Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 / 22 Tamuz, 5762

The need for Jews to "understand" suicide bombers

By Eytan Kobre | In the May issue of the opinion journal Sh'ma, prominent constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin dropped a rhetorical bombshell, proposing that Israel consider executing immediate family members of suicide bombers as a deterrent to that deadly and seemingly unstoppable phenomenon. Not surprisingly, Lewin's piece set off a firestorm of controversy. Among Lewin's harsher critics were Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who characterized the former's proposal as "utterly reprehensible and totally contradictory to the most fundamental principles of the Jewish religious tradition," and the Brandeis University theologian Arthur Green, who, in a companion piece in Sh'ma alongside Lewin's, wrote of his first impulse to tear his garments at Lewin's "desecration of G-d's name."

Whether Nat Lewin's views on the moral limits of deterrence are within the realm of reasoned opinion is certainly worth pondering. It is also worthwhile, however, for the broader Jewish public to hear what Professor Green has to say in the balance of his essay and to apply the same close scrutiny to his words as well.

After an opening swipe at Lewin, Professor Green's piece goes on to decry Israel's abandonment of its proud tradition of "purity of arms" and the possibility of Israel's becoming a "barbaric Middle Eastern superstate." His own answer to suicide bombings? Those attacks will stop only once Israel addresses their "root cause . . . the degradation and humiliation of the Palestinian people," which, after all, treasures a "very respect-based culture."

Let us put aside the fact that, a few short weeks ago in Jenin, Israel knowingly sacrificed --- not for the first time --- over a score of young husbands, fathers and sons for a level of "purity of arms" unequalled by any military force in the world. We might even pass in astonished silence over the breathtaking moral implications of Dr. Green's identification of the "root cause" of Palestinian terror, as if there exists an analog in recorded modern history to a nation systematically teaching its young to blow themselves up in crowds of young mothers with baby carriages, and all because of frustration at, in Green's words, "endless checkpoint delays, bulldozing of homes, uprooting of trees [and] disrespecting of elders . . . ."

What is not merely astounding about Green's view, but truly dangerous, however, is its self-delusion about a half-century's worth of Mideast facts, and the unsurpassed paternalism inherent therein. Without question, if Sh'ma were read in faraway Gaza, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi would surely enjoy a deep belly laugh upon learning that the reason he sends teenagers to rip the heads off Passover Seder participants is not to achieve the eradication of the "Zionist entity," and the "descendants of pigs and monkeys" that populate it, from sacred Muslim land, but, rather, in Green's words, to end the "constant humiliations." One can almost visualize Sheikh Ahmed Yassin shaking his evil head in disbelief at the Jew in Waltham who just doesn't "get it."

It is tempting to write off Professor Green's musings as the idiosyncratic view of a long-time left-leaning Jewish figure. Yet precisely the same sort of tortured exercises in moral equivalence are now heard with increasing frequency not only on college campuses and in intellectual salons, but in the rabbinical seminaries that will be fielding the next crop of American Jewry's moral leadership.

Thus, we have the newly-formed Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace reacting with "particular horror" to Israel's Operation Protective Wall. A featured essay in Hebrew Union College's publication The Chronicle finds a rabbi-to-be observing that while it is "nearly impossible to imagine what Israeli families who lost a son or daughter in the army or in a terrorist attack feel. Equally difficult is putting oneself in the shoes of young Palestinian men and women prevented from making a decent living . . . because of border closings, and constantly encountering suspicious looks . . . ."

Equally difficult? Apparently, the pernicious moral calculus equating Palestinian murder of civilians with deaths resulting from Israeli retaliation for those murders is now passe. It has been trumped by a new and improved moral equivalence that sees no difference between those wanton Palestinian murders and . . . "endless checkpoint delays," "uprooting of trees" and "suspicious looks."

Perhaps when Rabbi Yoffie next chooses to speak out about things that are "totally contradictory to the most fundamental principles of the Jewish religious tradition," he might consider whether the views of some of his movement's future leaders are any less beyond the pale.

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JWR contributor Eytan Kobre is a Manhattan-based lawyer. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002 Eytan Kobre