Israel is a nation founded on the high ideals of the Biblical prophets. Human rights and civil liberties are enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Israel’s army (the IDF) has embraced the Hebrew concept of tohar neshek, the idea that minimum violence is used to attain an objective, that military force is only used in self-defense, and that unnecessary bloodshed is to be avoided at all costs. One can certainly argue that many, if not all of these wonderful founding principles have been shredded in Israel’s attempts to defend itself from Palestinian terror. One of my earlier blog posts recounted the horrifying story of the unarmed Hamas militant who was pursued across rooftops by the IDF and murdered in cold blood (for that is the only way shooting an unarmed man can be described). The IDF response was to say essentially: “These types of things happen in wars.”
Yet, my Israeli friends defend the degradation of such principles on the grounds that their enemy has “no” moral principles of its own. Here is what such a friend wrote to me today in response to my earlier blog:
It is very difficult in a war situation (and that is what we are in now) to ensure that every unit and every soldier acts with absolute moral rectitude. I think the IDF does the best it can to educate and on a daily basis to brief soldiers on their responsibilities. I served over many years in the territories in the reserves, and this was always the case. However, we know that it is too easy for soldiers, in the heat of action, to step over the sometimes fine line between legitimate action to protect themselves or others, and illegitimate punitive action–or, G-d forbid, killing–of someone who is no longer actively a threat.
We are being so badly bashed today from all quarters, in a way that is simply not fair, when the other side openly glorifies the murder of innocent people.
I respect my friend for feeling some moral ambivalence over such an act of murder. But I cannot condone the act as he has done (I’m sure he would not feel comfortable with the word “condone;” then let’s say “defend or explain”). I could not think of a better response to my friend than one I read in today’s Anthony Lewis op ed piece in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/24/opinion/24LEWI.html?pagewanted=2) which quotes Aharon Barak, Israel’s Supreme Court president: “The real test of [judicial] independence and impartiality comes in situations of war and terrorism. . . . Precisely in these times, we judges must hold fast to fundamental principles and values; we must embrace our supreme responsibility to protect democracy and the constitution.”
In my reply to my friend I wrote: “Where we diverge is that you make an allowance for such a murder given the context of the event. I too understand that our all too human reactions to stress may be different depending the gravity of the situation. But the whole point of morality & ethics is that it is even more critical to honor them when things go bad or wrong. If we can only honor our ethics in good times, but abandon them in bad times, then what are they worth? If our moral system is sacred to us; if tohar neshek means something to us then these principles especially need to be invoked AND practiced in the breach, when times are worst. The more exceptions you make, the less credible your contention that your values are superior to those of others. And if you say that you must relax your standards because your enemy has none of his own, then you still have diminished your own value system.”
Physical survival is a principle that our rabbis honored deeply; but they did not honor it at all cost. Survival is not an end; it is a means to an end. Our rabbis who martyred themselves at the hands of Romans centurions knew this. So should we. I am not saying that we are under any obligation to martyr ourselves to those among the Palestinians who are our enemy. But I do question what our survival is worth if we betray our fundamental values in order to maintain our own survival.
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