Next week, I will be taking a mission to Israel; this is my third trip there since October 7th. Like the previous two trips, we will be making an unusual stop: an army base.
Soldiers and tourists are a strange combination; in no other country do visits like these happen.
So why are we going to the army bases? Because the soldiers of the IDF are our heroes.
You would get a very different picture of the IDF on Tiktok, in college campuses, and at the International Court of Justice. There, the State of Israel is libeled, and the IDF is the very source of demonization.
Israel (and the IDF) have been charged with genocide in this so-called court of justice, whose judges include representatives from China and Russia, well-known paragons of human rights. The ICJ filing notes that the following countries have made official claims that Israel is committing genocide:
Bolivia, Brazil,Colombia, Cuba, Iran, Türkiye, and Venezuela.
This recalls the well-known adage that you can judge a person by the character of their enemies. When such a rogue’s gallery are your accusers, you know you must be doing something right.
There is much to be said in response to this accusation, but I will not rehash those arguments here. Suffice it to say that Bret Stephens got it right when he called the accusation of genocide against Israel a moral obscenity.
It is an obscenity because genocide is precisely what Israel’s eenemy Hamas is attempting to do.
It is an obscenity to equate the Jews, the victims of the worst genocide in human history, with the Nazis.
It is an obscenity because countries like North Korea, China, and Iran, are treated as upstanding members of the international community, while a democracy is the subject of obsessive criticism.
It is an obscenity because it avoids even the smallest measure of truth. The Arab citizens of Israel live in freedom, while the Arab citizens of Gaza have lived in fear since Hamas took over in 2006. Arab Israelis have supported Israel in its war against Hamas; one early poll found 70% of Arab Israelis support the war. But neither before October 7th, nor since then, has there been much mention of the crimes Hamas perpetrated against its own citizens, including murdering opponents and stealing aid for the poor to build its war machine.
And the accusations against the IDF are a bald-faced lie. Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in 2014:
Israelis know that the IDF does not deliberately kill civilians. We know this because we are the IDF—because our sons, our neighbors’ sons, have been fighting in Gaza. We know that dead Palestinian civilians serve the interests only of Hamas, not Israel….We know that mistakes happen in war because, unlike many of Israel’s critics in the West, Israelis know war. We know that houses in Gaza were booby-trapped, that schools and mosques concealed arms caches and entrances to tunnels and were repeatedly used as launching pads for rockets.
That was 2014. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
This horrid accusation in The Hague is of great strategic value to Hamas. It is an ugly piece of propaganda masquerading as idealism, and manages to shape the entire world’s perspective on Israel. It stretches open the window of what is acceptable discourse about Israel, and allows lies and libels to go mainstream.
Relative moderates unconsciously follow suit. The New York Times had an absurd article analyzing the social media accounts of Israeli soldiers who had posted insensitive TikTok videos from Gaza. Yes, they found 50 videos the reporters considered inappropriate. How is this a headline in a war that had disgusting and depraved crimes filmed with delight by Hamas? And you make a case based on 50 TikTok? Tens of thousands of Israeli troops have served in Gaza, the vast majority of whom have conducted themselves with honor.
The Times hasn’t informed its readers when it will analyze TikTok accounts of other armies.
The IDF is held to a standard of perfection, and criticized mercilessly for every misstep.
Where does this criticism come from? Undoubtedly, some are pushed by compassion for the Palestinian civilians who are caught in this crossfire.
It goes without saying, although it still needs to be said, that we are in profound pain because of the death and destruction the Palestinians have had to endure.
Jews see every human being as one of God’s children, created in the divine image. Jews dream of a day when all of humanity turns to peace, and comes together as one.
It is precisely this idealism that leads many people, including some young Jews, to feel an intuitive sense of compassion for the poor victims of this war.
But compassion should never distort our sense of justice.
There is a strange verse in Exodus 23:3, which is directed at judges:
“You shall not show deference to a poor man in his dispute.”
The commentaries are perplexed by this. Generally, it is the powerful, not the poor, who can influence judges and twist judgments. Why is a commandment required to tell judges not to favor the poor?
On this point, many commentaries respond that pious judges may be tempted to distort judgment out of compassion, hoping to give the underdog a leg up.
But there is a further question. The phrasing of this command in Hebrew refers to “deference” which the court might consider giving to the poor person. That seems strange; the verse should have referred to mercy on the poor, which might interfere with judgment. Honoring the poor seems incongruous; people ordinarily honor the wealthy.
