'Ma Nishtanah' this Independence Day from the others?

It's been a while since Israelis have been so morally challenged on the eve of the nationwide commemoration days.

 Dr. Haim Ben Yakov, Director General, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (photo credit: EAJC)
Dr. Haim Ben Yakov, Director General, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress
(photo credit: EAJC)

This year, as always, as the sun sets, a siren will sound across the country, mourning music will be played on radio and TV channels, memorial candles will be lit, and memorial prayers will be recited in synagogues and many homes. More than 600 families joined the community whose sons and daughters fell defending the country, and nearly 1,500 Israeli citizens died in the war that began on October 7th, 2023. Still, the numbers continue to grow.

The 76th year of Israeli independence is accompanied by perhaps the most complex decisions and not less complex emotions. It might not have been since the Holocaust that there has been such a blow to morale, public confidence, and faith in humanity among the entire Jewish people.

While fighting one of the most atrocious terrorists in world history, Israel somehow finds itself being punished by the international community and unjustly accused of a crime the Jewish people themselves are still recovering from.

What the civilized world should do instead of this truly shameful process in the ICJ is study and formulate a new set of regulations and norms or even a paradigm of how a state or an army should operate in such complex preconditions. The brightest minds of the Western world should be occupied with a philosophical, moral, and ethical assessment of this inconceivable set of dilemmas related to wars such as the one Israel is waging for the release of over 130 of its citizens held hostage and the destruction of a vicious terrorist organization which is craving not less than a complete fall of a sovereign state and death to its citizens, meaning the very same genocide Israel is being accused of now, but a real and deliberate one in case of Hamas.

Instead of tying Israeli hands, legal experts should devote their time to figuring out how one can fight in densely populated urban areas when there is almost no way to differentiate civilians from militants visually. How do you provide humanitarian aid while it gets in the hands of your enemy forces and is being misused to maximize civilian dependence on them and reinforce the very same enemy you fight? How are soldiers supposed to even stay sane and humane in combat after all the atrocities they witnessed during the first days of the war in the Israeli Kibbutzim nearing the border?

How do you refrain from dehumanization – sometimes a natural tool to cope, but sometimes a deliberate tool of informational warfare, aimed to form a negative perception of certain selected people or groups by attributing to them qualities arousing strong negative emotions?

Israeli society and the military face a profound moral, ethical, and practical dilemma that the world's democratic governments and academic and liberal circles must also relate to.

It is this dilemma that is inherent to Jewish civilization, based on the premise that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, all men are equal before G-d: "And G-d said, 'Let us make man in the image of G-d and the likeness of G-d'" (Genesis 1:26). "And if this is so," the Jewish sages ask rhetorically, "why is it said that man was created from dust? Because," they answer, "so that no one can say that he was created from higher matter."

This idea is supported by the Talmud's commentary on the six days of creation. The Sages ask, "Why was only one man created?" They answered, "to maintain peace between people, so that they would not be able to say to each other that my father was better than yours" (Sanhedrin 4:5).

All men are equal, but they are also equal in their potential ability to do good and evil. The philosophical edifice of European liberal democracy is built on this principle. No one should doubt the remarkable heights of spirit that human beings can reach and the heinous crimes that human beings can commit at the same time. Both are the fruits of human action.

But we must not forget another Jewish principle not less relevant today: "If someone comes to kill you, get ahead of him and kill him first."

The dehumanization phenomenon is particularly familiar to Russian-speaking readers from the well-known story of the Second World War. A renowned Soviet Jewish writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, wrote this in 1942:

"... We know everything. We remember everything. We have realized: Germans are not human beings. From now on, the word "German" is the most terrible curse for us... Let us not speak. We will not resent it. We will kill. If you haven't killed at least one German in a day, your day is wasted. If you think your neighbor will kill a German for you, you don't understand the threat. If you don't kill a German, the German will kill you. If you can't kill a German with a bullet, kill a German with a bayonet. If there is a truce in your area, if you are waiting for a battle, kill the German before the battle. Don't count the days. Don't count the miles. Count one thing: the Germans you've killed. Kill the German! - That's all your old mother asks for. Kill the German! - That's your child's plea. Kill the German! - That's the cry of the native land. Just don't miss. Kill!"

What a chilling piece! Even among the Soviet propagandists, though much later and for political reasons, these words caused difficulties. When the victory over fascism was close in April 1945, a completely different article, 'Comrade Ehrenburg simplifies,' appeared in the newspaper Pravda. It was then that a 'stop signal' to the hateful education about the Germans was given.

According to Ehrenburg's memoirs, in which the writer apparently tried to justify himself, during the war years, he aimed to dispel the illusions of a large part of Soviet soldiers that if only you told German workers and peasants the truth, they would drop their weapons, that "millions of [German] soldiers go on the offensive only because they are in danger of being executed...". "I knew that it was my duty to show the true face of the Nazi soldier, who with an excellent pen writes down in a beautiful notebook bloodthirsty, superstitious nonsense about his racial superiority, shameless, dirty, and ferocious ideas... It is in vain to count on the class solidarity of the German workers, on the fact that Hitler's soldiers will speak their conscience, it is not the time to look for 'good Germans' in the advancing enemy army..."

Even in the fog of the most brutal and deadly war in the history of humankind, Ehrenburg had to justify his clearly dehumanizing yet much-needed effort at the time.

Returning to the modern Middle East, let us turn to the speech of Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the Munich Security Conference, where he displayed a book, 'The End of the Jews,' found in Gaza. Its author is Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and former Palestinian Authority foreign minister. The cover depicts swords and daggers piercing the Stars of David and Jews drowning in a sea of blood.

The book glorifies and justifies the persecution of Jews in Europe and praises the Nazis, and includes chapters like 'The World's Burning Hatred of the Jews,' 'The Universal Corruption of the Jews,' 'The Causes of the Expulsion of the Jews'. It tells about 'blood libels' as objective facts (accusing Jews of using the blood of Christians and Muslims for rituals), as well as plenty of other outrageous anti-Semitic stereotypes like the obsessive pursuit of wealth and the suppression of the non-Jewish population.

These are the attitudes prevalent in Palestinian schools, which are one of the causes of such deeply incorporated hatred embodied in the actions of the Hamas terrorists on October 7th. While humanistic approaches primarily present in the Israeli educational system allow our army and soldiers to forget rarely – there are humans on the other side after all. Humanistic education is one of the most efficient 'vaccines' from the hatred that should have no place in formal and non-formal education.

In today's Israel, through the challenges of the war, the voices of the significance of upholding the highest moral standards, the inadmissibility of dehumanizing Palestinians and Arabs in general, and the impossibility of non-abiding by international norms of warfare continue to resound loudly. We cannot afford to stop seeing even our enemies as human beings.

President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Dr Michael Mirilashvili, addressing the quite symbolic German-Israeli summit "Joint Perspectives" in February 2024, noted: "The brutal war unleashed by Hamas terrorists will not lead us astray and won't harden our hearts. I am convinced that if society eliminates its radical ideology, opposes lies and propaganda, admits mistakes, and chooses to cherish every human life, everything can change in less than a generation. Germany has already gone this path, and today, it serves as a great example that even on the rubble of raging hatred, it's always possible to grow a truly blossoming garden."