13 July 2007 - Reclaiming Martyrdom
Yesterday, I went with my human rights organization for a day’s outing to ancient Caesaria, a beautiful site on the Mediterranean coast which was once the center of Roman administration in Palestine. It is thought to be the place where Jewish martyrs such as Rabbi Akiva and other sages were executed. Their deaths are commemorated in a partly fictionalized account known as The Ten Martyrs.
The story of the Ten Martyrs is read in synagogues every year as part of the Yom Kippur service. In it, the Roman ruler, having read a bit of Jewish law, decides to use it to entrap the Jewish leaders. He asks them what should be done with a man who sells his brother into slavery—warning them not to give a “perverse” answer. They answer that the traditional punishment for such a crime is the death penalty.
The ruler then says that because no one has ever been punished for the sin Joseph’s brothers committed in selling him, the rabbis themelves would now have to bear the punishment. The rabbis, terrified, ask for three days to consider whether this is correct. When they receive a heavenly revelation ordering them to submit to the Roman decree, they return to be executed—each in grisly, humiliating fashion.
This story always horrified and fascinated me. It came back to me in recent days, as I pondered the way in which Israeli and Jewish human rights activists submit Israel’s behavior to international scrutiny. Or the way in which people like me obsess about it, weighing Israel’s sins against its virtues. Why do we do it? Do we want to know whether the balance is in Israel’s favor? Will it change our views?
Perhaps we do it because we are convinced Israel will come out ahead. Then again, there are those who do it because they believe the opposite. Maybe we all stack the scales a bit. Some of us—like me, for example—give Israel bonus points for examining its own behavior in the first place. Perhaps those are deserved—and necessary, because like the Ten Martyrs, Israel is not facing an impartial judge.
Ruth Wisse calls this sort of navel-gazing “moral solipsism.” And while I would argue that self-criticism is important, I think she’s onto something. I’ve been trying to discover what that “something” is—and so I went and bought The Revolt by Menachem Begin, which is virtually the only classic Zionist text still in print and available in Israeli bookstores (and it’s actually Revisionist, not classic as such).
The opening lines of Begin’s introduction state his core principle clearly and boldly: that there are some things more important than life, and some things worse than death. That’s it, I thought. That’s the spirit that creates a nation, that doesn’t trouble itself with balancing the scales, that takes a political goal that is impossible on paper and makes it happe. That’s how Yeats’s “terrible beauty is born.”
Begin and his Irgun Zvai Leumi carried out a campaign of terror against the British during the final years of the mandate. Their exploits are often referred to by people who want to justify Palestinian terrorism: look, this is how the Jews built Israel, too. But suicide bombing is different. Not only does the suicide bomber believe there are things worse than death; he also believes there is nothing better than death.
The moral message of suicide bombing is: we are braver than you, because you love life and we are not afraid to die. Unlike most terrorism, which aims to demonstrate the weakness of the enemy and radicalize the population by provoking harsh reprisals, suicide bombing also hopes to demonstrate that the enemy lacks precisely that will that Begin spoke about and lived by in his underground days.
But suicide bombing is self-destructive—not just in the obvious sense, but also in the broader political sense, because while it might demonstrate that the enemy is unwilling to die for his own cause, it does not demonstrate that the terrorist is willing to live for his. It lacks any kind of pragmatic vision; it fails to join utopia to reality; it is totally apocalyptic, promising salvation only through destruction.
I remember Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi trying to excuse suicide bombing by talking about how Americans, too, lionized those who gave their lives for their country. But being willing to give up your life for a cause if need be is fundamentally different from killing oneself—and countless others—for the sake of the act itself. The former is heroic; the latter is pure evil.
There are many conventional responses to suicide bombing: the security barrier, targeted killings; checkpoints, et cetera. These are only effective up to a point. For one thing, these can radicalize the population and encourage them to support the terrorists. For another, they fail to address the fundamental moral challenge that suicide terrorists fling at democracies like America and Israel.
What addresses that challenge are acts of heroism—acts such as the brave charge of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001; the rescue of dozens of students by Israeli Professor Liviu Librescu during the Virginia Tech shootings, during which he himself was killed; the self-sacrifice of Israeli security guards who have borne the brunt of explosions to save the lives of other innocents.
What some human rights activists seem to demand of Israel is that it should be willing to sacrifice its own life—not in its own defense, as Joseph Trumpeldour did, but for the sake of a global ideal of a just society. Whereas Begin learned from the Holocaust that Jews must fight for statehood in order to protect their rights, much of the rest of the world placed its hope in a universal system of laws and principles.
