Lack of nuance taints reports of recent violence in Israel

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

The kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli teens — Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach — galvanized the worldwide Jewish community and others in prayer, in thoughts and ultimately in memorials. Many Jews and non-Jews added special prayers, in our religious heritage reciting Psalms. Here in St Louis, an overflow crowd on Wednesday evening filled the auditorium of the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex for a public memorial ceremony (see related story on Page One)., a superb media watchdog, shared a few rather different responses. The first mocked the cry over Naftali, Gilad and Eyal with a cartoon featuring a balance scale with three Jews outweighing innumerable Palestinians. Other editorials spoke to the “cycle of violence.” 

The superficiality of these views needs constant exposure and response. Although the personal and national grief of distraught people, especially innocents, is comparable, the moral equivalency between the deliberate murder of innocent civilians versus those killed unintentionally is not. Israel does not target innocents, though it sometimes strikes military targets knowing that innocents will likely be killed, because Palestinians deliberately place children in the area as a shield. To refrain from attacking would give an enemy immunity to fire rockets at Israeli settlements; no country would act differently, and if it did, its government would be replaced. Secondly, sometimes, regrettably, innocent killings do occur. In fact, armies have even killed their own, in what is dubbed “friendly fire.” 

Finally, occasionally Jews have murdered — as it appears in the case of the Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir — but it is rare and is widely condemned broadly and vociferously by Jewish leaders and the Jewish people. The deliberate killing of innocents violates Torah, corrupts our national soul, blunts the sin/crime of murder in general, galvanizes hatred and leads to more killing. We condemn the murderers, regardless of who they are. This is in contrast to contemporary Arab society, where the mass killing of innocents, including in mosques, is hardly rare and is often justified and celebrated.

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Christianity once had a similar culture in Europe, as a consequence of European barbarism and Christian theology toward Jews. Periodic mass murder of Jews, in addition to other harsh treatment, took place in Europe and culminated in the Holocaust. (“Constantine’s Sword” written by James Carroll, a former priest, yet still devout Catholic, is a well-written, highly informative, and deep and masterful composition.) But the magnitude of the Holocaust, modernity and brave Catholic leadership in recent decades changed that. The Arab culture has a long way to go. Too many intelligent writers seem to have a prejudice or blind spot for Israel and Jews, and minimize or ignore the real context. 

The “cycle of violence” response is equally superficial. On some level it is true — violence breeds violence. But it is a detached, even smug, response to murder. What is the root of the violence? What will it take to put an end to it? 

The root is that the current Muslim-Arabic-Palestinian culture still does not want to accept a sovereign Jewish state in what they consider to be “their” region. They cannot accept Jewish historical claims to the area. Both peoples have claims, but as has been recognized as early as the Peel Commission in 1937, they cannot be reconciled; so, there needs to be two distinct nations. 

The reality is that Israel will not commit national suicide to satisfy maximum Arab-Palestinian claims. Nor are the Jewish people receptive to the thoughtful and insightful suggestion to, as former prominent White House correspondent Helen Thomas once suggested, “Go back to Germany,” a notion which is absurd on so many levels. (It should be noted how many Jews were also murdered and had their property confiscated in Arab lands as well.) Therefore, anyone who wants to make a serious analysis will have to do better.

Finally, these responses to the murders will ultimately come back to haunt their own societies. History takes the long view — the long past and the longer future. Failure to distinguish between murder and accidental killings, and describing the murder of children as part of the “cycle of violence,” will have consequences: When it happens in your own neighborhood or country, and it will, that failure of true moral resolve contributes to even more deaths. Beware.

Now we mourn. And then we shall rise and follow the Torah’s teaching (Psalm 34) which we recite every Shabbat and Holyday morning: “Seek peace and pursue it.”