Israel, 1973.

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

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Live by the Law or Die on the Cross

Israel must stop pretending it is a nation like any other

Jeremy England
May 29, 2024
Israel, 1973.

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

When my parents moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1974, they were young idealists trying to foment Marxist revolution.

Having kids and getting a mortgage mellowed their radical views substantially, but I still grew up marinating in progressive ideas. One such idea was that nationalism was a great evil that had caused Germans to hate and murder all of my mother’s aunts and uncles in Poland. Another idea was that private schools should not exist, a noble notion which lasted until we realized I was going to finish the math offerings at our small-town New Hampshire public high school before starting ninth grade. That’s how I ended up at Phillips Exeter.

Had you visited during my senior year you would have seen me acing written exams on the Sabbath, filling blackboards with German verb conjugations, and cracking claws with gusto at the annual lobster dinner. A Jew? Of course! But I would have told you that that just meant I leaned left politically, played Brahms on the violin, and enjoyed making clever arguments about what is right and wrong.

In 1999, I moved to Cambridge as a Harvard freshman. I had been there throughout my childhood, when we had made periodic family pilgrimages to Harvard Square, where we browsed in bookstores, sampled ethnic foods, and generally paid homage at the red brick, high temple of academic meritocracy. When I started as a student there, it felt like I was fulfilling my purpose, which was to develop my talents as fully as I could, with details to be sorted out later as to how best to use them. Subsequently, my studies carried me through Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Stanford for my Ph.D., and Princeton for a postdoctoral lectureship, so that I returned to Massachusetts in 2011—this time, to MIT as a physics professor. While there, I made a bit of a splash with some theoretical work on thermodynamics and the spontaneous origin of life.

Israel must stop begging to be judged fairly by whatever standards the current hegemon has decreed we all agree upon. We need to look for standards from within our tradition to set a moral example for the whole world, while making it more practically possible to defend our homeland.

As for how to argue about what is right and wrong, that is something my elite academic surroundings were always eager to dictate to me, especially when it came to international relations. At Exeter in the 1990s, we had school assemblies about how the fighting in the Balkans had gone on between groups of identical people who had shot at each other pointlessly over differing tastes in cigarette brands. One MLK Day, a PLO apparatchik masquerading as a journalist came to tell us lurid tales about the Israeli Air Force dropping napalm on fleeing Arab children. I got in a heated, yet fumbling dispute with her about it, and was puzzled afterward as to why I had cared at all. At Harvard, the authorities made sure I read Kant’s Perpetual Peace, and otherwise the place was utterly awash in specimens of starry-eyed Clintonian social “science” about how economic growth through global trade would automatically bring an end to all war and oppression. I made it to Hillel for Yom Kippur two out of four years.

It was at Oxford, after having one too many chats over a glass of port with a fellow Oxonian who seemed way too interested in the Jewish influence on the American political process, that something shifted in me. The place was so fully blanketed by the fumes of post-colonial theory that Zionism (and its inherent criminality) was a constant subject, which made me wonder more deeply about it all.

I started doing wild things, like learning history and facts and even visiting the region. Somewhat inevitably, I also ended up familiarizing myself with the standard arsenal of arguments for Zionism made by people at universities: Israel is fighting on the front lines to defend the West from barbarian zealots! Israel kicks Jewish extremists out of their illegal settlements and puts Arab citizens on its Supreme Court! Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is entirely both bomb shelter and gay bar! These points captivated me, but there was always something about them that felt off.

I now know what it is.

During the last 20 years, anti-colonialist doctrine more fully replaced critical thinking throughout most of the academy, and it would be easy to attribute the fever pitch of present anti-Israel sentiment on campuses solely to that shift. And to be clear, it’s indeed obvious that many students today at Ivy League schools are badly informed and cannot craft good arguments with whatever information they do manage to come by. And, yes, all of the curricular and pedagogical rot compels them to join the mob pouring its wrath on the Jewish state.

But, as is often the case with politics organized against Jews, the poor quality of the accusations lures well-meaning people into contesting false details while implicitly accepting the enemy’s vocabulary and criteria for judgment. In answering the question of why it feels like pro-Israel voices are losing in the public square, I now think that some of the blame also rests with all the smart pro-Israel arguments—including those I once got so good at slinging myself.

