Israel assassinated Popular Resistance Committee Secretary-General Zuhir al-Qaisi, the known terrorist leader who was involved in the planning of an imminent terrorist attack from Sinai. In response, more than 100 rockets were fired at Israeli civilian population centers. In response to that, Israel bombed munitions factories and missile launching pads in Gaza. In world parlance, the above is often coined, “a cycle of violence,” in which all sides are encouraged to exercise self-restraint.
Should we exercise self-restraint? Should we engage in pre-emptive, targeted assassinations, knowing full well the “cycle of violence” that will ensue? I cannot speak to the military efficacy of Israel’s actions, as I am not a qualified military expert. I am, however, both a citizen of Israel and a teacher of Jewish law and thought, and I can speak from those perspectives.
Let me speak first as an Israeli. An essential part of our national ethos is to be pro-actively engaged in shaping our future. While full independence and complete self-sufficiency are myths, as a sovereign state, we nevertheless aspire to determine our own destiny to the best of our ability. We look at events and factors which may seem to be grim and declare: Yes, we can. This may cause discomfort among some who want the status quo to be preserved, not necessarily at all costs, but often, it seems, at our cost. They want the conflict to be resolved, and the problem to simply go away. Alas, the problem is still here, and the conflict is very much alive.
As an Israeli, I want my government to do everything in its power to change the status quo. This requires courageous moves of diplomacy but also audacity on the battlefield. I don’t want a government arrogant enough to believe that it can do anything, and that for every problem there is a military solution.
I do, however, want a government that is willing to experiment with the means at its disposal to make the lives of those who aim to harm me and my fellow citizens both difficult and extremely dangerous. As I said, I cannot judge the military efficacy of each military act, but as a citizen of Israel I embrace the need to act and to attempt to proactively give us the security that we deserve.
Acts of tikkun olam
As a teacher of Jewish law and thought, what do I think about targeted killings? While the Jewish tradition elevates the sanctity of life as one of its highest values and sees all of humanity as equal in value, for we were all created in the image of God, it does not merely allow but obligates acts of self-defense. As human beings, we are endowed with power in order to complete and repair the world. At times this requires of us generosity of spirit and social responsibility and action. At other times, however, it requires that we use that power in order to root out evil.
When we do so, we are neither acting immorally nor amorally, but rather fulfilling our core moral responsibility. One cannot be committed to the sanctity of life in general without being committed to valuing the sanctity of one’s own life. Self-defense is a higher moral expression than self-sacrifice. Our tradition teaches us, “haba l’horg’cha hashkem l’horgo,” (“When someone arises to kill you, pre-empt them, and kill them first.”) and in so doing, gives moral legitimacy to pre-emptive acts of self-defense.
Pre-emption, however, is a slippery term and can, in a slippery slope, morph into aggression. While power can be a vehicle for profound moral expression, it can also corrupt. Targeted killings of known terrorist leaders, those with blood on their hands and the self-expressed desire and capacity to spill more blood, are not morally ambiguous, but rather acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
I hate to see 20% of Israel living under the threat of missiles. I am pained by the fact that they must bear the brunt of our actions. I am thankful that the Iron Dome missile defense system is able to mitigate somewhat the price that is demanded of them.
At the same time, I recognize that evil exists, and that it is our responsibility as Israelis and moral duty as Jews to see this evil, and even if we cannot destroy it completely, to do everything in our power to limit it and to not allow its terrorist intent to rule our neighborhood. In doing so, we are not instigating a cycle of violence, but rather giving expression to the value we place on life and our right as a sovereign people to try to provide a safer future for our citizens.
I pray and expect that the innovativeness on the battlefield will not lead to arrogance and that the pro-active use of power will always be accompanied by pro-active attempts to make this use of power unnecessary. When we do so, we will be fulfilling our mission as Israelis and Jews.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute