Our good friend Moshe Halbertal, an internationally respected ethicist and co-author of the Israeli army’s code of moral conduct, was heckled and verbally assaulted a week ago at the University of Minnesota Law School where he had been invited to deliver a lecture. The IDF’s strict application of his standards in combat situations has probably saved hundreds of Palestinian lives in Gaza, the disputed territories, and Lebanon over the years. Ironically, he was vilified for nearly an hour by dozens of protestors who shouted “baby killer” calling him a “war crimes apologist”. His core identity as an Israeliappeared to be his ‘crime’. The determined efforts to prevent him from speaking (he eventually did speak) points to an alarming escalation in hostility toward Israel on college campuses in North America.
Whenever Israel stands accused of wrongdoing, four morally-driven responses are available. First, if the claim is fabricated or false, we need to discredit it. Pleading guilty to imaginary sins is never a good idea. When a claim does have credibility, a second ethically important response is to shed light on the context that may justify what has transpired. As when President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural distinguished between those who made war and those who accepted war, the IDF is so often responding to blood-thirsty killers and terrorists. Which alludes to a third response ofrealism. The price of existence is clashes with those who seek to end your existence. Finally, when mistakes are made, the moral response of restitution – regret, confession, and reparation – is required. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, in framing these four approaches, indicates that often a blend of several of them needs to be marshaled together.
Last night our New England community celebrated our annual Friends of the IDF dinner, which coincided with Veterans Day and the new Hebrew Month of Kislev (in which Hanukkah will later occur). Curiously, Veterans day gained formal recognition as a ‘November 11th National Holiday’ by an act of Congress in May of 1938. The very same year, 77 years ago earlier this week, we remembered Kristallnacht and its shattering violence. Alas, violence in today’s world requires strong deterrence.
The Israel Defense Forces are deeply moral. Consider this remarkable personal testimony from the FIDF Dinner two years ago. This does it mean that they don’t make mistakes. But the standards by which Israelis hold their own military should be a source of pride to all ‘friends of righteousness’. Moshe Halbertal reminds us that we can go toe-to-toe on moral grounds with any nation on earth. May this Rosh Hodesh(new month) signal a fresh readiness to do so.
Rabbi William Hamilton