By Stuart Schoffman
"Tell me, what am I supposed to think?" Words to that effect from the Old Country have been sailing into my email inbox for the past few weeks, as dreadful images of the Gaza war have dominated media screens worldwide. It’s an honest question, to which I don’t presume to have an answer.
My inbox also runneth over with reams of online copy, forwarded by friends or strangers who, in the urgency of the moment, are impelled to share pertinent morsels of analysis, reportage, or indignation. One remark worth noting was penned by Aron Moss, a rabbi from Sydney, Australia, and posted on the Chabad.org website: "The death of innocents is a tragic inevitability of war. Our hearts go out to all those caught in the middle. The sad fact is that the Palestinian people are being held hostage by Hamas….A civilian who is killed while being used by a terrorist as a human shield is a victim of the terrorist, not the Israeli army, who does not target innocent civilians."
Most Israelis I know – and probably more than a few moderate Palestinians – would subscribe, more or less, to the rabbi’s words, and I too derive a measure of reassurance from them. As Ethan Bronner of the New York Times aptly summarized the prevalent view in Israel: "Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and gets help and inspiration from Iran, so that what looks to the world like a disproportionate war of choice is seen by many here as an obligatory war for existence."
In Arabic, the word Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamat al-Islamiyyah, which means "Islamic Resistance Movement." By coincidence, hamas is also a noun that appears memorably in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 6:11, on the eve of the Great Flood, it is written that "the earth was filled with hamas," variously translated as "violence," "outrage," or "lawlessness." Forty-three chapters later, at the end of the Book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob on his deathbed gathers his 12 sons, to evaluate their character and predict their future. Listen to Robert Alter’s fine poetic translation:
Simeon and Levi, the brothers – weapons of outrage their trade.
In their council let me never set foot, their assembly my presence shun.
For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts.
Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless!
I will divide them in Jacob, disperse them in Israel. (Genesis 49: 5-7)
Weapons of outrage: k’lei hamas in Hebrew. As it happened, this Torah portion, parashat Vayechi, was chanted in the synagogue as Islamist rockets rained on the Negev and Jewish soldiers fought back in Gaza. To understand it more fully, we need to recall the tale of the rape of Dinah, back in Genesis 34. Dinah was the daughter of Jacob and Leah, hence the full sister of Simeon and Levi, who avenged her defilement by Shechem, son of Hamor, by slaying all the males in the town of Shechem. The Bible tells us that Shechem loved Dinah and wanted to marry her; Simeon and Levi said this would be okay only if he and all the other men of his town were to undergo circumcision, which they did; and then smote them anyway, davka when they were recuperating from the painful surgery.
At which point, Jacob says to Simeon and Levi: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” To which Simeon and Levi retort: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34: 30-31) Jacob doesn’t respond – until Chapter 49.
Rereading these disturbing passages, I suddenly recalled an exchange I once had in the States, following a lecture I gave not long after 9/11. "Why doesn’t Israel," came an indignant question from the audience, "just do to the Palestinians what America is doing to the Taliban?" "Because," I said, "I have a Palestinian electrician, and nobody in America has a Taliban electrician."
When the shooting stops – and it will, though no one knows for how long – we will have to live with these people, for they are our neighbors in the Land of Israel, also known as Palestine. What worries me most is that this latest war – forced upon us, to be sure – will make us so "odious", as Father Jacob feared, as to ruin any chance of a two-state solution. And without such a solution, Israel’s long-term prospects as a tiny Jewish island in a vast Islamic sea are further imperiled.
The Hebrew for "you have brought trouble on me" is achartem oti, which may also be translated as, "you have sullied (or muddied) me". Modern Hebrew uses the term ocher Yisrael to mean a Jew or Israeli who is a "hater of Israel," who blackens the name of his own people. The term was bandied about some years back in reference to the so-called "New Historians" who sought to rewrite the narrative of Israel’s founding. It pops up again today, in Internet talkbacks, to characterize leftist Hebrew-language journalists who dwell on Israel’s bombardment of Arab civilians in Gaza instead of the suffering of Israelis in Sderot and Ashkelon.
To which I would add one final twist: In the Bible, the term ocher Yisrael is an ironic badge of honor. In the First Book of Kings (18:17), this epithet is leveled by Ahab, King of Israel, against the prophet Elijah, who rebuked the wicked king for building a temple to worship Baal and persecuting the prophets of the Lord. Even the Bible, it seems, can’t tell us what to think. One man’s hater is another man’s hero.