The killing of an Arab teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem last week has added a harrowing dimension to the tragic series of events in Israel. Police have not concluded their investigation, but they initially leaned toward the explanation that the killing was done by Israelis in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens, whose bodies were discovered last week. The Israeli police have now made arrests that would seem to bolster that theory, with the Times of Israel reporting that “the investigation has led them to believe that the act was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers earlier in June.” If confirmed, it’s sickening; and those who worry about how this will affect Israel’s reputation in the international community are getting it exactly backwards: there is a more pressing concern than reputation at a time like this.
And I don’t just mean the killing, to which I’ll return in a moment. The outpouring on social media of anti-Arab incitement has been shocking. The encouraging aspect to this has been the official denunciation of such incitement, both from the government, united in its revulsion of the incitement, and from groups of private citizens speaking out against it. Also encouraging has been the reaction of religious leaders. The Times of Israel reports that former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has spoken out against such lawlessness, and he makes a key point here:
Reaching out to “all our brothers, the people of Israel, the young among us,” Amar said, “I feel their pain. I feel the frustration. But we can’t lose our heads. There are soldiers, and policemen, and security forces, praise God. And we can rest assured that by the grace of God, they will take the correct and necessary steps” in response to the killing of the three Israeli students. …
Speaking to Israel Radio Tuesday, Amar said calls for revenge were liable to “destroy our nation from within.”
Indeed they are. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau echoed the sentiment: “The discourse about revenge is wrong morally, ethically and halakhically,” Lau said, adding: “We have to trust that the security forces will do their job properly and not think at all about taking revenge which can lead the entire region down a dangerous path.”
There need be no strategic consideration in denouncing the murder of an innocent boy. But beyond its own obvious moral repulsiveness is the question of what, if it’s true Israelis were responsible, they thought they were doing. Terrorism eats away at the fabric of civic life. Incitement rots the soul of a nation. We say this about Palestinian murder and incitement, and we say it for a reason.
Again, there are differences of course. The Israeli state does not condone it, and does not encourage it. And the voices of Lau and Amar have been tremendously important here, because they show that the leaders of the Jewish faith do not condone it. Israel’s founders had something to say about this as well. And though it may surprise those who have bought into a false reading of Israeli history, the figure we ought to look to for guidance here is Vladimir Jabotinsky.
When the Peel Commission in 1937 published its proposal to divide the land, it included the possibility of transferring Arabs out of the slice it apportioned to the Jews. It was not the left that recoiled from this but Jabotinsky. As Hillel Halkin writes in his new biography of Jabotinsky:
Nor was Jabotinsky enticed by the idea of Arab resettlement. People might call him an extremist, he said, but at least he had never dreamed of asking Arabs in a Jewish state to emigrate. If there would not be enough room for Arabs in a partition state, this was only because neither would there be enough room for Jews. It would be a “death sentence” for Zionism.
Jabotinsky did not believe the Arabs would be willing to peaceably accept the proposals for partition or coexistence. He was right, and violence followed. But he did not himself reject the idea of coexistence, nor did he think Zionism countenanced it. Jabotinsky also opposed, almost to the end of his life, terrorism against Arab civilians:
On a brief stopover in Alexandria in July 1937 to meet Revisionist leaders from Palestine on his way back from a second South African tour, he reportedly told them, “I see nothing heroic about shooting an Arab peasant in the back for bringing vegetables on his donkey to Tel Aviv.”
From his perch in Europe, Jabotinsky at first thought reports of Jewish terrorism against Arab civilians might be rumors to discredit the Revisionists. He said:
As far as I’m concerned, Palestinian Arabs in Tel Aviv are [as though] in their own home, because otherwise I can’t imagine law and order in Palestine. But even if this guideline isn’t followed, I could still forgive [the Jews involved] if they had gone [to the Arabs] and politely asked them to leave without laying hands on them. If there were blows or shoves, or seven Jews ganging up on one Arab, I only hope that our people [i.e., Revisionists] weren’t part of it. I would consider such a thing beastly, even if it happened during a pogrom [of Arabs against Jews].
Jabotinsky had, from a distance, lost command and control of his followers. But even when he, reluctantly, tried to rationalize Jewish violence, his excuses wouldn’t hold today and he almost certainly wouldn’t offer them because of what Amar said. The Jews fighting for a state in Palestine became desperate, as the British authorities’ response to terror was appeasement, and as the British sought to close immigration to those fleeing genocide, thus handing out death sentences to Jews by the thousands even as they were being eradicated at their points of origin.
Today the Jews of Israel have a state and the right of return and an army to defend themselves. The grief and anger being felt in Israel is understandable. The incitement with which it has recently manifested is, as Amar said, a self-destructive act–a betrayal, and not a defense, of the Jewish people.