Moral Equivalency

by Rabbi David Zaslow

I recently responded to an internet posting where a well known, peace activist, rabbi, and colleague of mine made a case for morally equivalency between the actions of Hamas and those of the Israeli military in Lebanon last summer. Many of us hear fallacious comparisons (Zionism is racism, Israel practices of apartheid, etc.) in discussions about Israel these days, especially in progressive circles, and learning the facts is important if we are to engage in civil and productive debates and discussions.

The rabbi made a series of crucial flaws in his argument. In any civil and criminal judicial rulings there is never equivalent comparison between the actions of the perpetrator of a crime and the self-defense of the victim. This, of course, does not get the victim totally off the hook for any defensive action he/she takes, but it places the defensive actions under a completely different lens. Let’s say that the victim of a robbery clobbers the robber with a stick to protect his/herself. His/her level of culpability is not the same as the robber, and a district attorney could not prosecute as long as reasonable restraint within the definition of self-defense was shown.

In acts of war the response of the victim to aggression and/or invasion is judged on an even more lenient scale. Last year Hezbollah violated the basic rights of a sovereign nation through terrorizing and invasive acts of war. The Israeli response was, by all mainstream news sources, reasonable and moderate. Israeli soldiers stood in front of its population to protect them from aggressive acts while the Hezbollah aggressors hid behind its civilians as a shield. This was a no-win situation for Israel whose military held back, leafleted civilian areas before bombing, made mistakes (as tragically happens in war), and by most accounts was not able to prevail against Hezbollah because it was not willing to be even more aggressive.

No one wants an end to war in the Middle East more than Israel. I do not believe for a second that all things are equal in the Middle East. There is no cycle of violence there. Rather, there is a cause and an effect. Hezbollah, Hamas and company (those who refuse Israel’s existence and/or a two-state solution) are the root CAUSE of the ongoing bloodshed while Israel has to constantly adjust its strategy in SELF DEFENSIVE responses. Has Israel made errors along the way? Yes, of course. So did the Allies during World War II, but mostly the Allies were RIGHT and mostly the German and Japanese governments were wrong. There was no moral equivalency between the actions of the Allies and the actions of the Germans and Japanese even though by today’s standards of military engagement we decry acts like the bombing of civilian centers like Dresden. The same is true today between Israel and its neighbors. There is absolutely no moral equivalency between what Hamas and terrorists do offensively and what Israel does defensively. Let us not apply a double standard against Israel that we are unwilling to apply to any other nation in equal measure.

Do most Jews and most Israelis all want a peaceful, two-state solution? Yes! So, let us put the pressure on those CAUSING the violence and not invent a false equivalency between the perpetrators (Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) and those trying to defend themselves (Israel). The facts are so clear to 80% of Americans (liberal and conservative) and to 96% of Israelis – there is a primary aggressor and a primary victim in this whole mess. Comparing the situation to European victimization of the Native Americans – Israelis are the Indians in the Middle East. Ironically, so are the Palestinians, but they are victims of their own leadership and of other Arab countries, not of Israel’s existence.

Any nation not willing to recognize Israel as a nation after sixty years is a part of the problem. Any Palestinian sheikh or political leader still holding onto an absurd notion of a literal right of return of Palestinians into Israel (not to the future Palestinian state) is a part of the problem. Many of us may not be aware of the new far left-wing call for a single, binational state (instead of a two-state solution) which is now adding to the problem since it would certainly mean the end to the Jewish state of Israel. Fuzzy thinking and inaccurate accusations of moral equivalency only adds to the problem. Indignation against Israel’s faults while ignoring the far more grievous faults of the Palestinian leadership only adds to the problem. Certainly some of Israel’s more foolish policies (home demolition, certain settlement policies, cultural prejudices, missing opportunities for interfaith dialogue, etc.) have added to the problem but is clearly not the root CAUSE of the problem.

Just as Israel generally (and quite imperfectly) affords equal rights for its Muslim, Druze, non-religious, and Christian citizens, so we would expect that a viable Palestinian state would assure security for it’s future Jewish and Christian citizens. If some of the settlements end up in a future Palestine will the Jewish settlers be permitted to live in their homes? Would Jews even be permitted to live in Palestine? At this point it seems unlikely. Muslim extremists are triumphalists as well as historical revisionists. Today Christian Palestinians are being subjected to a slow ethnic cleansing from their homes by Muslim Palestinian extremists (look at what has happened in Bethlehem in the last four decades). Sadly, that is hardly reported. Almost every Arab nation is now almost completely Yudenrein (Jew-free) as they used to say in Europe. There is no moral equivalent for that kind of bigoted, criminal behavior in Israel. Israel is an imperfect society where prejudice against Arabs (Arab Jews as well) is all too real. But the level of prejudice in Israel, as obnoxious as it is, is not equivalent to what is happening to minorities in the Palestinian territories.

A number of years ago I had the honor of staying in the home of Rabbi Dovid Zeller z”l for Shabbat. As many of you know he lived in the settlement of Efrat, and he was the quintessential model of what a real settler stands for in the territories – he loved the land of his ancestors (Judea and Sumaria) AND he worked so hard to bring all the people (Jews, Muslims, Druze, and Christian) who love the same land together toward a lasting and dignified peace for everyone. He was a Zionist AND a pluralist. I learned the following from one of his wonderful neighbors that Shabbat. Trading land for peace is trading a tangible (land) for an intangible (peace). Once land is traded then who is to say the intangible (peace) will be given in return. First we have to see evidence of peace (the intangible commodity) or at least a series of sincere peaceful gestures from the Palestinian leadership. In the case of Anwar Sadat z”l it was clear to every Israeli that his gestures of peace were deep-seated and sincere.

