Jewish Thoughts on Israel’s Moral Failures in Gaza

March 23, 2009

The repercussions of these reports from the Israeli army are, on a more universal perspective, fairly clear. It is, as Michael Weiss puts it, “demoralizing” to Israel’s supporters. So forgive me if I come at it from a much more particularly Jewish perspective.Let’s begin with this: there is no right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel. There are duties that Jews can perform best in Diaspora, duties that can only be performed in Israel, and duties that can only be performed by a Jewish state in Israel.  There is a need, for the fulfilment of earthly duties as a Jewish people, to exist at some point within a Jewish state in Israel.  But the Diaspora, or so the tradition goes, began because of failures on the part of the Jewish people within Israel. That is, we as Jews must be deserving – must live our lives in sufficiently holy ways so as to be deserving – of the chance to perform our duties and obligations as Jews leading a Jewish state in Israel.

This isn’t a call for perfection. Perfection isn’t a possibility within history. It is the simple statement that Jews – as Jews and especially as Jews in Israel – have an obligation to lead lives that strive toward holiness – which is demanded by the Covenant (which ought to merit a discussion itself, as the most terrifying part of Judaism).

Central to all this talk of “holiness” and “hallowing” (there is a reason for the preponderance of variations on the qof-dalet-shin root in prayer) is an understanding of the sanctity of a single human life. The world was created for no man individually but every man in particular. Not for the collective, but for the whole, individually. And that is why to save a life is as to save all Creation; to destroy a life as to destroy all Creation. And why the Sabbath may be broken to save a life, though the Sabbath is the holiest of days; its rules superceding the rules and rituals of all others.

Which is why, even without the reports out of Gaza, I would be concerned to see this opinion from the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Army:

“He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.”

It demonstrates an obsessive, exclusionist misreading of the concept of “Chosenness”: his would have it that Jews only have true obligations to other Jews and to G-d. Which is, suffice it to say, ridiculous – and borderline racist. He forgets the purpose of the Covenant: not that Jews alone might be “saved” and have some sort of millennial/eternal party with the divine, but (as the Aleinu, a prayer I suppose he recites at least as often as I do) has it (and has had it for about a thousand years): that, in the end, when “the words of the prophet are fulfilled” all will be united in love and worship of, and service to, G-d.  And considering that, it is utterly irresponsible – and hardly Jewish – theology to assert that there is a difference in sanctity between a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one. Though the nature of how that life is lived may differ, the sacredness of all human life is equal. There can be no difference in the sanctity of a Jewish life and a non-Jewish one.

So when you can read reports like these, published in Israel’s major daily

” ‘And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way,’ he [an Israeli squad leader] said.


“[‘Another squad leader from the same brigade’] said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader’s soldiers complained that ‘we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.’

The squad leader said: ‘You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.'”

And then see that this is not treated as an essential crisis of purpose by the Israeli government – that Avigdor Lieberman and his backers may hold multiple and important cabinet portfolios – is more than merely demoralizing. It is utterly devastating in that respect.

The State of Israel is a human political entity distinct from Am Yisra’el – I get that. But it is a political entity run by Jews, for Jews, in Israel. It cannot escape the essential Jewishness of its character. When it transgresses, it transgresses not just as a political entity, but as a Jewish entity. And from a believing, religious perspective, the Covenant will always be more terrifying and aw(e)ful than the United Nations; breaking it more a transgression than violating any Security Council decree.

When we – Jews, anywhere – behave like this, it is a violation of the Covenant. There is a right to defense, yes. But there is not a right to toss aside the belief in the essential sanctity of all human life, to toss aside our duty to lead hallowed lives as Jews, because of threats to safety. (And I acknowledge that I say this sitting in a Southern city a Jewish mayor and Jewish Congressman: a place, that is, safe for Jews, far from violence. It’s harder in Israel, and failure is human. But deliberate transgression is a far different matter than accidental transgression when threatened.)

To behave like this is a violation of the Covenant. And there is no fundamental right for any particular generation of Jews to Israel.  Juxtaposed, the two are truly frightening.


3 Responses to “Jewish Thoughts on Israel’s Moral Failures in Gaza”

  1. […] sacrifices. The latter without the former is not enough to fulfill the Covenant.  It’s why it makes me sick to see “Orthodox” rabbis making the case that their “orthodoxy” is more than enough to […]

  2. […] (Elsewhere, and in greater detail: “Jewish Thoughts on Israel’s Moral Failures in Gaza”) […]

  3. […] The latter without the former is not enough to fulfill the Covenant.  It’s why it makes me sick to see “Orthodox” rabbis making the case that their “orthodoxy” is more […]

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