In the early years of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Israel may have had reason to hope these two strategies were not contradictory. But because of the unceasing attacks on Israel, it has been forced to place self-defense first. Some human rights advocates claim this is illegitimate—as if they expect Israel to sacrifice itself, despite its innocence, for the sake of the worlds’ sins.
This seems like a rather Christian idea—or so I thought, until I found an old article by Solomon Zeitlin entitled “The Legend of the Ten Martyrs and Its Apocalyptic Origins” (The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 36, No. 1. (Jul., 1945), pp. 1-16). In it, Zeitlin shows how the Ten Martyrs story is rooted in pre-Christian thought among the Jewish Apocalysts, a sect rejected by rabbinic Judaism.
And suddenly the penny dropped. The Ten Martyrs are killed for a sin that, as Joseph later explains to his brothers, was necessary to ensure the survival of the nation. Similarly, Israel is being persecuted not only for current sins—for which it is certainly accountable—but for former sins, the sins that were not necessarily chosen but were part of the process through which the state was born, and saved.
Zeitlin seems to think the Ten Martyrs legend is includede in the liturgy to induce a sense of fear and awe in the people reading it. But perhaps it has another lesson, as well—namely, the danger of accommodation to evil. After all, the rabbis acquiesce, to some extent, in their own show trial and execution. To what extent are today’s well-meaning critics of Israel risking the same fate in the court of world opinion?
I’m reading a book by Dore Gold in which he argues that the UN spreads war and chaos instead of preventing them, and that the reason is the UN’s refusal to choose between good and evil. I wonder how far the doctrine of human rights itself has gone down the same path—by encouraging relativism in the balancing of rights, and making governments (the chief culprits) stronger through socioeconomic rights.
As one commenter to this blog has suggested, human rights may be meaningless unless the right to life is placed first and trumps all others. The right to life may, in fact, be the only right worth giving—or taking—life in order to protect. Just as environmental law can be summarized as the rectification of property law, perhaps human rights should be properly described as the rectification of criminal law.
That’s all a bit vague. What I’m basically getting at is that the fundamental building block of human rights is the rule of law. And that some of the secondary rights that activists are fighting for today actually undermine the rule of law. So perhaps what’s needed is a return to the right to life as the fundamental human right, followed by the classic freedoms of expression and belief and so on.
Is this approach compatible with Begin’s ethic of will? After all, it was Begin’s IZL that carried out the widely-condemned attack on Deir Yassin in the 1948 war, during which hundreds of Arab civilians were killed. For now, I’ll just say: let’s judge the doctrine separately from the man. And if we do, I think it’s possible to show that human rights are fully compatible with this approach.
If the enemy’s right to life is disregarded—that is, when he is no longer shooting at you—then your own sense of right is completely eroded. That, in turn, means that the ideal for which you are willing to fight is totally undermined. Begin, realizing this, tries to show that the IZL treated British captives humanely; the Afrikaner general De La Rey was renowned for letting British POWs walk back to their lines.
I’m rambling a bit, but I’m getting to the end here, so bear with me. It might be said that the willingness of human rights activists to sacrifice Israel—some, for example, openly endorse a unitary state—is deadly to the state. Except, as Wisse points out, few Israeli leftists actually leave, or refuse army service. They are, she says, the “opposite of hypocrites”—they refuse to preach the ideals they actually practice.
And ultimately, that is what sustains Israel—the fact that there is a balancing of scales that goes on, and which sustains a moral discourse, but at the same time people know, and do, what needs to be done. I am thinking of the thousands of Israelis who demonstrated during the Second Lebanon War against an early ceasefire; they saw Hezbollah as a mortal threat and wanted to get the job done.
The same fighting spirit animates most ordinary Americans, too. It’s only the elites that give up. And why? I don’t think it’s just “moral solipsism.” It may simply be self-preservation. We weigh the virtues and the sins because we want to know that Israel is objectively in the right, so that we can excuse the fact that we ourselves do not risk our lives. And if the balance falls badly—well, we can prepare our retreat.
I think the Palestinian retreats, which have partly been the result of a poorly-organized and under-developed nationalism, haunts Palestinians more than anything else. In his autobiography, Sari Nusseibeh recalls his father lamenting the fact that Palestinians fought to defend the Old City in 1948 but let it fall easily in 1967. And that failure of self-sacrifice is partly what terror aims to remedy.
But it doesn’t address the fundamental issue, which is that in order for self-sacrifice to mean anything at all, you have to have something to live for first. Begin, interestingly, explains that he acted not out of hatred for the British but out of love for his people and his country. It is that love that sustains Israel today, love that persists as Arab Israelis pose for wedding photographs above Caesaria’s ruins.