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Whatever Happened to Evil? (Jerusalem Post)

July 18, 2014

Evil4When the dust finally settles, when we can finally breathe again and begin to learn the lessons of this war-of-sorts, we’ll have more than our share of questions to ask.

Are the residents of Israel any safer than they were before? Is it really possible that a power like Israel cannot rid Gaza of rockets? Will Israel, when it’s all over, have sold out the residents of the South once again? Will we have created more cities like Sderot, in which the only people who live there are the ones who cannot afford to move away? Beyond the war, there will be deeper questions about our leadership and our society. To what extent did the government’s (apparent) decision to lie about the fact that it knew from the very beginning that Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel were almost certainly dead – thus unleashing three weeks of prayer, desperation, worry and unbridled emotion – foster an environment that contributed to the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir? And what is Israel going to do about that swathe of its society that sees nothing wrong with chanting “Death to Arabs” at football games and that, at heated moments a few weeks ago, spread across downtown Jerusalem looking for Arabs to beat up? We ignore these questions, and many others, at our own risk.

At this moment, though, I find myself consumed by a different question altogether.Evil2

It is, quite simply, this: Where has the word “evil” gone? Why are so many otherwise intelligent people so incapable of calling Hamas what it so obviously is? No matter what one thinks about the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian statehood or occupation, there is something perverse about the implicit critique that this was not a “fair fight.” Ben Wedeman, reporting for CNN, remarked on the air more than once this week that Gaza was not protected by an Iron Dome system. That’s true, of course, but hints at a perverse worldview. Why note that Gaza has no Iron Dome, unless you’re really suggesting that this is a battle between two morally equivalent sides and thus ought to unfold on a level playing field? If only that perversity was limited to CNN, it would be less awful. But consider this, part of a letter sent by a rabbi who was (rightly) bemoaning the fact that the fighting was not nearly over.

What would the coming days bring, this rabbi asked in an open letter to the entire congregation? “More Hamas rockets landing in populated Israeli cities, not all of which will be thwarted by Israel’s missile defense system. More Israeli air strikes in densely populated Gaza (which, by the way, has no Iron Dome and only few shelters), which means more Palestinian civilians, inevitably, caught in the crossfire.”

Evil1Note the balance. Israelis suffer. Palestinians suffer. But note also the complaint about the imbalance – for Israelis are protected by Iron Dome, and Palestinians are not. What’s missing from this letter is the simple ability to call Israel’s enemies “evil.”

What’s missing is any recognition that Article XIII of Hamas’s charter says, explicitly, that “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions… are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad.”

What’s missing is acknowledgment that Hamas will stop attacking Israel when Israel is no more. I don’t expect Ben Wedeman to care about that. But rabbis?! Even when it comes to Hamas, we need balance? Here’s more balance, from the very same letter. “So we stand, breathless, on the cusp of Shabbat – still grieving over Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, sick, ashamed and shocked by the vicious murder of Muhammad, awake, finally, to the inevitable outcome of years of hatred and racism, occupation and terror.”

The conflict with Hamas is the result of occupation? How about Article XXXII of their charter: “Leaving the circle of conflict with Israel is a major act of treason and it will bring curse on its perpetrators.” Disney brings us the circle of life; Hamas is dedicated to the circle of conflict. But Jews, even rabbis, can’t say that any longer. The murderers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir are pure evil (yes, actually, they are), but Hamas is not? What’s happened to us? At a recent meeting with a group of progressive American rabbis, I offhandedly used the term “Amalek” to refer to Hamas. One of the rabbis asked, very respectfully, if I could help him think about a different vocabulary to use about Hamas, one that “reflects Jewish values.” I was actually dumbstruck for a moment. I’d thought that in mentioning Amalek, I was referring to Jewish values.Evil3

Have we gotten to the point that tikkum olam (whatever that means) and tzelem Elokim (being created in God’s image) are Jewish values, but that eradicating evil is not? That’s a bizarre bastardization of how Judaism has always seen the world. A world in which one refuses to call out evil is a world in which the meaning of goodness is also radically diminished.

Is the death of every Gazan child tragic? Of course it is. Is there something heartbreaking about watching Gazans flee the northern part of the Strip, sleeping in shelters further to the south, not knowing if their homes will be standing when they return? One would have to have a heart of stone not to be pained.

Yet why were they fleeing? Because Hamas’s leaders built shelters for themselves, not for simple Gazan citizens.

They fled because Hamas took building materials that Israel sent into Gaza, and instead of building houses built kilometers of tunnels, deep underground, designed for future attacks on Israel. Do these genuinely pitiful, frightened people stop to note that Israel warned them to flee in order to save their lives, while Hamas demanded that they go home and not heed the Zionist warnings? I don’t care that Ben Wedeman is never going to call Hamas “evil.” And I understand that Gazans won’t either, at least publicly, because they have an understandable aversion to being executed.

But must we Jews, and our religious leaders, be complicit in the charade? When Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the head of the yeshiva of Eilon Moreh (a settlement, some will note), remarked that the murderers of Muhammad Abu Khdeir should be executed, he quoted the verse “so that you may burn out evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). Rabbi Levanon is quite right. There is, in fact, very real evil in the world. But if the only evil to which progressive Jews can point is the evil in us, our moral compass has been badly damaged.

If the only people we can call evil are Jews, then Hamas and its viciousness are the least of the threats to our long-term survival. 

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