Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mattot-Masei

Thoughts of war and reports of conflict preceded my arrival to Jerusalem.  I however found none.  I discovered only a city intoxicated with life.

This week’s Torah portion describes Israel’s war with the Midianites.  It is an ugly affair.  Moses instructs his commanders to spare no one.  “Moses became angry with the commanders and said, ‘You have spared every female!  Yet they are very ones who induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord...’” (Numbers 31)  

Today in Israel the papers reported a different approach to waging war.  They reported that Israel would prosecute a soldier for manslaughter in the Cast Lead operation of January 2009.  The staff sergeant is accused of shooting and killing a Palestinian woman.  The army’s advocate general has investigated 30 similar cases.

Most Israelis appear proud that their country seeks to live by the highest moral standards, even when waging a conflict with terrorist organizations who refuse to follow accepted rules of war.  The Torah’s approach to the Midianites is not modern Israel’s approach to its enemies.  The dilemma in fighting terrorism is that it purposely makes every citizen into a combatant.  It intentionally blurs the distinction between soldier and civilian when for example firing missiles from a school playground or when hiding its commanders in a hospital.

In bringing this case Israel argues that its soldiers must see beyond this intended obfuscation and see the distinction between combatant and civilian brightly and clearly.  This is in part how Israel rises above conflict and war.  There are those who argue that the Middle East is a rough neighborhood and that Israel will only succeed when it fights as Moses appears to advocate, with ferocity and vengeance.  There are those who see in the Torah’s words license to kill all our enemies so that we might one day live in peace and security.

I spent this week debating such moral questions.  We argued whether for example, the woman who feeds a homicide bomber deserves the same judgment as the bomber, whether she is the same as an army’s cook. Israel operates as if she is different.  While Obama and Netanyahu debate peace talks, Israel continues to negotiate this difficult moral equation.  How does one fight terrorism while preserving our Jewish values and morals?

Our morality must be our guiding force. It is what gives life meaning.  It is what animates this city.  It is what gives life to the city of Jerusalem.  

In the United States we see only the conflict, we read only of the possibility of war.  We see only the images of battle.  We see only the pictures of ongoing conflict.  In Israel the questions and complexities of this struggle is what gives life to this city.  It is part of what brings me back to this place year in and year out.

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