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The Moral Paradox

The Moral Paradox

There's a fine line between self-criticism and Israel-bashing. In times of national danger we have to be scrupulous in not erring on the bashing side and abetting the enemy.


"Aim for peace now. Protest. Own up to your sinfulness. Stop being an oppressor and allow those you've hurt to go free." We would despise these words, particularly if they were spoken by a national leader, if they appeared on the front page of today's paper.

Yet this criticism of Israel appears in 92 percent of American homes. Those with Bibles. We read them, albeit in more dramatic language on Yom Kippur, in every synagogue. The harsh words of Isaiah sit at the heart of the process of self-examination which culminates on Yom Kippur.

Herein lies the paradox of peoplehood. We are continually struggling for our existence, yet we need to be constantly alert for lapses in morality. What a nuisance. How much easier it would be to suspend morality and do whatever works best.

But 2,700 years after Isaiah, sensitivity to whether or not we see ourselves as a moral people remains integral to our self-definition.

When is it fair even praiseworthy to cry out for national morality, and when does such a call feel like an evil stab in the back? The last few weeks have brought us several examples to consider. First, a troubling article by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg appeared in newspapers around the world. I didn't pay much attention to it until friends visiting France, where a child was being named in memory of their murdered son, made me aware of its impact there.

An Internet search revealed how gleefully it had been reprinted in the anti-Israel press a sure blow against Israel in our public relations war. Burg is concerned foremost with morality.

Immoral behavior, he contends, will reduce Israel to a "strange and ugly" Jewish state. He explains away suicide bombing as a reaction to Israel's callousness toward Palestinian children.

"They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated."

We have to assume particularly at this season of judging favorably that Burg was indeed expressing his own moral outrage at roadblocks and uneven conditions. Unhappily, he ignores their connection to Palestinian violence, and, more to the point, to the Palestinians' rejection of his proposals as presented by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Watch for the m-word. "We could kill 1,000 ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing would be solved because the leaders come up from below from the wells of hatred and anger, from the 'infrastructures' of injustice and moral corruption.

"If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral imperative."

Burg must have been delighted by last week's pilots' protest "to redirect Israel's moral compass" by refusing to fly our airplanes to kill the ringleaders and engineers who send forth murderers.

The group of protesters is tiny 27 initial signers, of whom only nine are on active duty. They are a tiny fringe group out of thousands of Israeli pilots. Why were we in such an uproar?

We idealize our pilots. We all know how hard it is to be accepted for pilots training and how much harder to stay in. Our pilots are gutsy and talented and devoted enough to commit seven years to the military. Only a month ago, we were cheering the jets piloted by children of Holocaust survivors as they flew over Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The pilots' platform was indeed used against us abroad, but our anger had more to do with the way they attempted to undermine our internal moral stand.

The vast majority of us soldiers and civilians feel the army uses maximum restraint; so much so that several recent operations were compromised.

Most of us would agree that while the Jewish army needs to be disciplined, our soldiers should never feel they're "just carrying out orders." We accept the right of soldiers to be court-martialed and go to jail rather than carry out a military duty they consider immoral. If hundreds of soldiers were doing so, we'd be alarmed and the military would be forced to re-evaluate its policies.

But the vast majority of us soldiers and civilians feel the army uses maximum restraint; so much so that several recent operations were compromised. We hate the roadblocks but understand that they are for keeping terrorists out and not a strategy for humiliation.

The targeted hits, though far from perfect, seem like the most efficient and, yes, the most moral way we've discovered so far of destroying terrorists.

Every Israeli knows that after the mass murder terror attacks angry voices call for the leveling of whole villages. These remain minority voices and our military is never transformed into a national vehicle of revenge.

Pilots in particular should know better. They're allowed a certain amount of discretion in what and when to bomb when they see new information from the air. Missions are often aborted at the last minute when civilians are present.

The October Atlantic Monthly features a cover story about the dark art of interrogation, mostly in relation to the war on terror. Included is an interview with the former chief interrogator of our Shin Bet.

Israeli investigators are described as highly skillful in extracting information from terrorists, but the article also reveals that Israel is the source of the moral legislation that ensures harsh treatment does not "become commonplace, not just a tool for extracting vital, life-saving information, but a routine tool of oppression."

This perfectly illustrates the necessary duality of remaining a moral nation at a time of war.

So what about the protest article and letter?

Though well intended, both were counterproductive. Because every newspaper identifies Burg as the former speaker of the Knesset not just a disgruntled citizen readers mistakenly assume his is a widespread feeling in Israel.

Likewise, "if our own pilots are protesting," outsiders including the enemy might assume there's a widespread military rebellion on hand. Both would be interpreted as victories for Israel's enemies, encouraged by perceived weakness, and fuel future violence.

The line between self-criticism and Israel-bashing is a narrow one, and in times of national danger we have to be scrupulous in not erring on the bashing side and abetting the enemy.

Indeed, there are dangers in being Isaiah wannabes.

October 6, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Lee Tracy, October 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Mayana, Anonymous

Thanks to Mayana, and to Anonymous, you are misled if you think that Jews did not commit acts of revenge against Germans after liberation. The vast majority of Jews did not, but it happened in many places, and it perfectly understandable. I worry that it is too easy to just see Palestinians as Other, as Evil. It's a lot harder to have facts and to have balance like Mayana does, and as Barbara Sofer does. Those who read her article and heard anti Israel opinions have my pity.

