by Rabbi Art Donsky
With violence once again overflowing between Israel and Hamas, I ask, what does Judaism teach us about war, the value of human life, the right to defend oneself?
As Judaism is a tradition of this world, for this world, there is much that has been said and taught on this subject — some of it influenced by the gross lack of value given Jewish “blood” throughout the centuries and some of it placing human life of any kind above tribal and nationalistic devotions.
While I know deeply the pain and suffering of “our” people over the generations, and I feel deeply the horror that Israeli children experience with rockets flying and bombs bursting in air, I also know that it is an illusion to believe that I am separate from anyone else — that for the sake of my blood or lineage, I or someone else in my name has the right to take another’s life. And to believe that I or someone else can do so without retribution is foolishness.
In God’s eyes, human life is human life, whether it is Israeli or Palestinian or any other. As the Torah and our sages teach in the Talmud:
The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret the Torah. (Pirke Avot 5:11)
Our rabbis did not justify or explain away violence. They saw bloodshed as a horrible curse. They expected human beings to resist the impulse to do evil. But as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, recently wrote:
In the real world the Bedouin who see their homes unfairly demolished and schoolchildren tear-gassed will lash out at their neighbors in their comfortable homes. Gazans who can import or smuggle in just about anything, but can’t afford many of the goods on their well-stocked shelves (of smuggled goods) because restrictions on exports leave them without income, will continue to support terror against their oppressors. Israelis under rocket fire while the world is silent will feel justified in doing whatever is necessary to stop those rockets, even when civilians are also killed…
Our message cannot be to ignore the rockets on our fellow Israelis. However, when we hear ‘there would be no attacks on Gaza if there were no rockets falling on the Western Negev,’ we must both join the demand that the rockets stop and remind our fellow Israelis that we can best help ourselves if we stop using our overwhelming power to make life miserable for most Gazans. With our greater power comes greater responsibility.
So I am very sad but not surprised at what’s transpired. Violence begets violence. No justice. No peace.
It is too easy to become cynical, to remember that the last time such an escalation took place between the Israeli leadership and the leadership of Hamas was also election time in Israel. History and the Bible tell stories of war used to enhance one’s political status. Recall also that the fighting in the first Gaza War took place immediately after the last U.S. election, in the winter of 2008 and 2009.
The body count will rise. Each side will blame the other. The final question when all is said and done will be, “Who is in your community?”
Last week, as I sat with a group of clergy – Jews, Christians and Muslims – from Pittsburgh and the North Hills, a colleague offered those five words as the basis of her spiritual reflection. While our gathering was not about the conflict in Gaza half a world away, it certainly fits. And so, when my colleague asked, “Who is in your community?” we sat in silence. She then explained how she came to realize that her community numbers – 7 billion!
May the leaders of Israel and Hamas as soon as possible call a truce and acknowledge this truth before the cycle of violence spirals out of control and more human lives are tragically lost.