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann notes that the Bible critic Karl August Knobel emended the text, and turned poor (dal) into great (gadol.) But well before Knobel confronted this problem, Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides offered a thoughtful solution. He explains that some assume misery implies a noble goodness. One’s poverty is thought of as proof of virtue. One might be tempted to assume that the underdog is always right.
This is why Israel faces a unique challenge; in the court of public opinion, those who are strong are assumed to be wrong. Might makes for moral failure. Those who wear the laurels of victimhood best deserve the sympathy of the world.
Because of these unconscious assumptions, the IDF is maligned; even allies engage in a perfunctory denunciation of Israeli excesses.
Some newspaper reporters have become advocates, and turn every bit of data into an indictment of Israel. To quote Alice in Wonderland, these journalists practice the method of “sentence first, verdict afterwards.”
But the evidence shows otherwise. John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, wrote that:
“In my opinion Israel has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties in urban warfare than any other military in the history of war.”
Spencer points out the multiple measures Israel has used to diminish civilian casualties, including the use of air-dropped flyers to give instructions on evacuations, radio and social media messages, phone calls and texts to civilians, and roof-knocking, (which Spencer points out that “no military has ever implemented in war.”)
A quick comparison to the battle in Mosul from October 2016 to July 2017 is instructive. The US coalition attacked ISIS in an urban area slightly less densely populated than Gaza, which resulted in killing 2,500 ISIS fighters. However, this battle resulted in somewhere between 5,000 and 11,000 civilian deaths. This ratio of civilian to military deaths of anywhere between 2:1 and 4:1. Currently, the ratio in Gaza 1.8:1.
Spencer is right about the IDF.
Death is always horrible. And all the data in the world will not overcome the tragedy of dead children. And that is what Hamas has been hoping for; they take their own civilians and use them as human shields, and hope that by doing so, the world will prevent Israel from fighting back.
It is here where the calls for a ceasefire begin. But they are generally an exercise in moral condescension. Those who live comfortably in America and have nothing to lose counsel a country that has everything to lose to be patient and lay down their arms in the face of a depraved, bloodthirsty enemy. Sinwar and other Hamas leaders have vowed to repeat October 7th again and again until they destroy Israel. We must take them at their word. To ask Israel, in the name of a phony peace, to allow Hamas to regroup and attack again is suicidal.
Jews know better; empty moral gestures are actually immoral. In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote the following to the head of the German Jewish community, Rabbi Leo Baeck: “My advice to German Jews would be that they commit suicide on a single day, at a single hour. Then would the conscience of Europe awake.” Baeck gave a blunt response: “We Jews know that the single most important commandment of God is to live.” For Jews, pacifism is immoral, because we have a responsibility to care for our own lives and defend ourselves.
Baeck is absolutely correct. Rashi in our Torah reading cites the well-known Talmudic rule that “one who comes to kill you, you kill them first.” There is a holy obligation to defend our own lives, our own children, and our own country.
Yet this is a very painful obligation. Israel sends its best and brightest to the front lines; and far too many have fallen in battle.
But there is no choice. Cowardice in the face of evil surrenders the world to the wicked. The young men and women in Israel put their lives on the line for the sacred task of protecting those who are good.
Hamas fights because they hate those who stand before them; the IDF fights because they love those who stand behind them. And that is why the soldiers of the IDF are our heroes.
I recently read a short post about Capt. Rotem Levi, who fell in battle in December. His aunt sent this story to Sivan Rahav Meir, who shared it on her social media accounts.
“During the Shiva for Rotem, a comrade of Rotem’s explained that one night during battle, when they were together, this soldier couldn’t turn on his lightstick, and in frustration called out ‘enough, what do you want! Everything here is darkness.’
Rotem, with absolute calm, said “Turn around. Do you see Nir Oz? (A Kibbutz in the Gaza envelope that was attacked.) This is our light, this is what brings us light.”
Rotem knew why he was on the front lines; he could turn around and see exactly what he was fighting for. I am heartbroken that this great man had to give up his life to protect Israel. But even in the darkest stretch of Gaza, he kept his eye on what matters: his people, his country. He was thinking of all of us right before he lost his life.
And that is why we are visiting army bases. When the rest of the world turns its back on IDF, we will be there for them. We will tell our beloved soldiers that we stand with Rotem, and we stand with the IDF.
And to tell them that Rotem was a hero, they all are our heroes.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.