Reflections on Kana from Rabbi Shelton Donnell, C" 77, a rabbinical mentor at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Reflection #28
"The Difference Between Them and Us"
Rabbi Shelton Donnell, C '77, a rabbinical mentor at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
Monday, July 31, 2006 

It goes without saying, but it needs to be said, that the deaths of the civilians on Sunday at Kfar Kana is a tragedy. Life, all life, is sacred in Judaism-even the life of your enemy. 

I am reminded of the rabbis' commentary to the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea following the Exodus. The Midrash teaches that the angels on high saw the Egyptian soldiers and their chariots sinking in the sea and joyfully burst out in song in honor of Israel's "triumph." In response, God silenced the angels and said: "My children are drowning, how can you sing?" And that is why during the Passover Seder we take ten drops from our wine cups (the symbol of joy) as each of the Ten Plagues is recalled-we cannot have unmitigated joy, even for our liberation, when it comes at the price of human life. 

If this is true for those pursuing us seeking our destruction, how much the more so for innocents caught up in the horrors of war? And so, our Israeli leaders immediately expressed regret for the deaths, a 48-hour suspension of bombing Lebanon has been called so that a proper investigation of the tragic incident can be conducted and in the Israeli streets there is a tangible sense of regret that these people had to die. There is no singing and rejoicing here neither by Israelis nor by any angels on high. 

And that, dear friends, is part of the difference between them and us - we do not target civilians, their rockets and missiles specifically do. We mourn the loss of innocent life; they hold "spontaneous" rallies when our women, men and children die. We do everything possible to protect our non-combatants; they intentionally use civilians (even children) as human shields for their operations.

And that is what makes prosecuting this war so difficult. 

The media decries Israel's "disproportionate" military response and questions the legitimacy of continuing the war against Hezbollah. Western diplomats call upon Israel to accept an immediate cease-fire while the rocket-rain of death continues to fall on civilian population centers in Israel. In the capitals of Arab countries where there is no love lost on Hezbollah, rulers and despots shout "War crimes!" Indeed, one might well argue that there is a worldwide "disproportionate" moral response to the jeopardizing of innocents in this war; holding Israel culpable for all deaths while absolving the guilt of Hezbollah (and the government of Lebanon in which Hezbollah continues to play an active role). 

Consider the following:

  • Israel has publicly declared that this war is against Hezbollah and not against the Lebanese government or Lebanese civilians.
  • Hezbollah has proclaimed to the world that its aim is the destruction of Israel and that all Israelis are targeted as "the enemy."
  • Israel consistently goes out of its way to minimize civilian casualties as official military policy and when there is a loss of civilian life a military investigation is usually carried out immediately.
  • Hezbollah specifically targets civilian centers, calling them "military" targets (in other words, Hezbollah itself makes no distinction between combatants and non-combatants as legitimate targets).
  • Israel's military does everything possible to keep hostilities away from its civilian population (that is why it is called the Israel Defense Forces).
  • Hezbollah uses civilians as human shields as a cover for its operations and to "protect" its weapons caches and strongholds, and then when civilians become casualties, it uses the tragedy to advance its own propaganda agenda.
  • When an Israeli soldier dies, the IDF and the Israeli people extend their deepest sympathies and mourn with the family.
  • When a Hezbollah fighter is killed (or any other Arab caught up in the fighting), the family is called upon to "rejoice" over the martyrdom.

The observations above are not tendentious interpretations intended to whitewash Israeli actions, they are facts. Though there may certainly be exceptions to any of the statements, I challenge anyone to disprove them categorically. 

That still does not bring back the dead from Kfar Kana, or those from Haifa either. But, I ask you to consider the following facts about what happened in Kfar Kana when confronting unilateral condemnation of Israel for this tragedy.

  • The IDF publicly and in a timely manner warned the civilian population in South Lebanon to remove themselves from the hostilities.
  • Hezbollah forces have blocked the free-flow of civilian refugees from South Lebanon, preventing many from escaping to the relative safety of the north.
  • There are IDF surveillance videos showing Hezbollah rocket launchers moving into and launched out of Kfar Kana and its immediate vicinity.
  • The building in which the innocent civilians took refuge for the night was bombed seven hours before the collapse of the building (these people did not die during an Israeli bombing).
  • And again, Hezbollah-as a matter of policy-used these same civilians as a shield to cover their military operations against civilians in Israel.

While it is true that no justification of the IDF's actions can revive these people or erase the suffering of innocents, shouldn't the world pause and consider the facts before laying the blame on Israel alone? Why the disproportionate moral response to this tragedy? 

So why is it that Israel gets all the blame and Hezbollah gets virtually none? Why is Israel called upon (rightly) to observe all the minutiae of international law while Hezbollah is not? Cynically, we know the answers, don't we? War is not, after all, about morality it is about politics and the strategies necessary to achieve specific ideological goals. That is real politic, isn't it? 

Israel's goals are to achieve the right to live peacefully in the State of Israel. This has been stated time and time again. Hezbollah's goals are to destroy Israel and to spread its radical form of Islam from Spain to Iraq (echoed in the words of Ayman al-Zawahri the second-in-command of Al Qaida). That, my friends, is the difference between them and us. We know it and we must do all that we can to make sure that the leaders of the world acknowledge it. It must strengthen our resolve to persevere, not cower us into submission. 

Pray for us-by that I mean all of us, Israelis and Lebanese and Palestinian-pray for the success of all those whose goals are peace, real peace. 

Shalom from Jerusalem. 


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