The limits of tolerance

There is a legitimate, legal, even laudatory need for intolerance in certain situations – and chief among them is the assault on Israel.

‘WHEN WHOLE nations – like the Japanese in World War II – are involved, everyone is a legitimate target until the threat is neutralized. Pictured: Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces Paratroopers, 1942.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHEN WHOLE nations – like the Japanese in World War II – are involved, everyone is a legitimate target until the threat is neutralized. Pictured: Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces Paratroopers, 1942.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish books of moral instruction focus primarily on one ultimate goal: the perfection of a person’s personality traits. Known in Hebrew as middot – the word literally means “measure,” as in “the measure of a man” – these invisible yet essential qualities define the type of person we are. Among these distinctions are honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, compassion, empathy, fairness, industriousness and tolerance.
This last item has become quite a fanciful buzzword in recent years. We are called upon, as a society, to tolerate virtually any and all forms of personal expression and cultural behavior. Religious conviction, sexual preference, racial background and political preference (except, of course, in certain circles, an affinity for US President Donald Trump) are all perfectly acceptable for others and are not subject to our own individual critique and criticism.
This posture actually has deep Jewish roots, as we are told in numerous sources “not to judge others” and that “God loves those who love all other human beings” (Ethics of the Fathers).
In fact, tolerance is an essential prerequisite for anyone who would aspire to be a Jewish leader. When Moses is told he will not accompany his people into Israel, he appeals to the “God of Spirits” to appoint a suitable successor. Rashi, the consummate commentator, is intrigued by this unusual title and explains that it is a code word for a God who tolerates and has patience for a variety of different dispositions among His subjects. Presumably, Moses was hinting that Phinehas, a “zealot” for God who summarily assassinated a prince engaged in perverse behavior, was not the most suitable candidate for leader. While his extreme behavior may have been acceptable in a rare, extenuating circumstance, it was not the tolerant philosophy that suited a head of state. Shortly after, Joshua was selected instead to guide the nation into the new land.
BUT MIDDOT are not one-dimensional; they have their limits and exceptions. Pride, for example, is often a negative behavior (“pride goeth before the fall”), yet pride in one’s country or family is certainly admirable. Patience is generally a virtue, but not in times of emergency when rapid action is required. Even love – the most sublime of all human emotions – has its limits; we are bidden to hate, rather than love, inequality, injustice and illicit gain.
And so it is with tolerance; there are limits to just how tolerant we could and should be. Indeed, Moses himself makes this very clear. When charged with leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he is told to extricate the people “mitahat sivlot Mitzrayim.” Literally, this means “from under the burden” placed upon them. But the word “sivlot” also can mean “the tolerance” of Egyptian bondage. In effect, explain the rabbis, Moses’s first task was to convince the slaves that they need not accept the harsh conditions under which they were laboring, a kind of “I’ve grown accustomed to your mace” syndrome. Living for more than a century under tyrannical rule, they had to be reeducated that this situation was morally unacceptable, that Jews – and all human beings – are entitled to a much better way of life.
Jewish society, no doubt, needs a healthy infusion of tolerance. We build too many walls of separation within our communities, we prejudge our neighbors almost instantly, and we react with knee-jerk rapidity to the slightest deviance from our own preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong. The old joke about the two synagogues on a deserted desert island, one of which is attended by the lone survivor, while in the other one he adamantly refuses to pray, extends to innumerable situations, from bullying in grade schools to our arrogant behavior in traffic. Intolerance is ingrained, endemic, almost an afterthought.
But there is a limit to tolerance, and a legitimate, legal, even laudatory need for intolerance in certain situations. And chief among them is the assault on Israel, both of the verbal and violent kind.
When members of the Joint List marched into President Reuven Rivlin’s office and boldly declared, “We are the rightful owners of this land,” they should have been tossed out on their presumptuous posteriors.
When universities allow Jewish students to be marginalized and harassed, and Israeli guest speakers are prevented from delivering their lectures, they should be brought to trial and forced to pay.
When misguided Jews – even those dressed in hassidic costumes – come to Israel to undermine the state and our holy army, they should immediately be sent back to where they came from.
And when Israel is physically attacked – or even threatened – we should defend ourselves with all the might at our disposal.
How is it that when an American president executes a vile terrorist like Baghdadi – and several of his wives to boot – he can rightfully boast of the act and ridicule the scoundrel, yet when we take out a serial murderer with barrels of blood on his hands, we have to almost apologize, assuring the world at large that we bombed super-surgically so that no innocent bystanders were hurt.
Tell me, just how many “innocents” are there in Gaza, which has declared endless genocide against the Jewish state? And how many rockets have to fall, how many children have to sleep in bomb shelters, how many fields have to burn, before we eradicate – by any and all means necessary – the danger to our precious citizens, who truly are innocent?
Despite the myths often promulgated in liberal circles, there is no such thing as “collective punishment” when whole nations – like the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II and like Hamas and Islamic Jihad today – are involved; everyone is a legitimate target until the threat is neutralized. And it is the rare conflict indeed that is solved by diplomacy rather than clear-cut, decisive military action.
So let us work on being more tolerant of our coreligionists, our neighbors and those with whom we must learn to get along. But let us be equally intolerant of those who would deprive us of our freedoms, beginning with the freedom to simply live.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.