Hillel, Tisha b’Av and the war in Gaza
Tisha b’Av, the day in the calendar that commemorates the evil that has been done to the Jewish people over time (most especially the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem) is nearly upon us. Each of us responds differently to the day. Many Jews will use Tisha b'Av as an occasion to revisit the traditional narrative of Jew as victim. Given the Jewish people’s long history of persecution that is quite understandable. For me, it is an opportunity to consider what Hillel referred to as the essence of the Torah, “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others” (in the interest of full transparency, I must acknowledge that whenever I am faced with a challenging question I always try to think, “what would Hillel do?”).
On Tisha b’Av we will read from the Book of Lamentations, which describes the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the horrors and suffering endured by those Jerusalemites who survived. We will also recall the Chorban by the Romans of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 AD. When I do so I can’t but help think of the stories in the Talmud and from Josephus of how the Biryonim and the Sicarii (groups of Zealots who objected to Roman rule) acted to force other Jews in Jerusalem to fight the Romans. In fact, Yochanan ben Zakkai had to be secreted out of Jerusalem in a coffin as the Zealots would not allow residents to leave the city.
I see an obvious parallel between the Jerusalemites at the time of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and today’s innocent residents of Gaza. I certainly do not mean to compare Israel’s actions to those of either Babylonia or Rome. And I understand that the war Israel is waging is a just war against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other fundamentalists who are Nihilists only too happy to sacrifice the lives of innocent Gazans for political and public relations gain. However, as Hillel taught, “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” And we Jews have been there. We know from the story of Yochanan ben Zakkai (Gittin 56a-b) the plight of those in Jerusalem who did not support the Zealots, but nonetheless were used by them as pawns and died at the hands of the Romans. We experienced what today would be called a “humanitarian crisis”-the deaths from hunger, thirst, and disease-following the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
Understandably the emotions of Israelis and Jews around the world are incredibly raw right now, which makes it that much harder to see ourselves standing in the shoes of the people who we associate with tunneling under Israel’s border and firing thousands of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians. We must force ourselves to remember that the vast majority of Gazans are not combatants in this war (and this is true even for those who voted for Hamas in the last election back in 2007-for those of you in the States reading this piece, who would want to be considered complicit in the Vietnam War? A war which was conducted by a duly elected American government). We should try to see ourselves as the mother or father whose house was destroyed, worrying about where our family can stay as the fighting rages on around us; and when there is no electricity, no food, no water.
A country owes its primary obligation to its citizens. The effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system combined with the depletion of Hamas’s stockpile of rockets and the degradation of Hamas’s tunnel network means that Operation Protective Edge has succeeded in saving the lives of countless Israelis over the last month and on into the future. Israel has been justified in its actions during the war, complying with international norms as it seeks to protect the lives of its citizens while at the same time employing due precaution in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. However, at some point we as Jews need to go beyond the letter of the law (lifnim m’shurat ha’din).
We need to understand that thousands and thousands of lives of innocent Gazans are in jeopardy (not just potential injury and death associated with the continuation of Israel’s military campaign, but from the attendant destruction of the infrastructure necessary to support 1.7 million people in a densely populated space). As much as we want to finish off Hamas we must reflect on our obligation to the human beings caught in the cross fire and give serious consideration to unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza. It is contemptible that Hamas does not care about the lives of their fellow Gazans, but that does not release us from the obligation to do so-in fact, it is the Jewish thing to do!
Jeffrey Schwarz is a board member and supporter of numerous American Jewish organizations.