world. Even the supportive messages emanating from Mohammad Zoabi, a young Israeli Arab living in Nazareth have caught the public’s attention generating respect and admiration.

But Social Media have also exhibited disturbing responses including hysterical calls for collective punishment and vengeance. One contact of mine complained that Israel is far too fearful of international opinion. “Why haven’t we cut of their (the Palestinian) water supply yet?” she posted, suggesting that we “shut off electricity, lock them in, and take away aid, no work permits. No help in our hospitals. . .” Similar proposals were made in an online petition which has so far garnered more than 87,000 signatures.

It’s hard to engage in meaningful discussion at such an emotive time, but when such vengeful calls are being made, other points of view must be heard. We must discuss the issues and act as rationally as possible drawing upon our Jewish sources for insight and instruction.

After the first Intifada, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva, published a book of halakhic responses that he had given to dilemmas involving interaction with Palestinian civilians and fighters. Amongst the responsa, he discusses whether it is appropriate to punish all the inhabitants of villages from which individuals have hurled stones.

Rabbi Aviner notes that the Bible is full of examples where the possibility of collective punishment is raised and rejected. Most famously, Abraham challenges God’s plan to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which appears to involve the undiscriminating massacre of the righteous with the wicked. In a devastating call for justice, Abraham cries out “Will the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18:28)

Moses too, repeatedly stays God’s hand preventing him from wiping out the entire nation when segments of it have sinned. This occurs during Korach’s conspiracy against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As God prepares to wipe out the whole nation, Moses responds “When one person sins, will you be angry with the whole congregation?” (Numbers 16: 25)

Drawing on further Biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic responsa, Rabbi Aviner rules that in peace time, “It is definitely forbidden to punish a person who has no crime on his hands simply because he belongs to the same nation or the same village as murderers.”

War complicates matters. Sometimes, it is hard to distinguish between warriors and bystanders, especially when in modern combat against terrorists who do not necessarily don uniforms making them indistinguishable from the civilian population amongst whom they hide. Rabbi Aviner cites the example of King Saul who begged an innocent local tribe to leave the battlefield to protect them from his attacks on the Amalekites. The king was doing all that he could to avoid “innocent collateral damage”. (I Samuel 15: 6)

Our problem becomes knottier when civilians may be acting as accomplices to terrorists. Rabbi Aviner states that where family members and villagers know that a neighbor is throwing stones at Israelis, they have a duty to report it. Failure to do so should carry consequences, albeit not as severe as the punishments meted out to the stone-throwers themselves.

So while Israel must defend its citizens, it must do everything in its power to avoid treating every innocent Palestinian as a criminal. In Yehuda Mirsky’s new biography of Rav Kook, he relates how Meir Berlin, a leading religious Zionist and son of the revered rabbi, the Netziv, published a newspaper article in which he consistently referred to Arabs as “the enemy.” Rav Kook told him to desist from this language, “whose benefit is zero and damage incalculable.” Instead, he urged him wherever possible “to promote the paths of peace and brotherhood.”

Israeli troops are now combing Hebron to rescue the boys. However decently their search is carried out, the closure of cities and the incursion into Palestinian homes will inevitably cause significant disruption and discomfort to innocent people living in the vicinity.

For every civilized human being, this suffering, however necessary, should be a source of profound regret, rather than an unseemly display of vengefulness and gloating.

About the Author
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste
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