Forget, for a moment, how monstrously wicked Hamas may be, and focus instead on testing each of the common claims and counterclaims made about Israel.

Detractors say Israel is an apartheid state. Yet, since Muslim Arab citizens here vote in elections, enjoy equal civil rights, and hold public office, is this not simply a smear whose sole intention is to lay the ground for dismantling the Jewish state?

Islamist leaders frequently congratulate Muslims who kill Jews in Israel as “the defenders of Al-Aqsa” because of the widely held suspicion that the Jews are about to take over the Temple Mount. But isn’t this propaganda prima-facie absurd, since the current situation at the holy site is one where Israeli police are formally charged with preventing Jews from praying there?

Anti-Zionists, jihadists, and other disinterested humanitarians accuse Israel of killing innocent Arab children indiscriminately, but fact-checkers are quick to produce data on exceptionally good combatant-to-civilian kill ratios and to remind us that the IAF warns residents in Gaza neighborhoods before dropping bombs.

Game, set, and match. Right?

Not quite. Each of these volleys is returnable for the same kind of reason.

The Law of Return in Israel establishes an explicit preference for admitting new immigrants who are Jewish, based on parentage or religious observance. Each year, the increasing number of Jews who ascend the Temple Mount to pray portends major changes there in favor of the normalization of Judaic worship. The war aims Israel has set guarantee it will cause the deaths of many people the state scrupulously labels as innocent. How many innocent deaths are too many?

What is so complicated here is that the accusations are, at one level, untruthful and unfair, and an Israel-loving Jew—one also educated in the halcyon days before critical thinking was defenestrated from atop the ivory tower—cannot resist a public dissection of all the manipulation and inaccuracy.

In each case, though, the point of the accusation is less to sell a lie than it is to bait the hook with an expendable one so that anyone who bites has to agree on what would constitute a crime.

Among the constraints and instructions given by the Torah is a specific one: ‘Choose life.’ Accepting one’s own death because the other options are ugly and seem heartless is not on the menu.

Consider, for example, if Israel were shown to be an apartheid state, a usurper of religious sites, or a bomber of more innocents than permitted by U.N. observers. Even rigorous and right-thinking Ivy League Zionists educated in the twilight of the 20th century would be forced to agree then that the modern State of Israel had lost its right to exist, no? It is debatable whether this maneuver has always been the strategy of anti-Zionists, or whether it just works out this way; certainly, plenty of people who hate Jews just love to peddle outlandish delusions without seeking to entrap anyone. In any case, the typical Western Jew advocating for Israel is usually quite defenseless the moment a shrewder anti-Zionist steps into the debate, having already conceded at the outset that Israel will only be exonerated if it ever gets a fair trial—and by “fair,” these people always mean one judged by Western, and therefore Christian, standards.

Christianity no longer gets top billing in the Western marketplace of ideas, but its legacy is everywhere you look, no matter how secular the setting. In the formation of a religious community that embraced all of humanity as equivalent, and all souls/persons/moral agents within its ultimate dominion, the Christian project rejected the hereditary priesthood and national chosenness of the Jews. Thomas Jefferson’s deistic “all men are created equal” (by God) filtered through the centuries to a point where the preference for Jews shown by the Law of Return sounds plainly illegal to an American ear.

Nor is chosenness the only point of divergence. Speaking in terms of religious archetypes, a Jew and a Christian can come to vastly different conclusions about what the right thing to do is in a given situation, particularly where something as ugly as war is involved. What would Jesus do if a Hamas fighter held a Gazan Arab child up as a shield while firing? Hard to say for sure, but anyone who argues that a properly humane response is to die rather than to try to shoot around the child has ample basis in Christianity. The image of the Crucifixion may mean many things, but part of what it means is that accepting corporeal defeat in this world can be a path to God-like virtue and spiritual victory in the world of tomorrow. You will not hear Jesus mentioned when Western leaders speak on how important it is that Israel adhere to international laws of war, but the concept of the innocent civilian enshrined in these laws grew practically out of wars fought within Christendom during the last several hundred years.

More importantly, the very idea of the innocent civilian makes sense in an explicitly Christian context: “Render unto Caesar” plus the idea of a universal community of faith that transcends nationality means the conscience of the individual is paramount, and a person cannot so easily be classed as a targetable enemy “just because” of his membership in some nation waging war.

