Jewish values vs. total war

Jewish values vs. total war

The Onion, as usual, got it right on Germany’s predictable march to the World Cup finals. “German Team Hoping to Lift Nation’s Spirit Following Reports of 5% Unemployment” read the satirical news site’s headline. Just 70 years after the Shoa, prosperity, peace, social harmony, and athletic prowess have showered down on Germany like confetti on a world champion.

And Israel? As the German team hoisted the cup, sirens were sounding all over Israel, missiles shrieked down on weapons caches in Gaza, and editorial pages tsk-tsked over “the influence of extremists on both sides.” 

The confluence of those two stories — Germany’s naches, Israel’s tzuris — put me in mind of the famous last chapter in Amos Oz’s nonfiction book In the Land of Israel. A nationalist politician he identifies only as “Z” laments how the consciences of Israel’s founders prevented them from waging the kind of war that would have given them a country from “the Suez Canal all the way to the oil fields.” Had an Israeli army wiped out one million Arabs or more, “what would have happened? Sure the world would have written a couple of nasty pages about us in the history books; they would have called us all kinds of names; but we would have been a pretty respectable nation of twenty-five million people here today!” By now, Israel would have become “a normal nation with prissy values, with humanistic neighborly relations with Iraq and Egypt, and with a slight criminal record — just like everybody else.” 

It’s a deeply cynical take, but perceptive nonetheless. I believe that Jewish values, and the legacy of the Shoa itself, prevented and still prevent Israel from waging total war on its enemies, or at least the kind of slaughter that amounts to a good day’s work in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and a host of other “post-colonial” powers with restive populations and ethnic divisions. When Jews complain that Israel is subject to a “double standard,” don’t forget that it is a standard of its own making: Israel asks to be judged by the values of Western democracies, and not by those of its despotic neighbors. 

“Z” asks Israelis to face the consequences of that choice: Instead of a stable nation forged in a massive act of ethnic cleansing, they have inherited the decades of conflict — and moral compromise — that come when two sides lay claim to the same piece of land, and only one of them, in Z’s phrase, “plays fair.” 

The militaristic Z would laugh at a question that the liberal Zionist Peter Beinart put to his Facebook followers this week. Beinart acknowledges that Israel has the right to self-defense and that Hamas “bears a lot of blame for this war, and for the deaths of Palestinian civilians that result from it.” However, he asks, “Given that this war will almost certainly leave Hamas in power in Gaza, and that Hamas will almost certainly rebuild the weapons infrastructure Israel is now destroying and use it against Israel again (absent some dramatic political change), what is Israel accomplishing that’s worth the death of even one Gazan child?”

Beinart is the anti-Z. Although I assume he believes in just wars, Beinart is challenging Israel, and us, to justify this conflict by its efficacy and according to our own values. 

I put the question to my own Facebook friends, and the responses were, unsurprisingly, varied. “Israel is weakening Hamas and making it clear that there is a price for attacking Israeli civilians,” wrote one friend, who lives there. “It is the minimum that the citizens of any country should expect from their government.” 

“It’s just an ego…contest,” countered another. “Where civilians pay with their lives. And Jews lose a little bit of their soul.”

The local head of a centrist Jewish organization found Beinart’s question risible. “Questioning what is the ultimate endgame/objective for Israel is valid and necessary,” he wrote. “Calling into question whether or not Israel should respond militarily at all? That’s just foolish.”

And the local head of a different centrist Jewish organization acknowledged Beinart’s point about Hamas’s survival. “Absent a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel has no choice but to buy chunks of peace for its citizens,” she wrote. “So yes, Hamas may rebuild and attack again in a few years, but hopefully at the very least, Israel will gain a few years of peace from the constant rockets from Gaza. Sad, but it is a tough neighborhood.”

None of my Facebook friends sounded like Z, or, for that matter, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, who this week said, “Israel must go all the way in Gaza…. All this hesitation works against us.” 

Perhaps Liberman, like Z, is nostalgic for a West that could embrace and countenance total war in pursuit of its aims — a world that was disappearing, along with six million Jews and countless others, at the moment Israel was born. Israel is a celebration of this new order, not its victim. Its challenge is to accept the rewards and limits of the Jewish values it lives by, even in the face of enemies that reject them.

I found Beinart’s question a welcome reminder that there is a human cost to Operation Protective Edge, and our support for the operation is only credible — in fact, only Jewish — if we acknowledge that cost and contemplate the ways it can be avoided, if not now then the next time.

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