Israel is correct to be cautious when it comes to trading the one tangible commodity they are in control of (land) for something as intangible as peace. It’s been said many times before – if Hamas laid down its weapons there would likely be a chance for peace. If Israel laid down its arms there would likely be no Israel. In 1978 Abba Eban said that Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The same can be said this past year about the Palestinian leadership concerning the unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza. This was a perfect opportunity for Palestinians to come together and demonstrate their willingness for form a just and civil government willing to live at peace with its neighbor. Sadly, the factions within the Palestinian world (those willing to make peace with Israel and those unwilling to make peace with Israel) are now at war with each other.

Israel and America are the scapegoats for both the internal religious reformation and the culture clashes that are going on within the Islamic world. Israel is the victim of a terrible form of xenophobia, scapegoating, and anti-Semitism that exists within many Middle Eastern nations. The irony is that the Palestinian people are equally victimized by these other nations, but this is rarely the focus of many peace groups. Just compare the way Lebanon treats Palestinians in its nation (no voting rights, no land ownership, restricted work policy, etc.) to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Israel is a convenient scapegoat for the following myths: if there were no Israel there would be peace in the Middle East. If there no Israel the Palestinian people who have a safe and secure nation of their own. If extremists on both sides would only stop being violent there would be peace. The actions of the terrorists and the responses of the Israeli armed forces are morally equivalent and has led to a cycle of violence.

Missiles fired on S’derot do not help the Palestinian cause. The inability of Fatah to control the extremists is not helping the Palestinian cause. Palestinians electing Hamas to its government is a signal for war, not for peace. Blaming Israel for the bankrupt Palestinian economy does not help the Palestinian cause. Blaming Israel for erecting a security wall and fence when the CAUSE of the barrier is terrorism, does not help the cause of peace. Unlike the Berlin wall which was created to keep the citizens virtual prisoners in East Germany, the security barrier in Israel was created to keep terrorists out, and to protect Israeli citizens – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike.

Some powerful groups within the American peace community (e.g. ANSWER which has been in control of most of the larger anti-war protests in America) are clearly anti-Semitic and unwilling to condemn Palestinian terrorism, and this adds to the problem. Blaming Israel for checkpoints when the CAUSE of the checkpoints is terrorism does not help the cause of peace. America has terribly frustrating and inconvenient checkpoints at every airport, yet we would never accuse the American government of harassment. No, we realize that our airport checkpoints are a response to terrorism, and NOT the cause of terrorism. The same is true in Israel.

If Israel trades land for peace in the future, that is their right as a sovereign nation. But let us not think for a moment that Judea and Samaria were not the homeland of our people, or we fall prey to the replacement theology that is inherent to Wahhabist and extremist Shiite theology today (e.g., Isaac was not the son on the altar at the Akeidah, Moses and King David were Muslims,, there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was a Palestinian, etc.). I know all to well from my firsthand connection to Saudi funded Wahabists that this form of replacement theology is widespread in much of the Muslim world. Just as I do not accept replacement theology from the Christians I may respect and work with, I am not going to accept it from Muslims either. It is historical revisionism, and it is dangerous for us to let statements of Christian or Islamic replacement theology be spoken with no response. The “old” Testament is not replaced by the “new” Testament, Isaac was not replaced by Ishmael, and there really was Solomon’s “Jewish” Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. There is plenty of land in G-d’s kingdom for all of us to live together – Elder and Younger Testaments, Isaac and Ishmael, Israel and Palestine, the Dome of the Rock AND Solomon’s Temple.

In summary: it is incorrect to say that the self-defensive measures that Israel took last summer against an illegal terrorist militia (Hezbollah) rises to a level even comparable to the homicidal, xenophobic, and Islamofacism of Hamas…a group that named itself honestly for what it stands for – violence. Look at what the Muslim extremists are doing to themselves in Gaza, in Lebanon, and Iraq. Islamic extremism is the root CAUSE of the problems in the Middle east and in almost every single conflict around the globe. This is the sad fact that too many good folks in progressive circles are slow to comprehend. Let us face this fact quickly and try to come up with visionary, creative, messianic, and realistic solutions instead of blaming Israel for its measures of self-defense.

Once we deal with the ROOT CAUSE of violence in the Middle East (Islamic extremism) then the effect (Israel’s defensive military actions) go away. If we all stand as one against terrorism, Islamic extremism, and recognize that this is the primary cause of violence in the Middle East we will be building a foundation upon which real peace, real shalom/saalam can stand.

Critics of Israel often point to the unequal military might between the Israelis and the Palestinians. From a micro-viewpoint this certainly true. However, take a look at Israel from a macro-viewpoint and you can see what a small nation Israel is compared to twenty-one Arab nations (and a dozen more non-Arab Muslim nations not even on this map) geographically, militarily, and economically. The Middle East is roughly the size of the United States and Israel is roughly the size of Kentucky. The economic might of oil rich nations cannot be underestimated, and the military might and threat to Israel by nations like Syria and Iran certainly cannot be underestimated. It is incorrect to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of its full geopolitical and historic context.

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