The eth­i­cal de­fence to Is­rael’s ac­tions in Gaza

Our tra­di­tion does not glory in war but sanc­tions it when faced with lethal threats


EAR­LIER THIS month the Unite union passed a res­o­lu­tion de­nounc­ing Is­rael as an apartheid regime, sup­port­ing boy­cotts against it and ac­cus­ing it of “feel­ing able to com­mit war crimes with com­plete im­punity”. When Is­rael launched its lat­est op­er­a­tion in Gaza, the union is­sued a state­ment to “un­re­servedly con­demn the con­tin­u­ing Is­raeli ag­gres­sion against the Pales­tinian peo­ple”. This sav­aging of Is­rael by Bri­tain’s largest trade union is deeply dis­turb­ing. It fol­lows days of dis­tress­ing im­ages of the aw­ful civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in the Gaza strip screened around the clock in the Bri­tish me­dia.

Is­raelis too are ex­posed to many of these im­ages. Here too they cause great an­guish and soul search­ing. At the heart of Jewish be­lief lies the idea that ev­ery hu­man be­ing is cre­ated in the divine im­age, ev­ery per­son is of in­fi­nite value and no in­no­cent hu­man be­ing should suf­fer. The sho­far blown on Rosh Hashanah echoes the sound of the weep­ing of a mother for her son Sis­era, the mor­tal en­emy of the Jewish peo­ple who was killed as he fled the bat­tle­field.

But for most of us now, the fo­cus is dif­fer­ent. As mis­siles are fired daily at Is­rael’s ma­jor cities, our pri­or­ity is pro­tect­ing our chil­dren and el­derly rel­a­tives who strug­gle to reach the safety of an air-raid shel­ter in the few sec­onds be­tween the wail of the siren and the po­ten­tially lethal at­tack.

Mean­while, our chil­dren are sent to the front. In Jewish tra­di­tion, a war fought to pro­tect Is­rael from an en­emy at­tacks is just. Jewish sol­diers serv­ing in a just war must bat­tle and kill ac­cord­ing to the nor­mal rules of com­bat. Were the same sol­diers to fight an un­just war, they would not only miss out on the heroic ac­claim, they would ac­tu­ally be mur­der­ers.

This fear that par­tic­i­pa­tion in war might sully one’s hu­man­ity and spir­i­tu­al­ity is, ac­cord­ing to our bi­b­li­cal com­men­ta­tors, a theme in the lives of our an­ces­tors. Ja­cob, for ex­am­ple, while await­ing a show­down with his belligerent brother Esau, spent the night in fear and ter­ror — fear, say the rab­bis, that he would be killed and ter­ror that he would be forced to take the life of his own brother.

Ja­cob made peace with his brother and seems to have got away un­blem­ished from the ex­pe­ri­ence. King David was not so lucky. While lauded as our great­est king, he still paid the price for his mil­i­tary prow­ess when he was barred from build­ing the Tem­ple be­cause he had shed too much blood.

Others took a more cau­tious ap­proach. Moses, our great­est leader and prophet, was so gen­tle that when he re­ceived the divine com­mand to at­tack Si­hon, one of Is­rael’s most de­tested en­e­mies, he took it on him­self to over­ride God’s in­struc­tions and pre-empt the at­tack with an of­fer of peace. Ac­cord­ing to the Midrash, God was so touched by this hu­man­i­tar­ian act, that he en­shrined the prin­ci­ple within ha­lachah; a Jewish army may never go out to war with­out first su­ing for peace (Bemid­bar Rab­bah 19: 33).

This cau­tion is not just a mat­ter of su­per-piety, but a sen­si­ble act of prag­ma­tism. Com­ment­ing on the many pre­cau­tions the To­rah de­mands to pro­tect in­no­cent civil­ians and en­sure the pu­rity of a mil­i­tary camp, the Ram­ban warns that the chaos of war cre­ates the po­ten­tial for any soldier to lose con­trol: “The fairest of men by na­ture comes to be pos­sessed of cru­elty and fury when the army ad­vances against the en­emy” . These laws, he sug­gests, not only to help save lives, but also to teach Jewish sol­diers the im­por­tance of com­pas­sion, even for our en­e­mies.

While Jewish sol­diers have moral du­ties to our en­e­mies, a Jewish govern­ment also has re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to its home front. This rests on a fun­da­men­tal bi­b­li­cal prin­ci­ple of self-de­fence: “If some­one is ap­proach­ing to kill you, then get up and kill them first” (Ex­o­dus 22:1). If this seems harsh, the rab­bis rea­soned that fail­ure to deal with a lethal at­tacker would only re­sult in fu­ture ca­su­al­ties — “One who is mer­ci­ful to the cruel will end up be­ing cruel to the mer­ci­ful”.

With a daily bar­rage of ever more ad­vanced mis­siles fly­ing in from Gaza, most Is­raelis feel that fail­ure to knock out these rock­ets will lead to fur­ther fa­tal­i­ties.

Is­rael was es­tab­lished on the ba­sis of equal­ity and free­dom for all its ci­ti­zens; we must en­sure our govern­ment un­ceas­ingly pur­sues those goals and the search for peace. That is dif­fi­cult when our ci­ti­zens face an en­emy fu­elled by re­li­gious fer­vour which has no will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise. But our tra­di­tion as­sures us that even­tu­ally peace will come.

Is­rael’s con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans is com­plex and needs to be peace­fully re­solved as soon as pos­si­ble, giv­ing se­cu­rity, jus­tice and free­dom to all. That cause is not served by vi­cious at­tacks on Is­rael and un­fair pre­sen­ta­tions of the con­flict by mis­in­formed trade union­ists or jour­nal­ists hun­gry for their next scoop.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Syn­a­gogue’s Is­rael Rabbi

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