The latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has, unsurprisingly, been as polarising as ever. If one sympathises with Israel, then one cannot support the Palestinians, and vice-versa. But does it have to be like that? We have a strong Jewish precedent for a better and more nuanced way to approach this.
As our forefather Jacob headed back to Israel after more than twenty years away, he reached out to his brother Esau with a message of good will, and received word that Esau was on his way to meet him, together with several hundred armed men. Jacob needed to prepare for battle. The verse relates (Bereishit 32:8): “And Jacob was very frightened and distressed”. What was behind the two different emotions Jacob felt? The medieval commentator Rashi explains that Jacob feared his own death, and in addition was distressed that he may need to kill in order to defend himself.
Somewhat more recently, Golda Meir appeared to express a similar sentiment: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
Let’s unpack the difference. Jacob first feared for his own death. There was no doubt that he had every right to defend himself and would do so. However, on consideration of the consequence of self defence, Jacob was confronted with distress: that defending himself may result in the death of others. For Jacob, it was not a binary: he could not be comforted at the prospect of killing just because he was saving himself. On the contrary, that compounded his fear.
Israel has a right – indeed an obligation – to protect its citizens from harm (we know this to be true – Joe Biden keeps affirming it). Protection isn’t just defensive – using Iron Dome and running to bomb shelters with every siren. Israel must also reduce the capacity of Hamas to keep firing rockets by targeted strikes – it cannot allow its population to live in constant fear of attacks. And that has consequences. Innocent Palestinians living in Gaza will die.
Golda Meir took a different perspective to Jacob, imagining a peaceful future where she might be able to look back and reflect on the actions Israel needed to take. In doing so, she felt worse about the actions required to defend, than the death of her own citizens. We don’t know how she felt as a leader making decisions that would have awful consequences for Israel’s enemies.
Jacob’s approach represents the mixed emotions of fighting a defensive war. In that situation, the lives of oneself and one’s nation remain the highest priority, yet at the same time one may not be callous about the inevitable collateral loss. It’s not a simplistic case of black and white, rather the uncomfortable shades of grey in between where we can be both fear for our lives, and be distressed at what befalls others. That is the real world.
This was originally posted at The Times of Israel, May 28, 2021