The late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, legendary founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and leader of the center-left religious political party Meimad, was troubled by the lack of response of the Israeli government to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The horrific attack was carried out at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps by Christian Phalangist allies of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces.
No Israeli soldiers participated in any way, but Rav Amital felt that the government’s initial refusal to appoint a commission of inquiry, to accept some measure of accountability, was a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
And then he went further.
He was deeply concerned about the growing factions within the Religious Zionist camp who conflated the war in Lebanon (and the prospect for peace, were it possible), with the liberation of what many Religious Zionists saw as the whole of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) — as distinct from the State of Israel. Meaning they believed that even if there was peace, Israel should declare war to assert its biblical right to all of the land and, presumably, its inhabitants.
In an address printed in his yeshiva’s Torah journal (Alon Shevut, Vol. 100, pp. 34-35) and quoted by Rav Aviad Tabory as part of a series on Jewish Religious Law (halacha) and Israeli History (shiur No. 15, part 2), Rav Amital wrote:
“These words (of this Rabbi) were spoken in the practical debate about invading Beirut, which according to IDF estimates would have entailed the risk of hundreds of losses on our side and terrible damage to the civilian population. Doubts regarding a military mission were raised by many, and yet the voice that was so certainly and decisively in favor of military action came from the representatives of Religious Zionism.
“What’s the connection between the struggle for Yehuda and Shomron [Judea and Samaria] and the invasion of Beirut?” he asked. “The fact that these ideas are peppered with verses, statements of Chazal [the great rabbis of the past] and expressions borrowed from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook [the theological founder of Religious Zionism, who was Jewish Palestine’s first chief rabbi] makes me shudder.”
Today, no doubt, Rav Amital, a Holocaust survivor and Haganah fighter, would be called a “Sha Shtill” (“Keep Quiet”) Jew in the growing acrimony between those who believe that any criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli policies is automatically anti-Israel and makes you either a self-hating Jew or an anti-Semite depending, obviously, upon your orientation. (I admit I have been called both.)
I can only conjecture that were he alive he would be trembling.
Elections are looming in Israel. A new Congress is convening in Washington, D.C., and although the U.S. presidential election is two years away, the political posturing is well underway.
We gather in communal meetings to hear about the latest successful battle against BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel), and then in other forums hear just how badly we are failing. It seems as if every critic of Israel is branded an anti-Semite and anyone who speaks for Palestinians is labeled anti-Israel. Significant elements of our community support corruption and policies in the U.S. and Israel that once would have galvanized us to protest. And the worst aspect of “Sha Shtill” is our abandoning of ethics and morality in what I believe is misguided support of some policies of the Israeli government. And we are
These are dangerous times. True anti-Semitism is stalking us; Israel is increasingly becoming less and less relevant to young Americans, both Jewish and non-Jewish; the far left and the far right look increasingly the same; the very fabric of Democratic society is being pulled apart in ways that are frighteningly reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984”: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
This is what Rav Amital was getting at, and I’m trembling.
David Sable, a member of The New York Jewish Week’s board of directors, is a leading figure in communications and public relations.