The language of the Middle East is an ancient one, different from the dialect of logic and compromise, as well as the treatises of war and human rights we sought to import. The tools for understanding this unique dialogue lie in our people’s traditions, which we must utilize if we wish to survive here.
The content of this article is a translated version of its initial Hebrew publication. it was first published in the hebrew version of Hashiloach Frontlines and is available on the Hebrew website
Arise, go now to the city of slaughter and come to the courtyards,
And with your eyes see and your hand feel the fences
And the trees and the stones and on the plastered walls
The congealed blood and hardened brain of the slain.
For God called for the spring and the massacre together
The sun shone, the acacia bloomed and the butcher slaughtered.
One hundred and twenty years have passed since Chaim Nachman Bialik published his famous poem “City of Slaughter” on the massacre of the Jews of Kishinev. On that day, forty nine Jews were cruelly and baselessly murdered. Today, what will be said of the murder of more than a thousand of our sons and daughters on the day of Simchat Torah, whose honor was desecrated, and who were slaughtered with a cruelty not exhibited even by the murderers of Kishinev? For our sorrow is as great as the sea, and who will heal us? This is an event of Biblical proportions. The response needs to be as well.
We are exhaustingly familiar with war. We wanted quiet. We offered mutual peace agreements, and when these failed, we left the Gaza Strip unilaterally. We took our dead from their graves, and we left the Gazans’ agricultural fields and hothouses with the hope that they would establish a tourist riviera. And when that approach failed as well, we decided to suffice with the quiet of economic and social interests.
We offered our neighbors the opportunity to enjoy all the good we brought to this country. We assumed that they were making utilitarian, rational choices, and that if we provided for their workers, if we provided electricity and water and building materials and medicine, if we healed their senior leaders’ children in our hospitals – that those senior leaders would demonstrate gratitude, and at the very least, avoid harming the fabric of life and livelihood of their subjects. We also thought that their leaders would not want to give up the pleasures of ruling and the large amounts of money flowing in from many western countries, and would therefore avoid arousing the ire of the IDF, more powerful than themselves by orders of magnitude.
We were wrong. We sinned and we erred.
We may perhaps be able to locate the root of this error at the very beginning of our national awakening, when we dreamt of founding a Hebrew-speaking European nation on the shores of the Mediterranean, thereby failing to take into account the very different language and modes of thought, culture and religious views which have dominated this region for millennia.
On Shabbat Bereishit, we restarted the cycle of weekly Torah reading, as we have done for the last 1,500 years. Adam was created from the dust of the earth, his very name containing the liquid of life flowing in him: Dam [blood]. This is no mere wordplay. These are the fundamental building blocks of existence in this ancient area. Not territory but land, “Adamah” in Hebrew, without which man cannot exist. The cursed Cain is exiled, wandering the world, fearing his fate: “And any who find me will kill me!” “Adam” therefore sees fit to spill “dam” for “Adamah.”
In rationalist Europe, certainly after the secularization revolution and all the more so after the horrific world wars, Adamah became tradable currency, paid freely in exchange for quiet. We also tried this, and we failed. The Middle East has never accepted this inherently western approach. Even the conception of time is different here than in the west. Time is not money here, and it is stretched as needed. The idea that every phenomenon has a cause – articulated or discussed by every thinker from Aristotle to David Hume – means that given a problem, we have but to discover its reason, allowing us to resolve it. But in the Middle East, not every problem has a logical solution. Oftentimes, the problem is allowed to be resolved over time, which is also stretched over hundreds—or eventhousands—of years.
In other words, while we and the whole west cling to the language of logos, our enemies, and most parties in this region, continue to cling to the ancient, local language – that of mythos, which is infinitely deeper and broader than even the religious language it contains. My main argument is that the key to understanding the political behavior of individuals, like groups, lies not just in the rational-logical sphere (interests, utility, concern for society, economy) but rather primarily in the more hidden realm – the realm of founding myths and stories, ancient traditions, and the religion and primal values of various societies.
In this area, the cradle of world civilization, there are still ancient institutions known to us from the Bible itself, such as blood redeemers, stoning, killing of errant children or their sale into slavery or marriage, and even the practice of the “Sotah woman” (today known as “honor killings”). Female war captives, with all the horrors that are their lot, are a common phenomenon amongst the tribes and communities around us. For the People of Israel, by contrast, these institutions have not been relevant for over two thousand years.
