Virtual Talmud

Former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir was once asked if she could ever forgive the Arabs for seeking Israel’s destruction. She replied by saying that she could forgive them for killing her sons, but she couldn’t forgive them for forcing her to kill their sons.

I like this quote because it reflects the pain a moral individual feels about the human cost of self-defense. This is part of the Jewish psyche. It is why we dip our fingers to withdraw some wine from our glasses at the recitation of each plague at the Passover seder, for we should not rejoice at the death even of enemies who seek our destruction.

Israel always finds itself in a moral dilemma when faced with how to respond to terrorist attacks. Jewish law requires that we defend ourselves and others, for we are not to stand idly by the blood of our brothers. To not respond at all invites more attacks.

The issue is not one of proving that Jewish life is no longer cheap (though it was treated as such throughout centuries of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic violence when Jews were powerless to protect themselves) but of defending oneself and others against a rodef (literally a pursuer, someone presenting a threat to life or limb). This requires even preventive measures if a threat seems imminent. Nevertheless, Jewish law also requires that we use the least amount of force necessary to immobilize or eliminate the threat.

That is why I am confused by the timing of Israel’s incursion into Gaza and about why the government did not give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a few more days to try to find the two young Israeli men who were kidnapped by Hamas militants.

It is true that more than 500 Qassam rocket attacks have struck towns within Israel, particularly Sderot, killing 15 Israeli citizens and foreign workers. No sovereign nation would stand passively by under such an attack. Israel has responded with targeted strikes. The most recent took out a car carrying Islamic Jihad terrorists transporting a Katyusha rocket that has an even longer delivery range than a Qassam. Some Palestinians were killed in these counter-attacks.

Does that mean Israel should not defend itself?

On one hand, we should be proud of the efforts the Israeli army takes to minimize danger to civilians, often at great cost of danger to Israeli soldiers. Where the army makes mistakes or makes decisions that protect Israeli soldiers at the expense of Palestinian civilians, we should be proud of Israel’s independent Supreme Court and Israeli Jewish human rights groups, which serve as watchdogs in this area. (If the Palestinians showed as much concern for Jewish life, they would have had a viable, thriving state decades ago.)

However, even with the best of efforts and intentions, even when the army may not mean to take life, innocents are killed. In military parlance, such loss of life is chalked up to “collateral damage.”

For Jews, every life, even of our enemies, is precious. That is why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently expressed his regret over the death of Palestinian civilians even as he explained why the Army had to do what it was doing to stop the rocket attacks that were being launched from inside Gaza against Israel.

One could argue that for the mourning family, any death is a tragedy, regardless of its cause. However, I would suggest that if the Palestinians were as dismayed about taking innocent Jewish lives as the Israelis are of taking Palestinians’ lives, the conflict between our two peoples would have been resolved decades ago.

Now two young Israelis have been kidnapped.

Self-defense is a moral obligation. Israel is in the unenviable position of trying to defend itself from enemies who intentionally hide among civilians. Perhaps it is up to those civilians to say they no longer want rockets being shot from their front yards into ours.

Is Israel’s overwhelming show of force counterproductive? I don’t know. This is the dilemma Israel faces: how to be strong and wise in the face of an intractable enemy dedicated to its destruction. What worries me is that force alone cannot win this battle.

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