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.


Anonymous said...

I think Israel is doing a much better job in Gaza than about a year ago when there were many civilian causalties(although there are pictures of people firing rockets right next to a school). I personnaly think Israel should continue what its doing until Hamas stops firing rockets. The people in Sderot should get alot of compensation from the Israeli goverment though.

Jerry Haber said...

gabachrach, it is not hamas that is firing Kassams, it is Islamic jihad.

Anonymous said...

...Im pretty sure Hamas could stop Islamic Jihad if they wanted to.

Unknown said...

Jerry,let's be real. It is Islamic jihad with the blessings of the ruling Hamas.

Richard said...

Hamas, Islamic Jihad--aren't they all the same?? That's a joke btw.

I don't want this to be too gushing but I think this is one of yr best posts. Very wise.

It reminded me also of the stance most of the Israeli left took to the Lebanon war. The almost universal support for the war (except for the Hadash forces) made me reluctantly realize that I can only have a tactical alliance with any progressive Israeli who could not have seen fr. the get go the utter disastrousness of that conflict. Till then, I had really seen Peace Now & Meretz as my political/ideological home.

But I really don't have my heart in a Hadash position either. So there you go...Maybe we can revive Brit Shalom?

Jerry Haber said...

To Ploni and gbacharach,

I am too busy to look into the matter more carefully -- I was merely repeating what I read in Haaretz about the latest Kassams. It is not all that clear that Hamas has the power or the will to stop all the shellings. The current situation is very complex. In principle, Israel should be talking with the government of the PA. But the PA is in disarray (I will not point fingers here), and the current situation is complex.

Anyway, I think we can agree that were there to be an independent Palestinian state, the government would be expected to rein in its militants, as Israel and Jordan have done in the past.

And gbachrach, I have read Karsh's work. He and Yoav Gelber are the only rightwingers worth reading. But they differ. Gelber is a genuine historian, whereas Karsh is so ideologically possessed that his conclusions are not to be trusted.

Yet, I will say this for Karsh. I think Benny Morris's work is better now that he knows that Karsh is looking over his shoulder. Karsh's work provides an important service in that regard.

Jerry Haber said...


Isn't there a Brit Tzedek ve-Shalom?

For the last few elections I have found my home in Hadash. I have also decided to leave Meretz formally and join Hadash. In my opinion, that's your party.

I would like to think that we will see more Jews supporting Hadash, especially since Dov Henin is in the Knesset. Henin is the natural successor to Tamar Gozansky -- he is a brilliant lawyer and an active parliamentarian on social and environmental issues. When I have time, I will write a post about Hadash.

Look, they are politicians, and I can't be in love with political parties. But they still believe in the Jewish-Palestinian partnership, even though Hadash is essentially an Arab party.

Balad is a bit too much for me, but "some of my best friends" vote Balad.

Anonymous said...


If I lived in Israel Iwould find my political home in Alle Yarok, the only political party in the Holy Land with any integrity!


Anonymous said...

Regarding the final paragraph -

For a period of over 10 years, the U.S. government inflicted what was, in effect, a monthly 9/11 (in terms of lives lost) on the Iraqi people via an evil sanctions regime. My guess is that we Americans would be living under martial law, and then some, if something like that were to happen to us.

Sydney Nestel said...


In what way was Ben Gurion "close" to Magnes.

Ben Gurion was NOT concerned with human rights - just State rights. Ben Gurion disdained all "galut" Jewish values, and promoted mythical "pre-galut" Jewish values. His adopted name Hebrew name should be the give-away re his understanding of the essentials of Jewish values. Ben Gurion had been in favour of a Jewish State (as opposed to a bi-national State) from at least 1933, and probably before. Ben Gurion supported - if not created - the policies of Avodah Ivrit and Kniah Ivrit - the beginning of the "separate development" that IMO was the original great failure of Zionism. Finally, Ben Gurion was the prime engineer of the ethnic cleansing of 1948/49.

In ways ways are these points close to Magnes?

Jerry Haber said...

Sydney, you misunderstood me. When I said "close", I meant that they were on very good terms personally. Magnes begins his last letter to Ben-Gurion, written several months before his premature death, with "Dear and honored friend" (Dissent in Zion, p. 507) Arthur Goren writes, "Despite their polarity of views, Magnes and Ben-Gurion held each other in high esteem." Ben-Gurion consulted with him ,argued with him, and chastized him for his unauthorized diplomacy.

As for Ben-Gurion's moral compass -- that, of course, is a complicated issue, but he appealed often to the "ethics of the prophets", he considered Begin a terrorist, he condemned Deir Yassin for pragmatic and principled purpose, and he positioned himself in the middle between the extremes of the revisionists and the non-statists. He was also a socialist, of course.
Anyway, this is really a topic in and of itself, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I must say that I was at first surprised when you said that "Ben-Gurion and Magnes held each other in high esteem" because BG usually despised anyone who got in his way. However, I also know that the old MAPAI leaders, almost all of whom lacked formal education (Golda Meir wrote about this in her autobiography) had an inferiority complex regarding intellectuals, so on second thought it would not be surprising that BG would play up to Magnes, hoping to get the intelligentsia on his side. This is the reason for BG's mania in buying books he never had time to read-he wanted to impress visitors.

Jerry Haber said...

I have to look into the Magnes Ben-Gurion relationship more carefully; unfortunately, the relevant books are not with me at the moment.

I would not call Magnes an intellectual though, this despite the fact that he had a German doctorate. Most people confuse Magnes with the Brit Shalom crowd, Buber, Simon, etc. Magnes was essentially a rabbi and public figure; as a university chancellor and president he raised money and made speeches. But, as far as I know, he produced no scholarship at all after his doctorate.

Still, he was a university president, so that gave him luster. But one of the reasons why Einstein opposed his appointment was that, as an academic, he was a lightweight. In fact, he had no weight at all. He was simply a liberal rabbi.