The Torah of Moses was given at a time when there were sophisticated civilizations controlled by these ideas. Our nation’s ancient traditions did not entirely abolish them (aside from the uncompromising war against idolatry and anthropomorphism), but instead created a legal crack in them that was expanded into a moral chasm. For instance, in dealing with the view that wife and children are the property of the husband, allowing him to do with them as he pleases, the Torah handed authority on the matter over to the institution of the elders. So too was the case regarding the female war captives, with the Torah obligating the captor to either wed the captive or free her unconditionally. Later, while our Sages did not remove verses of the Bible, they did choose to interpret them in a way that effectively abolishes certain ideas in the long run. The IDF does not have the problem of wartime rape that other armies grapple with, the mass rapes of the world wars being a prime example. We thus assumed, Israel and western civilization, that the whole world – the Middle East included – had moved on to speak a similar language. After all, they use modern technology and have similar political institutions, right?
We in Israel have futilely attempted to apply our rules to these savages. Unfortunately, their thorough acquaintance with the various international treaties on warfare and the institution of human rights means that they also know how to expertly exploit both. Thus, while we have tied our hands and our spirit so as not to act against them with a heavy hand, they have not rejected any method of assault, and when they could, they slaughtered and raped and beheaded, and led old men and babies and bleeding girls through the streets of Gaza to the cries of the masses handing out candy to celebrate the “victory.”
The difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is not one of motives, but of capabilities. All the fantastical, murderous phenomena we witnessed on Simchat Torah have already occurred on a smaller scale in Samaria and Judea. It’s not an accident that the PA Chairman did not condemn these horrors – after all, he pays murderers of Jews based on how successful they are at it – and only when he was threatened with losing budgets did he release a weak response only slightly more serious than his previous silence.
In his book How Democracies Perish, philosopher Jean-Francois Revel spoke of the “guilt industry” – the one-sided view of the historical guilt of the west, with everything that’s wrong with the world, especially in the third world, being due to the power of wealthy capitalist democracies. As such, any attempt to oppose the expansion and aggression of communism in its time led to embarrassment or paralysis among western intellectuals. Revel believed that the Soviet strategy of expansion would not have succeeded to the degree that it did were it not for the west’s tendency to surrender to it. He described the clash between the Soviet Union and the west as being akin to a soccer game, where one of the groups – the west – won’t allow itself to cross the halfway point on the field, while the other team plays close to the opponent’s goal. The Iran of the Ayatollahs had only begun operating at the time, and Revel certainly could not imagine barbarians like ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Hopefully, the horrific disgrace that befell us on Simchat Torah will teach us once and for all that to survive in this ancient region, we must understand and properly internalize its language. Perhaps we will at least be able to partially atone for the sin of our naivete. The tools for understanding this ancient language lie before us. They are part of an enormous database, that great textual and intellectual skyscraper we built during our thousands of years of existence, which first began with the Bible.
We speak modern Hebrew, which includes the language of the ancients within it. The phrase “Jewish and democratic” should apply not only to the framework of the country, but also to its security outlook: to survive in the region—to defeat our enemies—we need to draw deep, existential insights from the ancient, sophisticated Jewish tradition. Think about it: can it be a coincidence that we survived in the shadow of death of nations and peoples, wars and destruction, when we were helpless and landless most of the time? There is obviously something in the incredible Jewish tradition that we should integrate into the thinking of policy makers within our political, military, and of course, our intellectual leadership.
Internalizing the language also means internalizing the ancient insight taught to us by the greatest of the Tana’im, Rabbi Akiva: when yours and another’s life hang in the balance, your life comes first. Rabbi Akiva’s dilemma spoke of two friends. When it’s a question of the lives of our soldiers and the lives of our enemies? He would not hesitate to say who takes priority: the lives of our soldiers! After the Simchat Torah massacre, there will be no more cases like the one which occurred in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield, when we sacrificed the lives of our soldiers to avoid harming the civilian population. In light of this, before any entry into Gaza – and such an entry must happen – it should be pounded thoroughly, thereby reducing as much as possible the enemy’s ability to leave their holes and harm our troops. As the poet Avraham Shlonsky put it, “An oath should I return to my errant ways in the morning / learning nothing once again.”
With God’s help, we will overcome and defeat our enemies. While serving as ambassador, I would repeatedly tell local media during every round of conflict that the situation should also be viewed through the historical perspective of the Jewish People’s millennia of existence. In other words, the riots and the pogroms, the wars and the massacres of Jews in the last one hundred and fifty years are part of the failed effort of the enemies of the west to stop the historical process of the return of the Jews to Zion in the wake of the prophecies of the Bible. The salvation of the free world depends on it, as does the understanding that the war of Israel against Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran is the war of the entire free world, for the preservation of its spirit and freedom.
This article was translated by Avi Woolf and edited by Gavriella Cohen.