Courage Under Fire, Israelis’ Reaction to the Ongoing Violence
Last November, two scissors-wielding Palestinian teenagers, ages 14 and 16, stabbed an elderly man in the head near Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. One neighboring shopkeeper knocked down one of the young women with a chair. When asked on Israeli radio how he felt
about his heroism, the man said, “I feel terrible. She was a kid. How could I rejoice in my actions?”
This man’s humanity contrasts with Palestinian culture’s insane incitement. “I’tan, I’tan” (or “Stab, Stab”), is a popular song among Palestinians, some of whom celebrate the killing of any Jew, young or old. They even encourage their children—like these teens—to turn murderous.
The turn to savagery that began last fall encouraged gratuitous violence for a gratuitous cause. Lies about Israel trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount—even though Israel voluntarily relinquished control to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf decades ago—spread through traditional sermons and social media. The result was a spate of personal terror—stabbings and car-rammings. The Palestinian Authority wanted to keep the violence just short of suicide bombing—to avoid being labeled terrorist. The P.A.’s part in whipping up impressionable Palestinians to kill Israelis was somehow overlooked when the body count was kept down.
The Israeli response, the natural human response, was clear: If you menace us, we will defend ourselves. But the Mahane Yehuda shopkeeper’s response was also moving: You may be inhumane in the way you treat your kids and our kids, but you will never rob us of our humanity, our ability to see the manipulated little kid behind the bloody scissors.
Jewish tradition is clear about the imperative of self-defense. Ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers take note: The Torah offers many guidelines about how to fight when necessary. Judaism is not Christianity preaching “love thy enemy,” but still our sages advised us not to gloat, not to turn brutal—for our sake and our adversaries’. Proverbs 24:17-18 counsels: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” This is simply a warning not to surrender our humanity.
This tension decodes one of Purim’s great mysteries. Haman was so evil his name is jeered, his children hanged and his followers slaughtered. Yet the “ad d’lo yada” tradition encourages drinking until we cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai.
The rabbis offered a profound, mixed message about violence. We can defend ourselves, but on Purim, we purposely confuse Mordecai with Haman to remind us that Haman was human, too. This compels us to mourn our enemies’ losses: their loss of a conscience as well as their loss of life—since every life begins innocent.
In her two years of Israeli army service, my daughter reported that her commanders referred to “the enemy”; never “the Palestinians” or “the Arabs.” This practice avoided bigotry while affirming that we fight as hard as we can as long as we must: Enmity is a curable condition, not an immutable characteristic.
The terrorists see our love of our kids and regrets about killing theirs as weakness. Actually, it’s our strength. We fight them intensely while we fight to keep our moral compass. And we fight conditionally—only as long as they are the enemy. In that ambivalence is our motivation to stay strong, our pride in keeping our moral center, and our hopes and determination to eventually achieve peace.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s (Thomas Dunne Books).