Zechariah, the flotilla, and reflections on might and morality
I can’t write a column this week. I tried. I took long walks by the river. I typed out 10 different drafts. I turned to bourbon in search of inspiration. But all I could think about was the “Freedom Flotilla.”
Just a few days before the disastrous flotilla affair, I’d written a column about the prophet Zechariah and his command that redemption should be pursued “not by military force and not by physical strength” but by the spirit of the Lord. For the most part, readers who commented on the piece took umbrage. Military force, they pointed out, was often necessary, especially for a persecuted minority. They demanded an elaboration, and as I thought about the flotilla, I realized an elaboration was in order. Rather than write a column this week, then, I want to expand on last week’s column, and try to explain the true meaning of Zechariah’s prophecy.
Here’s what it means.
It means, to borrow the wise words of my friend and coauthor Todd Gitlin, that we may not always know what to do, but we must always know what not to do. Amid the sound and fury following the attack on the flotilla, the voyage’s original purpose was often obscured: The men and women aboard the Mavi Marmara tried to deliver necessary supplies to one and a half million Palestinians, under siege for more than three years. And placing a million and a half people under siege is immoral. Hamas represents a concrete threat, and as such calls for concrete responses, both on the battlefield and in the international arena. But not starvation. Not deprivation. Not collective punishment. We must remind ourselves time and again that there are lines we must never cross, not even in the shadow of missiles, not even facing the direst of circumstances. Condemning a vast civilian population to grave suffering is such a line, and such a line it must remain.
It means that we should never exchange our inherent moral compass for the flimsy fluctuations of political brinksmanship. In his first public appearance after the flotilla affair, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the world of hypocrisy and “a biased rush to judgment.” His followers were not far behind in offering a quiverful of litanies, noting, for example, that the world decried Israel’s blockade but said not a word about Egypt’s continuing refusal to allow any traffic between it and the besieged Gaza Strip. These accusations are not entirely false. It is doubtful that anyone who is both decent and intellectually honest could convincingly argue that Israel is not frequently singled out for calumny with an intensity that is spared other, far more benighted regimes. But Judaism, I firmly believe, is predicated—both historically and theologically—on the notion that God had designated one nation to be unto Him a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. If Israel is just one more nation among others, why bother having a Jewish State at all? If we want to preserve that exalted status, we must understand it as what it truly is: a terrible responsibility, a divine burden, a never-ending call to justice. To that end, if we truly believe the tenets of our faith, we must worry not about others but about ourselves, and we must do what is right no matter how dear the cost. We have an awesome and ancient guide to righteousness, the foundation for our morality, the source of our survival; if we exchange it for the piffles of politics, we will surely perish.
It means that we should not shy away from the use of force, but that we should remember that power demands prudence. Writing in The New York Times a few days after the fiasco, Amos Oz put it nicely. “I do not discount the importance of force,” he wrote. But, he soon added, “every attempt to use force not as a preventive measure, not in self-defense, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters.”
It means that there could be no path more disastrous than ignoring the immensity of the problem. The “Freedom Flotilla” should serve as unequivocal proof that Israel has lost its way, and it should spur those of us who care deeply for the Jewish State to take immediate action. Even if we accept the most ardent arguments out of Jerusalem, we cannot deny that Israel’s recent actions, both large (provoking the U.S. administration with a miserably timed construction project in East Jerusalem) and small (denying entry to a host of vocal critics of Israel for no reason other than being critical of Israel) suggest that rather than viewing power as a means to an end, Israel now perceives its might as an end in and of itself, gleefully and frequently flexing its considerable muscles at enemies both real and imagined. That is not the way for any nation to act. No matter where on the nexus between rigid theocracy and liberal democracy it may choose to plant itself, Israel needs to recommit itself to a firm and clear vision and make sure its actions are in accordance. If the images of Israeli commandos—previously considered the fiercest in the world—being thrown overboard teach us anything, it is that nothing fades faster than power applied for its own sake.
And it means that we are running out of time. If we care, let us speak out now, and let us speak out loudly. Anything else is disgraceful.