click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Higher Ground

Higher Ground

The role of time-honored Jewish values during war.


The Israel premiere of Canadian filmmaker Martin Himel's documentary Jenin: Massacring the Truth was held last week in Israel at Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The audience included many bereaved relatives of soldiers who died in Jenin and soldiers who had fought there in April 2002. The film's videotaped battle scenes, the documentation of the subsequent libel, and the lack of remorse by journalists who had taken their son's names in vain must have been torturous for them.

In one scene, Janine di Giovanni of The Times of London expressed her repugnance at finding herself in a room with an Israeli soldier who had fought in Jenin. The journalist, unmoved by evidence of her own flawed reporting, demanded that he leave.

Since no one out there believes us, and even more significantly, no one cares, should we stop trumpeting our moral standards?

In the discussion that followed the film, Himel addressed Israel's woefully ineffective attempts to succeed in the international media war that is part of this conflict. Among his ideas was the fruitlessness of our attempts to portray our military actions as pristine attempts to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

Civilians die in war, he shrugged. Americans don't make a big deal about unfortunate killing of civilians in Iraq, and neither should we. Himel's subtext was that we should stop trumpeting our moral standards. No one out there believes us, and even more significantly, no one cares.

His suggestion ruffled panel member David Zangen, a Jerusalem pediatric endocrinologist who was the chief medical officer in Jenin. Zangen told exactly the kind of story Himel had counseled against. Sent to place explosives outside a building holding armed terrorists, a soldier in his unit returned not only without completing his task, but with a bullet in his leg. Questioned by an officer, he claimed to have disobeyed orders because he'd seen a mother and two school-aged children in the building and couldn't bring himself to kill them. Zangen was treating the injury. The soldier begged him to patch up his torn femoral artery so that he could hurry back to serve.

Who's right? The irony of the malicious reporting about Jenin is that the strategy of fighting house to house was made on moral, not military, criteria. As Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, who spoke before the film, said: we lost 23 Israeli lives to spare Palestinian lives. Never did such a sacrifice win so little approval in the eyes of the world.

Even after the lies were debunked, the response was "oops, the body count was wrong." In the general press, there weren't stories lauding compassionate Israeli soldiers choosing booby-trapped alleys over air power. Di Giovanni wouldn't deign to be in a room with Zangen, but if she did, we can imagine her snort of derision. In the international arena, Himel is correct: our moral stance didn't win us votes.

Does that mean we should abandon the high ground? I continue to be moved by stories like Zangen's which demonstrate the humanity and heroism of our soldiers. One of my earliest impressions as a young immigrant was my sabra cousin's description of his sharing scarce water with captured Egyptians in Sinai.

Once, while I was translating a speech for former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy, he told the audience that the hardest decision of his life was to give the order to shoot dead an apprehended terrorist who was still trying to activate his explosives. Such reports resonate not only with my old Zionist visions of our Jewish army, but with my feelings about my own sons and sons-in-law, my neighbors and friends who risk their lives at warfare for the Jewish state.

While our protestations of morality may not endear us to the foreign press, (although they are more likely to see our point of view if they're given greater access -- one of my pet peeves is our reluctance to allow the press, local and foreign, to accompany our soldiers in battle) we need to remind ourselves of the integrity of the IDF.

Despite the bitter tests to which we're put by debilitating war, the Israeli army isn't morally debilitated. And the enemy knows that, no matter what they say to the press.

Our enemies' attempts to demonize and delegitimize us are part of the struggle, and convincing us that we're evil is one of their objectives. Despite the bitter tests to which we're put by debilitating war, we aren't morally debilitated. The enemy knows that, no matter what they say to the press.

When he arrived in Jenin with the IDF, the parents of one of Maj. Zangen's patients from Jenin phoned. Usually they saw him at the diabetes center at a Jerusalem hospital, but they'd heard he was in town.

We don't have the luxury of thinking of war as a passing phase that allows for temporary moral suspension. We haven't had one truly peaceful day of statehood, and if we didn't have the army standing on our borders we'd be quaking in our kitchens.

When my children were born, I was confident that we'd have achieved peace before they would have to serve. Now, when I hold my sweet-smelling newborn grandchildren in my arms, I can't promise them that they won't have to go off to war like their fathers and grandfathers. And that would be unbearable without faith that we were always aiming for the higher ground.

October 23, 2004

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 14

(14) Mike OBrien, October 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Values over necessity

The Israeli army should continue to try and minimize civilian casualties. It should also allow embedded reporters so that the truth can come out. I think that more Israeli soldiers should take it upon themselves to start blogs and report what is really happening. That is how the US is getting the true message of what is happening in Iraq.

(13) Louie, October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Why send journalists into battle?

Ironic that while you realize that when it comes to Israel the media does nothing but pursue its own anti-Semitic agenda, you still feel that allowing journalists to accompany the army into battle will somehow make them honest objective human beings. The media has no conscience and whatever they would witness would be warped to satisfy their crooked views.

(12) Alex Talkar, October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Brave Jews

Let's do the right job with full heart and without waiting for someone to come and pat you or television nonesence interviews YOU Pat Yourself !!! Pray for ALL MIGHTY's guidence and see for yourself how you overcome the hardest obsticle.

(11) Anonymous, October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Right, right, right...

The way the Israeli army attempts to minimalize civilian casualties is something we should be proud of. Let's not do this to try and impress the rest of the world, but instead let us behave so for ourselves alone.

(10) Quick Robin, October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Jews aren't "Jewish" Enough!

Anti-semitism is not rational, and therefore it cannot be "cured" with reasons, like saying we aren't really so bad. The newest face of this ugly problem is...Jews/Israelis aren't moral enough! The good news is that in some ways, the 'world' may have become more civilized. The bad news, of course, is that they still refuse to credit the source...G-d and His Torah and His chosen reps. We have to do what we do for the sake of HaShem, and then he will take care of the rest. Killing civilians is bad business, no doubt, but they are not exactly so innocent if the goal of their so-called political leadership is the destruction of Israel. "Those who act kindly to people who are cruel, will eventually come to act creully to people who are kind."

In our bend-over backwards efforts to show the world what good-folk we are, we now find ourselves talking of evicting 8,000 Jews from their homes! The reactions of the world for or against us are linked to our behavior towards each other. They don't know it, but that's how it works. They are a mirror that Ha Shem holds up for us to see where we need to work on ourselves. Saying that they are always picking on us, which they are, is nevertheless, missing the point.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment