The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement infuriates supporters of Israel. On university campuses, students in search of a cause condescend to Israel, protesting the lone democracy in the Middle East. They demand moral perfection from the Jewish state, while ignoring the actions of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad, and scapegoat a western-style democracy in order to atone for the colonial sins of their ancestors.
Yes, the involvement of a few Jewish students in anti-Israel activism seems shocking, but that’s because we underestimate how attractive self-righteousness can be.
The posturing of privileged college students who have never taken shelter from a Katyusha or attended the funeral of a terror victim is both absurd and reprehensible. But in response, we need more than angry rhetoric, because justifying Israel’s self-defence deserves more than clichés. Indeed, the question of what is moral during wartime has been debated for centuries and remains a hot topic of debate in contemporary Israel.
Idealists strive for moral purity, and there’s nothing purer than non-violence. The only way to categorically avoid violence is to embrace pacifism, to meekly respond to aggression by turning the other cheek. Remarkably, some groups have been steadfast pacifists. Mennonites have refused to support the military in any way, and will flee if under attack, refusing to protect their families and property.
As morally attractive as pacifism may be, it has an enormous failing: it’s suicidal. If the good do nothing to protect themselves, then evil will triumph. As Jews, we know that’s a failed ideology. In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote the following to the head of the German Jewish community, Rabbi Leo Baeck: “My advice to German Jews would be that they commit suicide on a single day, at a single hour. Then would the conscience of Europe awake.” Rabbi Baeck gave a blunt response: “We Jews know that the single-most important commandment of God is to live.” For Jews, pacifism is immoral, because we have a responsibility to care for our own lives and defend ourselves.
Sadly, some in our community consider the right to self-defence to be an ethical blank cheque. They argue that if war is unavoidable, any tactic should be acceptable. So they encourage soldiers to execute prisoners, and endorse reprisal killings of Arab civilians. Ignoring morality in the service of self-defence, these extremists are the malevolent mirror image of pacifists, distorting the value of self-defence to immoral extremes.
The path Israel has followed is one that undertakes a double responsibility of war and peace. Israel defends itself vigorously, yet the importance of human life is never forgotten. This “just war” doctrine is well grounded in Jewish sources. For example, Maimonides notes that the army must open a path for people fleeing a besieged city, because they no longer want to be combatants and should be allowed to save their lives.
The IDF continues to carry this dual responsibility with pride. During the 2014 war with Gaza, a member of my synagogue told me how his grandson, who was in a search-and-rescue unit, went in to save two young Palestinian children who were pinned down in a firefight between Hamas and the IDF. “Jonathan,” an IDF soldier serving in Gaza at the same time, wrote a letter to Tablet magazine about feeding animals in an abandoned house and dropping off a box of military rations for a hungry Palestinian teen. These actions are the work of an army that takes seriously the dual responsibility to protect Israel and pursue peace.
There are different ways to think about war and peace. Some chant slogans from the safety of a university campus, ready to gamble the lives of millions with naive schemes. But the young men and women of the IDF face danger every day as they carry out a dual responsibility of protection and peace. In doing so, they make us proud.