Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Love Thy Neighbor

Scene at the funeral of one of the 13 soldiers killed in Gaza earlier this month. Copyright unknown.

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 21 May 2004.

Following the above directive (Leviticus 19:18) has gotten harder and harder as the second intifada continues. This month alone has been host to one horrific event after another. And with each successive tragedy, it gets easier to let hate flourish in my heart.

I never expected to feel such helpless, frustrated rage. I was raised in a liberal, open-minded home, and taught tolerance and acceptance of the things that make us all different from one another.

But recent years have brought events so overwhelming as to nearly eradicate the lessons of my youth. The message broadcast from the Palestinian Authority is loud and clear: the Palestinians hate us and want to see us all dead. Certainly there must be some who only want to live in peace with us, but they are as whispers against a ferocious roar. Perhaps it is not surprising that my tolerant views have changed. But I am not entirely comfortable with the change. Views like the one expressed by Yaffa Ganz in a recent column on Israel Insider.com can still anger me. Ganz argues that according to the Bible, Arabs, as the decendants of the biblical Ishmael, are "wild creatures," not human beings. This viewpoint upsets me for several reasons. First, by claiming our enemies are less than human, she seems to me to be excusing their admittedly animalistic behavior with a "what else can you expect" sort of shrug of the shoulders. I believe that they should be held accountable for their actions. Secondly, deep in my heart there are still remnants of those early teachings: accept people as individuals, don't lump all members of a group together and condemn them in one swoop.

In today's Jerusalem Post I read an article by Arieh O'Sullivan, entitled, "The Purple Berets." O'Sullivan profiled the Givati Brigade, which lost 13 soldiers in Gaza last week, in two separate explosions. One of the issues O'Sullivan discusses is the "concern that anger and a desire for revenge might harm the IDF's ethical core." For no matter what the international press might have the world believe, the Israel Defence Force is indeed an army with ethics, and a very specific Code of Conduct. As one young corporal serving in Gaza told O'Sullivan, "I've got anger, but not so much that it will impact itself in the middle of some operation to take some bloodthirsty action, to do something which just isn't done." He is not alone in his thinking.

Where do these young men, many still teenagers, get the moral strength to continue behaving decently towards an enemy which has shown itself capable of behaving very much like the "wild creatures" Ganz claims they are?* For one thing, Dr. Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist for the IDF, says he doesn't believe there is any "formalized demonizing of the Palestinians in the military." Our soldiers are not indoctrinated in hatred for the enemy. Gal does go on to say, however, that "there is no need for that, since every soldier sees how they behave... You see more hatred now than you saw in the past. Soldiers... feel they are fighting for the security of other Jews, and more than that - and this is where hatred comes into play - they are fighting for the sake of their comrades who were killed..." In other words, soldiers come to their own conclusions based on their experiences. In some ways, this makes them particularly responsible for their actions. They cannot claim to be "just following orders" if their behavior goes beyond the accepted norm.

I believe another element to the restraint shown by most IDF soldiers is the training they received when they were young. Arab culture and language is taught in Israeli schools, as is a message of tolerance and respect. (It should come as no surprise that the same cannot be said of Arab schools). Even with all that they see and suffer, the young men of the IDF remember the values they have been taught. They are probably all too aware of what might befall them if they lose their humanity. After all, one hopes that one day they will finish their army service, whole and healthy, and take up their lives in Israeli society. Naturally they will hope to marry and have children; they will dream that their children will know only peace. And so they will endeavor to pass along to their children the values of tolerance, and decency.

Of course I have not had to face anything even remotely resembling what these young soldiers face. Yet I find myself struggling to retain my grasp on the principles with which I was raised. Hatred is a seductive thing, bringing as it does an illusory sense of righteousness. It is so much easier to generalize and to condemn out of hand than to grapple with both sides of an issue. Not knowing the answers to the questions that most concern you is stressful, to say the least. Trying to instill in my children the values of compassion and tolerance, while at the same time fighting to maintain my own hold on those ideals, is part of the unique challenge I think many of us face in these disturbing times. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" is not an easy commandment to follow; but then, perhaps that is the whole idea.

* I am referring here to the actions of the Palestinians after the first Israeli Armored Personnel Carrier was blown up in Gaza in mid-May. The residents of Rafiah gathered up the scattered body parts of the slain Israelis and paraded them through the streets like trophies.

"When peace comes, we will perhaps in time forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons." ~ Golda Meir

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