Saturday, December 22, 2007
An Israeli Joke That Sounds Better in Hebrew
Two Israeli Jews meet each other on the street: -Oy, Shimon, this business in Sderot is awful. How come we can't stop those Kassam rockets? -Nu, we are afraid of the Americans. Now here's what we should do. We should drop leaflets over Gaza saying that we will give them five days to stop the Kassams. We wait five days, and then if the Kassams don't stop, we bomb the hell out of them. --Why wait five days? Why not bomb them now? --Nu, there's no need to exaggerate. I was reminded of this joke when I read one of the Letters to the Editor in Haaretz today, which seriously proposed "Shimon's" solution. From the style and tenor of the letter, it seems to have been written by an older gentlemen. He may have sent it by email, but I like to think that he typed the letter, put in an envelope, went to the post office, and sent it Haaretz to do his little bit for the security of the Jewish state. I hope I don't exaggerate if I suggest that this sums up the moral reasoning of many Israelis. I don't mean to say that most Israelis advocate "bombing the hell out of Gaza". Many would approve of less drastic measures, such as cutting off their electricity and fuel supply. But the reasoning goes like this: "We could, if we wanted to, flatten Gaza. The reason that we don't is that we are Jews, and therefore generous, and exceedingly moral, and while we would be justified in taking such drastic measures -- such is the world we live in -- that is not what Jews do." That is probably the self-image of most people claiming to be moral. But as a Jew among Jews, I am most familiar with the Jewish version. For much of their history, the Jews have suffered from what I call "moral chauvinism", the belief that they are morally superior to others. It is an affliction that affects all civilizations -- it certainly affected Christianity and Islam -- but I am most familiar with the Jewish version, which may be particularly intense, primarily because the Jews lacked other ways to assert their superiority. As the Talmud says, the Gentiles may have Wisdom, but only the Jews have Torah, which is the moral and spiritual code par excellence. Without power, moral chauvinism is relatively harmless. But combine it with power, and a religious or a nationalist ideology, and you have a recipe for disaster. One of the most fascinating aspects of David Ben-Gurion's personality was his deeply-held moral convictions, and his belief in Judaism's fundamental morality. Unlike some of his Israeli contemporaries, he did not chafe at what he considered to be the moral requirements of Judaism, or of humanity as a whole. This is, I believe, what brought him close to Judah Magnes, whom he admired, and who admired him. But, like so many other Jews, he refused to be held account morally by the goyim, and he was always able to justify his actions (though not always the actions of his close associates); his regret, when shown, was always too little and late (His disciple, President Shimon Peres, has followed him closely in this; witness his expressions of regret this past weekend for the massacre of the Kfar Kassem villagers by the IDF a half-century ago.) The difficulty with the appeals to morality is that in wartime, what seems "reasonable", or "morally justifiable," or "a moderate response" is tremendously skewed. That is why we have international laws and conventions on war. One can hardly think of an aggressor state in modern times that did not have a battery of judges, lawyers, and philosophers, who would patiently and convincingly attempt to justify the aggressions of their clients. International law and conventions on war attempt to provide a neutral space in which arguments can be heard and decided. Of course, even with international law, the offending states have lawyers, and the system of justice and sanctions is often ineffective. Look at the case of Israel's security/land grab fence/wall that was condemned roundly by the International Criminal Court but still stands today. But as bad as the situation is, the alternative is to return to the utter lawlessness of the twentieth century, and who wants to go back there? There may come a day when a state is restrained by acting immorally because such action is recognized as illegal, and sanctions will ensue. Until then, I recommend that we be highly skeptical of moral and legal arguments that are offered by the attorneys for the defense. Some of the most brilliant minds are prone to self-serving legal theories -- Haaretz had an item yesterday which showed how Israeli professor of law, Ruth Gavison, had wondered aloud before the Winograd Commission about "modifying" international human rights restraints in order to shorten conflicts, even if that meant greater civilian deaths and property damage. (The full article in English will appear here, God willing, in a few days.) I see no essential difference between Shimon of our joke and Prof. Gavison, the former head of the Israeli Association of Civil Rights, and a potential Supreme Court Justice. Both use self-serving justifications for doing what is evil and illegal. This is what happens to the moral judgment of people when states are at war. Look at what has happened to the US during the Bush presidency. The problem is that Israel has been at war for over sixty years. Imagine what the US would be like in such a situation.