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Israel at War With Hamas and Itself

The ugly realities of murders and missiles

MAHMUD HAMS/Getty Images

A thousand Hamas missiles cannot erase the stain of the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, nor can the murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel extenuate it. Introspection in a time of war is perhaps a lot to ask; people under attack are not inclined to guilt. But the burning of the Palestinian boy must not be eclipsed by the struggle against the aggressions of Hamas. There is no Iron Dome to intercept the conscience. The day of the atrocity against Muhammad Abu Khdeir—a revenge killing in a society that mocks revenge killings in other societies—was a dark day in the history of the state and the religion in whose name it was, however falsely, perpetrated. The maniacs who perpetrated the crime did not, in their ideas and words, come from nowhere, from no politics, from no culture. The top-to-bottom revulsion in Israel at what was done in the forest near Jerusalem, a sincere revulsion, does not end the matter. Regret, if it is to be genuine, cannot be efficient. It certainly must not become another ground for the sensation of moral superiority. The makeshift monument in the forest that was erected to the memory of the Palestinian boy was defaced, and erected again, and defaced again. Even as it endures sirens and shelters, Israeli society must cultivate its revulsion, its sickened feeling, not least because the ruin of relations between peoples is even more dangerous than the ruin of relations between presidents and prime ministers.

In 1922, not long after the murder in Jaffa of fifteen Jews (among them the great Hebrew writer Brenner), there were widespread reports that some young Jewish men, in revenge for the horrors, killed an Arab boy—according to the great historian Anita Shapira, this was “the first recorded documentation of an injury to an Arab by a Jew based on revenge motives.” Ahad Ha’am, who had recently settled in the land of Israel, wrote an anguished letter to Haaretz. The news of the Jewish crime, he declared, “rattled within me all the foundations of the view of Judaism and Zionism that I had constructed as a young man.” “Is this the dream of the ‘return to Zion’ that our people dreamed for thousands of years,” he asked, “to come to Zion and pollute its land with the spilling of innocent blood?” “If this is ‘the messiah,’ ” he concluded, angrily citing an ancient Talmudic adage, “he may come but I do not wish to see him.” This splendid fulmination was preceded, however, by certain observations about the essential immunity of the Jewish people to the seductions of violence. “The Jew and blood: are there any greater opposites? . . . Our blood has been spilled like water in the four corners of the earth, but we ourselves spilled no blood.” This intrinsic virtue was owed, the philosopher said, to “the great ethical Torah that our forefathers bequeathed us. . . . This people, persecuted everywhere, with all its outward lowliness, looked with revulsion upon its neighbors, their hands soaked in blood, and knew in the depths of its heart that it had no relationship, and never would have one, with such savagery.” About the behavior of the Jews in exile Ahad Ha’am was correct, though in recent decades scholars have bitterly debated the theme of vengefulness in the literature of the medieval Jews. But the exile and its quietism was eventually repudiated, and the Jews saved themselves (not soon enough) by acquiring power, and they developed their own varieties of inflamed and xenophobic nationalism, especially when they mixed it with their religion. “The great ethical Torah,” which loudly forbids revenge, has not protected the Jews in their state from their baser promptings; worse, it has often been adduced to justify them. We are human: it is the good news and the bad news.

But this is not all that needs to be said. (Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. I have two feet.) Israel has not only demons, but also enemies. One of its enemies, according to Human Rights Watch, is committing war crimes by launching missiles indiscriminately against civilian targets. The Israeli campaign in Gaza is not an act of revenge for the slaying of three Jewish boys; it is an act of retaliation against the Gazan barrage of rockets at Israeli towns and cities. What is the difference between revenge and retaliation? It is a fair question. The difference lies in the legitimacy of self-defense. Revenge protects nothing, except the maddened psyches of those who commit it. It is not an act of self-defense, it is an act of self-expression. It is certainly not a “response” in any rational sense. The Israelis who slaughtered the Palestinian boy were not provoked; they were pre-provoked. Yet in the matter of the rocket attacks from Gaza, Israel was provoked. The security of its citizens was at risk; and security is assessed empirically, not ideologically; and security is no less fundamental, morally speaking, than peace. Israel is acting strategically, not emotionally, in Gaza. It is “degrading” an incontrovertible threat. This does not exempt it from the means-ends question, but the campaign to destroy an arsenal that is being hurled against one’s population is warranted by reason and dignity. It is not a political solution, but a missile in mid-air is not a political problem.

If Israel’s “knock on the roof” warnings to Gazans about the imminent dangers to them are to be deemed ethically insufficient, and they certainly have not prevented all civilian deaths, what are we to make of the Interior Ministry in Gaza, which has been exhorting them to return to their homes? Hamas has taken its own people hostage. On the West Bank, the killers of the Israeli boys were often celebrated. Introspection is not just a Jewish obligation. The other night, sunk in my customary (but still dovish!) hopelessness, I opened a book of poems by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, recently published by New York Review Books. Poetry may give hope, no? I found a poem called “The Gas Chambers,” where I read this: “I don’t have a grandmother who died in the gas chambers . . . / How horrific was the Nakba? / How harrowing to be a refugee? / These are but small pains / for niggers like us / I amuse myself by writing this down / in the gas chamber.” Hope fled again.