A Jewish professor reminds Israel of God’s recurring injunction: be kind to strangers in your midst! After all, the Israelites were longtime strangers in Egypt, at times welcome at other times enslaved. The professor on his BDS platform spent a morning reprimanding Israel for bringing Jewish strangers – skin and bone relics of the death camps – to Palestine. Dumping them on the in situ natives, he complained, was a deed of reckless and heartless colonialism.
In that case, you might think, why not dress down the native Arabs? If it is their land, remind them to be kind to strangers in their midst. Jews or Arabs – it can’t be difficult to give one or the other stranger status.
This muddle of anti-Israel compassion could well be fronting for a mulish animosity. Anyhow the professor of politics knew the biblical parts to quote. ‘Parts’ are right. Cherry-pickers uncannily pounce on words in a text that confirm the platform they espouse. I raised a hand, but the moderator sniffed dissent in the air. What about, I was going to ask, the parts of scripture where God makes it clear that military might takes precedence over kindness.
The Israelites indeed are commanded to wage holy war. And, if a bellicose impulse comes on them, they are even allowed to take up arms for plunder or new territory. The mettle of the stiff-necked’ people would be tested. In order to settle the Promised Land they were commanded to annihilate Seven Nations in Canaan, except the Canaanites. ‘You shall utterly destroy them’ (Deuteronomy 20:17)
Failure to do it violates a negative command. ‘Do not allow a soul to live.’ (Ibid:16) Another jihadist-sounding command is to “remember to destroy the nation of Amelek.” Note the present tense of the command. The obligation to wipe out certain impcable foes is not bound by time or circumstance.
The Old Testament is not peaceable at all. Considering what Israel had gone through, a certain militarism is hardly out of place. Taking heritage land, or defending it leaves no room for pacifism.
Maimonides was no zealot. Yet the great scholar is clear that the law mandates Jews to go to war, for two purposes. The one is to deal with implacable foes, the other, more discretely, to expand the boundaries of Israel or to plunder wealth.
The flat portrait of cupidity is not pretty. The law codes however don’t allow the picture to be black and white for long. Military action is hedged around so that the army of Israel takes an arsenal of ethical and moral dos and don’ts into battle. Here is not the time or place for them, but to give an example, before any killing starts Israel must try for peace. If the enemy accepts terms, commits to keeping the seven laws of Noah, and submits to taxation, the army must pack up and go home.
Jews however will be Jews. Give them basic ground rules and they will build them up like the Tower of Babel. Set a moral bar to clear and they will ratchet it up by notches – higher and higher to make nations like the Jews better. Since they have to be a light unto the nations, nothing less than a dazzling LED light will suffice. War is the occasion to parade the Jews’ magnanimity and mercy, to go above and beyond the letter, and the spirit, of the law. Think how impressed the nations will be.
And there’s the rub. “Be not over righteous, nor too clever.” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). And, in the words of Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish: “Whoever shows mercy to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to those deserving of mercy.”
Israel’s wars, ancient and modern, make perfect case studies for those early warnings. They teach that trouble will come upon it if Israel bends like a reed to win the kindness stakes. Never mind that it faces enemies which mistake mercy for weakness and bite the hand that feeds.
Not for nothing the sages of the Talmud frown upon allowing a weaker opponent to get the upper hand. If any Jews die because of feeling sorry for a foe it is regarded as a form of suicide. Cain killing the stronger Abel after the latter felt sorry for his brother set the precedent. The law therefore sets limits to mercy. A foe intent on bloodshed loses his right to life.
A pity therefore that Jewish compassion seems ingrained. Treating the enemy mercifully goes against common sense. The astute diplomat, Abba Eban, encapsulated the absurdity after the famous Six-Day War.
“I think it would be the first war in history that on the morrow the victors sued for peace and the vanquished called for unconditional surrender.”
Quite so, and the looked-for pat on the back at the United Nations did not happen. Indeed displays of mercy fed expectations and demands on Israel to “act with restraint.” Is there another country constantly told, like a pre-recorded message, to rein back the military and not go on to victory?
The Jewish people oblige and handcuff themselves for battle while raising the moral bar.
“Heaven help us if our moral standard is reduced to not committing crimes against humanity. From my country I demand a lot more.”
Jessica Montell of the Israeli human rights outfit B’Tselem wrote this in the Forward, a publication that gives a platform to Jews on he left who demand more than above-board conduct from Israel – a whole lot more.
Montell’s comments came in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, an urban war involving every hazard imaginable and every trick in the arsenal of Gaza’s crazies. Brought up short by a catalogue of canards, Israel came out bruised but not guilty.
But the halo brigade is insatiable. It wants more, and sets the bar high enough to make it impossible for Israel to clear. The IDF has to be cleaner than clean. And the higher the bar the better the chance of Israel failing to clear it. Deliberately so. For on the sideline the media wait and watch. How high can Israel jump? A mere shiver of the bar transports the court of public opinion into frenzies of scorn and condemnation. And instead of a light unto the nations, Israel becomes the world’s polecat.
Even its supporters are patient only up to a point. They allow Israel to fight back but no more. Outright victory is disallowable.
And what does God think of Israel’s careful wartime conduct? Is He an understanding divinity? It all depends. Are the Jihadists who fire rockets into Israel descended from the Seven Nations in the bible? Would they be among those that Israel is commanded to annihilate? Or are they descendants of Amalek, the enemy of all enemies for all time?
No one really knows. Many do however know that the mini wars which Israel has had to fight in its backyard (Defensive Shield, Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, Protective Edge, etc) can be traced back to the original sin of treating the Promised Land like a hot potato. Parts won in miraculous victory became land to surrender, land to bargain with and to curry favor.
This has made a strong but magnanimous Israel more hated than a weak Israel. Mayhem and terror and international pariah status have been the wages of sin. Israelis have learnt that land for peace does not appease; it emboldens demands for more. The lesson has sunk in that Israel is a people who dwell alone. “Palestine from the river to the sea” echoes in UN corridors and chambers meant to keep nation from warring on nation.
So how does God feel about Israel’s conduct?
A parable in the Talmud relates how a king bestowed gifts and favors on a preferred son. The son took the king’s benevolence for granted and thought of the gifts and favors, when he thought of them, as his rightful due. To court popularity he liberally gave away the gifts, even to people who hated him. Some, plotting to kill the boy, were glad to accept them. By the power of the king, the boy’s life had been saved many times over, but he was unmindful of it.
Was the king angry? Angry is not the word.
Steve Apfel is an authority on anti-Zionism and a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction. His blog, ‘Balaam’s curse,’ is followed in 15 countries on 5 continents