A Stronger Moral Force

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May 1, 2002
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By Arthur Green

Note: The debate between Nathan Lewin and Arthur Green on how to deter suicide killers, which appears below, are two parts of a whole. Please do not circulate one article without the other.

Introduction We are now faced with an apparently intractable, increasingly ferocious Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This expanded issue of Sh’ma–offered only in part on-line–offers a series of perspectives on how American Jews might talk about the crisis. Some of the reflections might shock. These are shocking times, and that some are now thinking the unthinkable might well unsettle us. But the only way out of the present quagmire is to listen intently, to weigh previously inconceivable options, and to arrive at conclusions that contain just enough morality and just enough pragmatism. As usual, the opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsors or the Sh’ma board. Feel free to participate in the conversation on-line.

Although I am not as pious as Nathan Lewin, I still have some pretty old-fashioned Jew-ish instincts. My first desire on reading Lewin’s essay was to rayz kri’ah, tear my garments, as a sign of mourning on hearing the desecration of God’s name. Can we really have come to this? A well-respected spokesman for law, ethics, and Jewish tradition proposes that we (the government of Israel, that is, the one he would like to see operating on Torah-based principles) execute the families of suicide bombers. Devoting all of six words to the struggle of conscience (“This is no easy ethical question…”), he goes on to justify his proposal by reference to the Torah’s command to eradicate Amalek and the Canaanite peoples. I only wonder how long it will take him, by the force of this proof-text, to go all the way and suggest that the Palestinian nation as a whole has earned the fate of Amalek. After all, “when there is no other deterrent….”

One of the several tragic by-products of the Israeli/Palestinian struggle of recent years has been the conversion of ultra-Orthodoxy to support the most rightwing and aggressive stream within Israeli politics. Long lukewarm in their acceptance of Zionism and totally opposed to the messianic language of the National Religious Party’s settler element, these Jews have now joined their Sephardic counterparts in imposing the old Diaspora vision onto Middle East politics. The Arabs are simply the goyim. They will hate us forever, for this is the essential nature of Ishmael, Esau, and their descendants. Somehow these come to be identified with Amalek as well. There is no view more dangerous than this to the possibility of peace, except perhaps the one recently published in a Saudi newspaper, claiming that the Jews require Muslim blood to bake their hamantaschen.

Israel is by far the stronger party in the present conflict. It must be the stronger moral force as well. Indeed it must stop the suicide bombings, and I can muster little moral outrage at targeted assassinations of those planning and directing such operations. Since a few terrible incidents early in the Intifada, Israel has been remarkably good at not targeting civilians, although there have been more “collatoral damage” killings than can be justified. We all once took pride in Israel’s tradition of “purity of arms,” the careful and responsible use of firepower. Today, with the fear generated by violent Palestinian resistance, there are too many nervous and vengeful fingers on the trigger, at all levels. Israel is the creation of the entire Jewish people, and has to stand for something, not just survive by becoming a barbaric Middle Eastern superstate. The Jewish tradition’s most essential moral teaching, that every human being is the image of God, must not fall victim to the bleak times through which we are living.

Suicide bombings must be stopped. This will not happen through obscene suggestions that we stoop to their level, executing the parents and siblings of perpetrators. Such a horrid policy would only call forth new troops of suicide bombers, recruited throughout the Muslim world. Suicide bombings will be stopped when we address the root cause of such desperate actions: the degradation and humiliation of the Palestinian people. Israeli society has failed terribly at respecting the Arabs who are destined to forever be its neighbors. This is true both within the country and in the occupied territories. Military policy, especially in its local application, is often needlessly violent and degrading. Endless checkpoint delays, bulldozing of homes, uprooting of trees, disrespecting of elders, and lots more have been the daily lot of Palestinians for thirty-five years. These constant humiliations are the immediate source of the rage that motivates suicide bombers, most of whom come from the very respect-based culture of traditional Arab villages.

On the larger scale, we need to restore hope. No wonder Palestinians have no faith in the peace process. We continue to build settlements, expropriate land, and deny them the right to build homes on their own land while we build whole towns for newcomers. How can we expect them not to be frustrated and angry? If we want to end suicide bombings, we need to demonstrate clearly (by our actions, not just by words, as we keep saying to Arafat) that we are willing to end the occupation. Yes, a two-state solution is a gamble. But it’s the only one we’ve got.

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Arthur Green is the Phillip Lown Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University.

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