After Justification We Need Justice

16 January 2009
Operation Cast Lead II IDF battle war soldiers israeli defense forces marching defending

In an essay published in the Jewish Chronicle in January 2009 amidst Operation Cast Lead – a campaign prompted by persistent rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip targeting towns and villages in the south of Israel – Rabbi Sacks articulates the imperative and duty of Israel to protect its citizens, whilst, despite the complexities and pressures, never ceasing to strive for peace.

These past two weeks have been for me, and I imagine for most of us, among the most painful of our lives. We know what Israel is doing, and why. But the cost in human suffering has been immense. I believe we have all felt it. Israelis have felt it. This was not what any of us wanted. We weep that it has come to this.

Israel had to do what it did. The people of Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon have for years been living a nightmare. The missile attacks have now extended to Beersheva. Yet further widening has been threatened by Hamas, bringing ever larger areas of Israel into the danger zone. Some 8,000 missiles have been fired across the border, hitting schools and kindergartens, hospitals and community centres. Many have died, many more have been injured, and there are children in Sderot who have grown up knowing their only place of safety is a bomb shelter.

No people can live like that, and the first duty of any state is to protect the lives of its citizens. Israel had to act. That has been recognised by President-elect Barack Obama, by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and every other political leader with integrity. They know full well that, had they been in the position of Israel’s leadership, they would have been forced to do the same. But to know that a course of action is necessary does not mean that you take any satisfaction from it. That is something Judaism has acknowledged for thousands of years.

The Torah tells us that when Jacob was about to meet his brother Esau after an estrangement lasting twenty-two years, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed” (Genesis 32:7). Why the apparent repetition? Our Sages say, “Jacob was very afraid, lest he be killed. He was distressed, lest he be forced to kill.” Jacob’s fear was physical. He thought he might die. His distress was moral. He thought that to save his life he might have to kill his brother.

The commentators ask the obvious question. If Jacob was forced to kill in self-defence, why should he feel distress? He would have been doing the right and justified thing. Not only in Jewish law, but in virtually every other legal system, there is a right to self-defence. Without it, there would be no right to life. So why the distress?

The answer is obvious. There are situations – the technical name for them is dilemmas – in which the choice is between one invidious option and another. Jean-Paul Sartre gave the example of a Frenchman during the Second World War, torn between looking after his elderly and sick mother and joining the resistance. Whichever way he chose, he would feel guilty. If he joined the resistance, he would be abandoning his mother. If he stayed with his mother, he would be abandoning his country.

There are some choices so painful that, whichever way you choose, if you are moral, you feel distress. That is what we and the vast majority of Israelis feel now.

By any constructive political logic, Hamas’ action serves no aim that might benefit the people of Gaza. Whatever they might legitimately want was given to them by the Israelis in 2005. Israel withdrew. It was a painful act, and caused deep divisions, as well as personal suffering, within Israel itself. In effect, Israel said to the Palestinians of Gaza, “The land is yours. The farms, the buildings, the factories our people built – they are all yours. If you need aid, we will give it or facilitate it. We hereby give you everything.”

That was when the terror should have stopped. Instead, that is when a new wave of terror began.

Israel left Lebanon. That is when Hizbollah started stockpiling and firing Katyushas. Israel spent seven years in a peace process with the Palestinians. The Palestinians responded by an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings. Israel withdrew from Gaza. Hamas responded with missiles. When every withdrawal, every concession, every peace initiative, is seen as an act of weakness, a capitulation to terror and an invitation to yet more terror, then peace-making is not merely rejected. It is checkmated.

The paradox is that, as I said at Trafalgar Square, Israel’s friends and its opponents want the same things. They want Palestinian children to grow up with hope. So do we. They want Palestinians to be able to live in dignity. So do we. They want Palestinian parents to have work, income, and a life for their families. So do we. So why must we clash? Why are Israel and the Palestinians fighting?

There must come a time, may it be sooner rather than later, when the interests of human beings take precedence over pride and prejudice; when people learn that hatred destroys the hater, not just the hated; when both sides realise that they are both there to stay, and that they must learn to live together, not die together.

The words that have resonated with me, these past days, go back to the first recorded conflict in the land. In Bereishit chapter 13 we read of the argument between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot. Their flocks and herds were large. They were unable to graze together (Genesis 13:6).

At that point, Abraham turned to Lot and said: “Let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” They recognised the conflict and they resolved it.

I believe the Palestinians have a right to a state, and a right to dignity. Their children have a right to a future. And I believe all of these things are being endangered, frustrated and delayed by the acts of Hamas, and by those who give it arms, and by those who give it their support.

The time has come in Britain for the supporters of Israel and the supporters of the Palestinians to work together, to bring aid to the injured on both sides, comfort to the bereaved of both sides, and passionate commitment to the peaceful coexistence of both sides.

These past three weeks, we have all shed tears. Now let us work together for a future that is not yet another replay of the past. Let us hear the cries and fears of both sides and let us work together for a future without tears.