The Israeli decision to respond forcefully to Hezbollah’s assault on its soldiers and its citizens has been met with near-universal condemnation. The world is a lot more comfortable with an Israel that does not fight back. And so are a lot of Jews. Steven Spielberg’s movie "Munich" made the argument that when Israel kills terrorists it risks becoming like the terrorists.
But it is a specious argument that suggests that a country is more moral when it allows evil to triumph. Would Israel be doing the right thing by allowing murderers to get away with murder?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The Jewish state is named after the patriarch Jacob, who was renamed "Israel." The similarities between country and namesake are instructive, for each has traditionally been criticized for precisely the same thing.
Jacob has never been very popular among non-Jews. Christians and Muslims identify with Abraham rather than Jacob, for he appears be the better man. Abraham discovers God under the starlit heavens of Mesopotamia and thereafter largely keeps to himself, which is why he is called, "HaIvri," a man set apart. When his nephew Lot argues with him over disputed land, Abraham immediately gives in and offers to move away. Abraham does not like to argue.
Jacob, by contrast, fights back. Rather than be dominated by his hunter brother Esau, he tricks him into selling his birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup. He even goes so far as to trick his father, who mistakenly believes that Esau is the virtuous one, into giving him Esau’s firstborn blessing rather than allow his bullying brother to assume the mantle of leadership that the blessing would have conferred upon him. Compared to the wholesome Abraham, Jacob comes across as a schemer and a conniver. Is this the stuff of which righteous men are made?
But the greatness of Jacob, which by far transcended that of Abraham and Isaac, was that he was the first personality in the Bible prepared to resist evil, even if it tarnished him. And by fighting evil, Jacob set a precedent that the righteous, rather than the cold and the heartless, would inherit the earth. Jacob knows that Esau is a bad man, and he will do everything in his power to remove from him the blessings of dominion. Likewise, Jacob will not allow his father-in-law Laban, a psychopathic liar, to take advantage of him, because someone has to stand up to a bully.
In other words, Jacob is the first biblical personality forced to translate a passion for goodness into a world where goodness is seen as weakness. Abraham is the righteous loner who separates himself from the corrupt vices of his neighbors. He will pray for Sodom and Gomorrah, but he will not live among them. Abraham did not seek to salvage a world that was beyond redemption. But Jacob was not prepared to forfeit the earth to criminals. He would stand up for himself, even as doing so made him enter the gray areas that his grandfather avoided like the plague. While Abraham is more angel than man, Jacob is forever and vicariously perched between heaven and earth, struggling to do the right thing in a world of wickedness and evil.
His will forever be a life of struggle, forced to fight for his ideals of justice and righteousness in a cold and cruel world where the weak are oppressed. It would be nice to have the life of the tent-bound academic. But that would mean ceding the world to people like his megalomaniacal brother and parasitical father-in-law.
Those who, in the name of their own moral standing, retreat from the fight with evil are guilty of false piety and moral cowardice. Saving your soul while everyone else perishes is the rectitude of scoundrels.
But this is exactly the posture of those critics of the State of Israel who say that Jacob’s descendants, the Jewish people, are compromising their morality by fighting Hezbollah terrorists. To be sure, Jews around the world mourn whenever Israel unintentionally takes innocent lives as it struggles to defend its citizens against murderous assault. But would Israel’s critics have its citizens pack their bags and put out a press release proclaiming that living in so violent a neighborhood is too injurious to their moral virtue? Should they allow terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah to take over the entire Middle East? The righteous man and woman does not shirk from their responsibility to protect life and uphold justice, even if doing so make them live in a zone of moral uncertainty. They struggle to do the right thing, even when doing so shrouds them in an ethical fog.
Throughout his existence, Jacob will struggle. He will be given a new name, "Israel," which translates as "he who wrestles with God." He will forever wrestle with his godly spirit and human conscience. He will question himself constantly and wonder whether he is doing the right thing. He will seek to root out killers in Qana, and accidentally bomb children. He will loathe his own soul that he is forced to fight inhuman criminals who launch rockets from preschools. But even then he will not give up the struggle. For he is charged with preserving life and upholding justice. He will never surrender the earth, or the Middle East, to killers and criminals. He will not retreat to the isolated life of Abraham. He is not about to move to Scandinavia.
As Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a tireless fighter against tyranny observes, "The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths." And as Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty must forever be nourished by the blood of patriots."
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, last year’s recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s highest award for excellence in commentary, is the author, most recently, of "Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Your Children." He lives in Englewood.