Responsibility without fault in Gaza: A challenge for American Jews

Consider this scenario: a wanted international terrorist is fleeing law enforcement and seizes your house. (You are away at the time, fortunately.) The Army surrounds the house but the terrorist is well armed, as terrorists are wont to be: sending in troops would mean severe casualties and many deaths. So the Army decides to shoot a missile into the house. It kills the terrorist, but it also destroys the house. Problem solved – sort of.

You return home and say to the Army, “Uh, great, but what about my house?” The commander replies, “Sorry buddy – not our fault. Blame the terrorist.” The Army then washes its hands of the matter. You and your family are now homeless.

What do you think that the Army’s responsibility is here? Perhaps some would say “none.” It decided to save its own personnel’s lives instead of saving the house, and that was proper. But that doesn’t help you at all.

More importantly, most of us would recoil at such an outcome. The Army did the right thing, but in doing so caused a real and severe loss to an innocent person, namely: you. And it does no good to say that the terrorist “should” pay for the damage. The terrorist is dead, and his fellow murderers don’t care about innocents: that’s what makes them terrorists, after all.

Here, then, the Army can have responsibility without fault. It caused damage for legitimate reasons, but that does not excuse it from compensating victims, at least partially, for the damage it caused. It is innocent, but so are the victims. The Army made choices concerning the means it used, and chose to save itself. That was legitimate, but it has a special responsibility in making the innocent victims whole.

This is the situation the Jewish community confronts, at least to the extent that we identify with Israel. The IDF has used airstrikes in its campaign against Hamas for a very good reason: they pose massively smaller risks for IDF personnel than a pure ground campaign. Completely fair, but it hardly implies that we can wash our hands of the damage and destruction that we have caused.

And make no mistake; that damage is devastating. Tens of thousands are homeless. More go without medical case, an effect of Hamas using hospitals as weapons platforms. The water and sewer system, on the brink before the war, has been largely destroyed, threatening a public health emergency.

As a community with pretenses to moral action, we have at least some moral responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance to those who have suffered and are still suffering. We do not have full responsibility, but we have a special one.

In Leviticus 19:33-34, we are told, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Why would God specifically point to foreigners residing “among you” and “in your land”? The Gaza war points to it: different peoples living cheek-by-jowl, as Jews and Palestinians do, will fight, often viciously and brutally. Horrible violence will occur, and innocents will suffer. The Tanach tells us that even if we are justified, we must assume responsibility for the stranger in our midst. It also points to special obligations we have for those living next door: humanitarian disasters circle the globe, but we must take care of our neighbors.

Let us reconsider our original scenario. Note how it gets worse if your children are still in the house, the Army sends in the missile to save its soldiers and your children get killed in the process. Then the Army has decided to save soldiers while knowing that civilians would get killed instead. Justified? I believe so. We all know who is real bad guy here: the terrorist. But that hardly means that the Army has no responsibility: it just means that it isn’t at fault.

My argument differs from Heschel’s aphorism that “few are guilty but all are responsible.” That is true, but it is not what I contend here. Heschel averred that all human beings have a responsibility for each other. This is a responsibility-without-fault that simply comes from being created in the image of God. Jews of course have this as well, but here, the responsibility comes from causing damage and being neighbors, not from existing.

So far, the response of the American Jewish community – the safest and most prosperous in Jewish history has been disappointing. No one in the community – even those figures calling for “compassion” for Gazan civilians – has suggested that we actually do anything about it. Unless something is done soon, at best it will be compassion on the cheap, an empty gesture unworthy of a great people.

It will not do to protest that Hamas will steal the aid money. Hamas will attempt to do so, but organizations exist that carry excellent records of getting aid money where it is needed. One that has recently come to my attention is American Near East Refugee Aid, or ANERA, which has a superb record of transparency and high quality of services. Even its critics concede as much, and object only that ANERA has not explicitly blamed Hamas for all of the destruction in Gaza. That may be true but it is beside the point: as a Jewish community we have a responsibility to alleviate suffering that we have caused, even under justifiable circumstances. ANERA is a way to do that.

Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “left wing Jews should not allow themselves to be guilty of the crime of ingratitude with regards to the idea of Jewish power…ugly though it is to see people being killed by our soldiers, that is just the way it works in the grown up world.” He is correct, although one also cannot shy away from the possibility that Jewish power has been misused. 

But assuming that it has not, all Jews need to accept that with power comes responsibility, and many times responsibility comes without fault. That is also the way it works in the grown up world.