The Fading Faith of a Jewish Moral Exceptionalist

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November 3, 2009
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David N. Myers

Writing a few years after the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz asserted that the age-old “Jewish question” had become the “Arab question.” Jews were no longer a minority seeking to survive in the face of an often hostile host. They had assumed sovereignty in 1948, and with political power they had the responsibility to behave as they would have wanted their hosts to behave toward them over the centuries.

Observing developments from his perch at Brandeis University, Rawidowicz was gravely disappointed by the failure of Jews, in the form of the State of Israel, to act on the lessons of their historical experience. Rather than evince sympathy for another national minority, the state treated the Arab population in its midst (as well as the refugees who took flight or were expelled) with contempt, hostility, and discrimination. What was especially unsettling to Rawidowicz was that the state’s behavior marked a precipitous moral descent. Jacob, he lamented in his characteristic language, had assumed the ways of Esau; the ethical code of the Jew had become indistinguishable from that of the gentile.

Rawidowicz thus positioned himself as an unreconstructed Jewish moral exceptionalist, firmly wedded to the belief that Jews, by virtue of their past travails, demanded more of themselves as ethical beings. Ironically, it was a similar belief that undergirded the worldview of the Israeli political leaders whom Rawidowicz took to task. Already in 1939, the influential Zionist leader Berl Katznelson spoke of the Jewish and Zionist moral imperative of maintaining purity of arms when engaging the Arab enemy. Subsequently, Israeli political leaders insisted that purity of arms, known in Hebrew as tohar ha-neshek, was the code of honor that would guide soldiers of the Jewish state in battle. And purity of arms, it is said in stridently defensive tones today, continues to guide soldiers of the Jewish state in battle.

Is this so? The current version of tohar ha-neshek in the IDF manual declares:

The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

And yet, the recently released report of the United Nations (UN) Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by the widely respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, casts serious doubt on the veracity of this formulation. The controversial report catalogues instances in which Israel attacked impermissible targets (a mosque, a hospital, a UN compound), employed illegal arms or techniques, and in fact, to borrow from the IDF’s own code, “use(d) their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war.” Though incomplete (Israel did not cooperate with the Goldstone mission), the findings are sobering, and they are echoed by the testimonies of Israeli soldiers collected by the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO), Breaking the Silence. These findings led the UN Fact-Finding Mission to best conclude that “some of the actions of the Government of Israel might justify a competent court finding that crimes against humanity have been committed.”

The response is sadly familiar. Attack the messenger. Goldstone is a bad Jew. The soldiers of Breaking the Silence are traitors. The world is against us. Contrary to appearances, the IDF claims that tohar ha-neshek was indeed upheld, at great cost — and not just in Gaza, but in Lebanon (I and II) and in every other military conflict in which it has been engaged.

Although many Israeli soldiers undoubtedly believe that it is better to incur risks to their own wellbeing than to incur civilian casualties on the other side of the battle line, I am no longer certain that a markedly higher percentage of Israeli soldiers than, say, American, Russian, South African, or Egyptian soldiers would agree to — and more importantly, act on — the principle of tohar ha-neshek. Consequently, we are left to wonder whether the doctrine of “purity of arms” has much operational significance for the IDF today.

To confront this prospect is to surrender, and quite painfully so, the claim of Jewish moral exceptionalism. Perhaps we need to consider the notion that tohar ha-neshek was — if not a historical myth tout court — widely and regularly violated throughout the history of the long conflict between Jews and Arabs in historic Palestine. While surely practiced in some instances, it has served in others as a shield of self-justification, at once capable of deflecting criticism and asserting a Jewish moralism that Israelis invoke selectively (e.g., when not dismissing it as the limpid product of the galut Jew).

In this, as in many matters, the irascible and always trenchant Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz has much to teach us. In October 1953, an Israeli army unit commanded by a young Ariel Sharon led a reprisal raid in the Jordanian town of Kibya to exact revenge for an Arab terrorist act in which a Jewish woman and her two children in the town of Yehud were murdered. Many decried the disproportionate violence of the reprisal in which some 60 people were killed as a violation of the exalted norms of Jewish morality.

Leibowitz, though, dissented. “The morality of Judaism,” he pronounced, “is a most questionable concept. Morality, after all, does not admit a modifying attribute and cannot be ‘Jewish’ or ‘not Jewish.’” Leibowitz understood a half century ago the dangers of cloaking oneself in the veil of purity — in ways that speak directly to the veil of moral exceptionalism that has long cloaked tohar ha-neshek. “For the sake of that which is holy,” he warned, “man is capable of acting without any restraint” — Jacob, no less than Esau.

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David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA. He has authored Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History (Oxford University Press), Resisting History: Historicism and its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press) and, most recently, Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz (Brandeis University Press).

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