The contrast with the Jewish perspective here is sharp.

One particular Talmudic-era commentary comes to mind. Everyone knows that Pharaoh and his army were on horses as they chased Moses and the Israelites seaward. But it took the genius of Shimon ben Yochai, the sage, to ask where the horses came from. A plague of hail had killed off all the livestock in Egypt, other than that which belonged to upright individuals who held the Lord in awe. What this means, then, is that Pharaoh got his horses from the upright individuals. Ben Yochai concludes: [In times of war], it is correct to kill even the righteous among your enemy (Mekhilta 14:7).

This is a wince-inducingly Judaic—and very unchristian—position.

Ben Yochai witnessed the Roman annihilation of Judea. He understood that the way your enemy fights a war affects the definition of the righteous way to fight back. In other words, his recommendation was calibrated to the assumption that if the Jews are fighting a war, then their own future survival (and flourishing) is a nonnegotiable goal of the war. Thus, a Jew living by the Torah and confronted with an enemy armed with a human shield must ask: What does God want me to do now, given what I face? And how might I figure that out by studying the Torah?

As Abraham learns when arguing with God about Sodom, the ultimate decision about who lives and who perishes in calamity is the Creator’s choice, and while you can plead with God to spare the righteous, you must also have the moral humility to trust that He knows what He’s doing. As for you and what you can do: The Torah commands you to accept that the world’s Creator put you in the circumstances you are in, and that He only wants from you that you should do the most correct thing possible according to the Law, given the circumstances. And among the constraints and instructions given by the Torah is a specific one: “Choose life.” Accepting one’s own death because the other options are ugly and seem heartless is not on the menu.

In the current war in Gaza, a basic Judaic question therefore arises and must not be ignored: What is the bare minimum we must do in order to prevent our own mass murder?

The Jews do not venerate the image of a more-divine-than-usual human who achieved an abstract victory for all of humanity by dying horribly. And because we do not, we cannot accept the Western exhortation to be suicidally gentle with our enemies in order to receive a Christian burial on their “moral high ground.”

There are many things about the Jewish state, both as it currently is and as the Torah imagines it could be, that meet the loftiest ideals of the liberal, crypto-Christian West. Jews by and large love living in the liberal, secular West because our culture has great intuitive affection for freedom of speech and conscience, as well as the need for each unique individual to be given the freedom to discover his God-given purpose.

But as a reflection of the oneness of the God described therein, the Torah is obstinately balanced when it comes to simple principles. It insists on justice, but makes room for mercy. It cherishes human life, but acknowledges deadly violence can be correct. It sees all people as created in the image of God, but it commands the nation of Israel to play a unique priestly role, through example rather than through world-dominating force, in leading the world to greater knowledge and service of God.

Put into practice in 2024, this means that Israel must stop pretending it is a nation like any other, begging to be judged fairly by whatever standards the current hegemon has decreed we all agree upon. We need to look for standards from within our tradition to set a moral example for the whole world, while making it more practically possible to defend our homeland.

Instead of bragging about the extra danger our soldiers experience for the sake of sparing enemy noncombatants, we should reject the premise that we Jews bear any responsibility for protecting the human shields employed by our enemy.

Instead of threatening Jews with arrest for praying on the Temple Mount, we should take a hint from the “Al-Aqsa” moniker our attackers gave to their day of savage invasion and let kohanim up there on the hill to slaughter lambs for Passover.

And above all—given that land is nearly all that matters to this death-worshipping foe—instead of repeatedly withdrawing troops from areas we have just taken over so we can deny having unchristian territorial ambitions, we should conquer, annex, and resettle parts of Gaza so that Jews and friendly gentiles both can live there safely.

If our own, unsurpassably subtle ethical tradition guides us to these policies, then it is only our lingering ideological subjugation to the Western tradition that makes them seem scandalous. Like the Jew among nations, Israel constantly struggles with its half-successful attempt to blend in with the crowd and pretend to be a member like any other, and it is time to put an end to this paralyzing charade. We did not stick to our Law through 3,000 years of human civilization to continue national life as the perpetual defendant. It is our job to know that Law, to teach what we know—and, most of all, to live by it.

Jeremy England lives near Tel Aviv, where he works in industry as a machine-learning researcher. He is also a visiting professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University.