Over the past few years, Hamas operatives in Gaza have been indiscriminately firing rockets into Israeli civilian population centers. When the shelling dramatically increased last week, the Israeli government decided to initiate a strong military response.
The Israeli government claims a moral obligation to defend its citizens and enable its children to live without fear of random or persistent rocket fire. With that sentiment few sensible people disagree. No country should allow its civilian populations to be under constant attack and Israel, established for a people who for years did not have a sovereign state, is certainly no exception. Moreover, Jewish tradition teaches as a primary principle the obligation to save lives.
But principles need not dictate specific policies. According to Ronald Dworkin, a great American legal theorist, a principle is an unwavering ethical standard, a moral requirement. Policies, on the other hand, are concrete steps taken to implement moral principles. As a matter of principle, Israeli citizens have the right to live free of rocket fire. But a military response is only one of many policies that might implement that principle.
Perhaps the military response is not the best, most effective, or most moral means for achieving that moral end. Perhaps, even if the military response is deemed most appropriate, there are other, morally superior, military strategies to consider. Perhaps an aggressive and relentless pursuit of final peace negotiations might better and more morally achieve those very same ends.
For these reasons, it should be legitimate within both Israeli society and the Diaspora Jewish community to question the means by which Israel goes about achieving its ends, however moral those ends may be. To do so is not a betrayal of our fellow Jews and their basic human rights to live normal lives. Rather, it is a fulfillment of other important Jewish principles.
It should be legitimate because, while principles are often unimpeachable (as the principle of protecting Israeli civilians is), policies can be imperfect, and there may be other equally unimpeachable (albeit conflicting) principles to consider as well. Israel’s current policy, even if it is the most justifiable, best possible option, is imperfect. It has resulted in the deaths of many civilians – women and children – and the looming threat of a ground assault risks many more civilian deaths, not to mention jeopardizing the lives of thousands of young Israeli soldiers.
Questioning the soundness of the policy, or at least lamenting its tragic consequences, is both valid and necessary, ultimately, because the Jewish tradition emphasizes the principle that all peoples have a right to life, and that we Jews are obligated to do all we can to ensure it. Indeed, if supporters of Israel did not internalize that principle, would we be so proud of the steps the Israel Defense Forces takes to avoid civilian casualties? So while it certainly is appropriate and moral to take care of our own, our responsibility as Jews does not end there. Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and then makes sure to add, “But if I am for myself alone, what am I?” Recognizing the situation as tragic for all involved does nothing to diminish the principle that Israeli civilians deserve to live in safety. But just as Israeli children have the right to a normal, peaceful life, Jewish principles affirm that Palestinian children do, too.
Jewish tradition is filled with examples of how we weep not only when civilians are killed in our fighting, but even at the death of our enemies. Why else would we spill wine at the Passover seder if not to mourn the death of our Egyptian enemies? The book of Psalms instructs us to “rejoice not when your enemy falls.” Our tradition emphasizes not only the value of Jewish life, but also the preciousness of all human life; that to destroy one life, Jew or Gentile, is to destroy an entire world. Judaism teaches that we are all created in the image of God; that one God created all humanity, and therefore cares for all people. As the prophet Malachi says, “Have we not all one father?”
To concern ourselves with the suffering of non-Jews along with the suffering of Jews is not a betrayal of Jews or Judaism; rather, it is the fulfillment of principles we have always stood for, and hopefully always will. At the very least, then, those who feel certain that Israel’s chosen policy is right, should be prepared to say that death, even the death of enemies, is not a cause for celebration; that war is something to be engaged with the heaviest of hearts. We must be careful that fulfilling one principle does not cause us to dismiss these other, profoundly important, Jewish values.
There are no easy answers here, no perfect policies to pursue in the service of even the most noble of principles. This is precisely why we in the Jewish community should push ourselves to discuss this conflict, and others that might arise in the future, with humility, openness to all voices, and with the most sensitive of consciences, compassion not just for Jewish life, but for Palestinian life as well.
Co-authored by Arie Hasit