(5) Anonymous, October 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Questions to Mr. Snyder

Mr. Snyder I have a few questions to ask you, and please ponder on them:
In your many visits in Israel, how many terror victims have you visited?
How may orphaned children, or how many orphaned maimed for life children have you visited?
Did you talk to injured Israelis about the "cycle of violence", how they should not do anything to upset these murderers? Let them build without permit (like in US for example) wherever they want.
Have you ever thought deeply in your studies what kind of society are the Palestinian people and how can they build a country on murder, child abuse (teaching them to commit suicide from kindergarten), pride in murder (parents happy to send their children to kill themselves), rewarding parents for the life of their children with money?
What is the criteria for building a society, the basis? Is it only "I deserve it"?
Have you ever asked yourself why the remnant Jews who have been decimated in the Holocaust, their assets taken, their skin used for lamps, their hair for matresses, their bodies for experiments, how come they didn't rise to commit murder suicide against the Germans? Didn't they deserve it?
Do you think the Palestinian's claims are more valid or is it just a moral disease (especially with Jews today "understanding" those murderers)?

(4) Mayana, October 9, 2003 12:00 AM

I live in Israel, in Jerusalem. Recently I've traveled in the territories (Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron). What I've seen there doesn't quite match with what any of you have said so far. Mr. Snider is right that frequently entire villages are put under closure or curfew (he never said demolished); however this isn't necessarily meant as punishment, it's also a precaution against future attacks. It doesn't mean much either way, there are hundreds of roads out of each city and when one is blocked, people use another. I saw hundreds of cars leaving Jenin recently during a supposed curfew.

What has a bigger effect IMO is that schools are closed down, it makes it very difficult for Palestinians to get a consistent education, and it leaves kids with nothing to do but run around chasing the tanks and throwing rocks at things (sometimes the IDF, just as often cars, stray cats, each other, etc.) About schools: I have friends who've taught at Palestinian schools, and most of them are nothing at all like the stereotypes. They don't teach hatred or murder; the textbooks contain the usual math, spelling, and geography. I think it's important not to believe everything you hear. If you don't read arabic and have never seen a textbook from Palestinian schools, don't assume you know what they say.

Also, the parents I met don't teach their kids to kill. But Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. are a powerful presence. Every wall is covered with posters of "martyrs" (both suicide bombers and civilian casualties of Israeli raids). The parents aren't necessarily in control of what their children hear and see in the streets, which is often Jihad Islami propaganda.

I was impressed by this article. I think that Devorah and Ms. Perl should note that Ms. Sofer never recommended abandoning self-criticism altogether. Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself. But there are ways (including not demolishing illegal homes that don't pose a security threat) in which we could act more humanely without endangering ourselves. Israel and the IDF are doing a good job already, they try to minimize civilian casualties and insure that access to food, water, and medicine is always available. But we could do even more. I firmly believe that love for Israel and commitment to its protection, and sympathy for innocent Palestinians are not mutually exclusive. We can and must act with justice and compassion towards the innocent on both sides, even when faced with these brutal attacks.

(3) devorah, October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

a must read for mr snider and people like him

very well said m perl. how many chances would you give to a murderer, mr snider? you obviously are either ignorant or not knowledgable about the situation in the middle east. i dont see where your hours of studying have gotten you to. you dont seem to have your facts straigtened out. the idf does not demolish whole villages-where did you get that report from anyway?-firstly that is done as a retaliation. check out that word in the dictionary. they aim directly at home of terrorists and militants. they do not shoot haphazardly into homes and civilians. mr snider, close to 10000 homes have been demolished (so you say), close over 900 PEOPLE have been MURDERED and so many more injured which really means no arms, no legs, and punctured bodies from nails and shrapnel filled bombs specifically placed in the bomb to maximize injury. it is a whole people full of hatred. you tell me how that is not so when after a bombing, children are handed out candy and dance in the street. what do you say to that? they are taight hatred of jews in school from textbooks. families of "martyrs" are paid by the government. explain that one. i only hope you and people like you will one day understand that a country who has has enough blood spilled to fill a river has permission to protect itself.

(2) miriam perl, October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

edited response to Larry Snyder's comments

An expert on the middle east conflict, Mr.Snyder?
It only take a simpleton to realize that to equate the "violence" of a curfew and the demolition of homes with the violence of demolishing the life blood of babies is uninformed at worst, and deliberately blindsided by hatred for Israel at best. You characterize the common Palestinian as a victimized innocent yet they are complicit and rejoice in the hate culture that permeates Palestinian society, namely, teaching their kids to hate Jews as part of their curriculum, that it's laudable to kill, that Israel does not have a right to exist, that suicide bombers should be celebrated as martyrs, and the jubliation and dancing, and firing of ammunition in celebratory glee in response to the deaths of Israeli citizens. This from the innocent Palestinians whose demolished homes and curfew you lament.
Sometimes, Mr. Snyder evil is nothing more than evil. An expert such as yourself should realize that the holocaust and Hitler teach us that evil is sometimes nothing more than evil. It can neither be explained, rationalized and certainly not justified. It defies human logic, and makes people such as yourself seek for rational explanations. But the violence perpetuated by terrorist groups, supported by the P.A. and popularly supported by many palestinian citizens is nothing more or less than unadulterate, inexplicable, irrational evil. Mr. Snyder, perhaps you need to move away from your careful study of middle east politics, and start studying your own conscience.
Miriam Perl

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