The alternative to Jewish power

Terezin’s Jews scaled the heights of the human spirit. But it took an army to save their lives.

Aushwitz Birkenau entrance 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aushwitz Birkenau entrance 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, the Israel Festival featured one of the most gripping productions I’ve ever seen. “Defiant Requiem” tells the story of the Terezin concentration camp, where in the midst of death, Jewish inmates clung to their humanity through an outpouring of artistic endeavor, including a full choral production of Verdi’s “Requiem.”
So weak they could barely stand, so hungry they could barely concentrate, 150 inmates nevertheless rehearsed night after night, learning an extremely complex musical score by rote (since they only had one copy), and performed it to such a standard that the Nazis favored a visiting Red Cross delegation with a command performance. And after conductor Rafael Schachter’s first choir was deported to Auschwitz, he trained a second. And then a third. It was an incredible testament to the human spirit.
But there’s a flip side to this story, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted in an eloquent taped introduction: All their dedication and creative passion, their awe-inspiring retention of their humanity in the face of the greatest dehumanization machine in history, still wasn’t enough to save these Jews’ lives. Most of Terezin’s inmates died, either there or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
For to save life, spirit alone doesn’t suffice: You also need power, in its rawest, ugliest form. When Schachter’s choir sang the Requiem’s plea for deliverance from eternal death, it was salvation from the eternal death of Terezin for which they prayed. But it took an army and a brutal war to answer that prayer.
 This is a truth most Israelis understand deep in their bones. But it’s one a growing number of American Jews seem increasingly uncomfortable with. And this has been a crucial factor in making many of them increasingly uncomfortable with Israel as well.
 The reason for their discomfort is obvious: Military power may save lives, but it can’t be wielded without violating other cherished moral principles. It’s unquestionably wrong to kill an innocent person, yet war inevitably produces civilian casualties, however hard armies may try to minimize them. It’s unquestionably wrong to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty, yet checkpoints set up to catch the few bent on sowing deadly terror inevitably cause hardship to thousands of innocents. And the list could go on.
There’s no happy medium whereby power can somehow be wielded without these negative consequences; it’s a head-on collision of values that forces everyone to choose sides. And increasingly, Israeli and American Jews are choosing opposite sides.
Growing numbers of American Jews no longer believe the security benefits of military operations like Cast Lead in Gaza three years ago can justify the civilian casualties they cause. And they are even less convinced that security considerations can justify the hardships “the occupation” causes many innocent Palestinians, from restrictions on the movement of people and goods to arrest operations that sometimes end in casualties. To put it more starkly, they are uncomfortable with the image of Jews as “perpetrators” rather than victims: If power cannot be wielded without wronging others, they believe, then Jews should choose morality over power.
Israelis, too, are uncomfortable with many of the consequences of wielding power. That’s one reason why polls consistently show that most favor a two-state solution: They would happily be rid of the “occupation” tomorrow, provided they could do so without endangering Israeli lives. That’s also why their army makes extraordinary efforts – more “than any other army in the history of warfare,” according to British Col. Richard Kemp – to prevent civilian casualties.
But to Israelis, saving Jewish lives is also a moral imperative. While it’s a gross distortion to view Israel as nothing more than a response to the Holocaust, it’s an equally gross distortion to view it solely as a vehicle for the flourishing of the Jewish spirit: “Never again” was and remains one of Israel’s raisons d’etre. And the very applications of power most deplored by many American Jews are precisely those that consistently save Israeli lives.
Ugly as the “occupation” is, for instance, the consequences of withdrawal have thus far proved even uglier. Israel tried it three times: from parts of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, from south Lebanon in 2000, and from Gaza in 2005. The results, respectively, were the second intifada (which caused more Israeli casualties than all the terror attacks of the previous 53 years), the Second Lebanon War, and 8,000 rockets launched at southern Israel. That’s why today, even Israelis who favor further withdrawals often say that for now, only settlers should leave; the army should remain.
Similarly, while smaller-scale military operations did nothing to reduce the rocket fire, the far more extensive Cast Lead slashed rocket launches by 75 percent, from 3,278 in 2008 to 774 in 2009. And even now, when the West Bank is relatively quiet, checkpoints routinely thwart terror attacks.
To understand just how deeply this Israeli consensus runs, consider something published two years ago by the man who is now editor-in-chief of Israel’s far-left newspaper, Haaretz. Describing his army service in Lebanon years ago, Aluf Benn wrote: “We learned one lesson: Regardless of politics, it's better to be the guard than the prisoner. Even those who dream of a permanent settlement and a Palestinian state and want to see the settlements gone prefer to tie on the cuffs than be cuffed … The occupation did not transform us into law-breaking criminals, it only taught us that it's best to be on the stronger side.”
In Israel, even the Left understands this stark truth: Power may be ugly, but powerlessness is worse.
However hard you try to minimize the dirt, there’s no way to keep your hands clean while wielding power. Dirt stains even the most justified conceivable uses of force: The fighting that followed the D-Day landings in World War II, for instance, exacted a horrific toll in civilian lives.
But American Jews repelled by this uncomfortable truth should remember one thing: The alternative to Jewish power isn’t the shining Jewish spirit so movingly captured by “Defiant Requiem.” It’s the gas chambers where most of those Jews ended their lives.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.