“Agonizing Over Collective Punishment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the dramatic events that unfold with the rebellion of Korach and his cohorts. Korach has accused Moses and Aaron of usurping both temporal and spiritual authority and of trying to thoroughly dominate the Jewish people.

Moses movingly pleads with G-d to reject all of the rebels’ claims and offerings. He plaintively affirms his honesty and devotion to the people, stating that he has never sought to dominate the nation or to do anything for his own benefit. He recalls that on his mission to rescue the nation, he used his own donkey to transport his family from Midian to Egypt, never asking for compensation (Numbers 16:15).

Moses then sets up a divine test utilizing the incense fire-pans to prove who truly speaks in G-d’s name.

G-d suddenly intervenes, saying to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:20): Separate yourselves from this assembly and I shall destroy them in an instant. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and plead (Numbers 16:22): “Kayl Eh’lo’kay ha’roo’choat l’chol ba’sar, ha’eesh eh’chahd yeh’cheh’tah, v’ahl kol ha’ay’dah tik’tsoaf?” O G-d, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire assembly?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) describes Moses’ effusive argument. Says Moses: Oh G-d, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, You know the thoughts of all men. Your nature is not like that of a mortal, earthly king. When anyone in his kingdom commits an offense, the king does not know who the sinner is. Therefore when he becomes angry, he exacts punishment upon all the people. But You–before You all human thoughts are known and You know exactly who is the sinner. Therefore, punish only those who are truly guilty!

On November 4, 1995, a former yeshiva student by the name of Yigal Amir, then a law student at Bar Ilan University Law School, assassinated Yitzchak Rabin. Although he did partially achieve his goal by causing temporary national disruption, despite the great loss, the resilient Israeli democracy was able to regroup. The government and the people recovered, and history marched forward.

However, the Orthodox Zionist community, of which Yigal Amir was considered one of the best and the brightest, never did recover. Before the assassination, the religious Zionist youth were considered by almost all to be the finest young citizens of the country, the ones who still had a burning passion for Zionism and were rapidly replacing the old kibbutz Zionists as the leading elements of the Israeli Defense Forces. At that time, approximately 40-60% of the young combat officers in the IDF were religious. Yigal Amir’s dastardly act shattered that universal admiration. Both political and military elements became suspicious of the religious youth, and their esteem has never recovered.

Despite the many Orthodox leaders and others who proclaimed: “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the entire assembly?,” the anger continues to fester to this day!

As painful as is the decline in Orthodox Zionist prestige as a result of Yigal Amir’s actions, there is today an even more painful challenge that faces the entire Jewish community, a challenge that is likely to torment the State of Israel and Jewish people throughout the world for the foreseeable future.

The history of the State of Israel since its establishment in 1948 has been a history that is steeped in pain and saturated in blood. Terrorism has been a key element in the strategy of Israel’s Arab enemies. Murders and massacres have become part of the daily landscape. Israel, a democratic state, has tried to respond to the threat of terrorism while making every effort to play by the rules of morality and the international standards governing self-defense.

The Palestinians, however, make up new rules as they go along. They have introduced hijacking, public beheadings, and terrorist actions that have killed and maimed tens of thousands. They really don’t care about world opinion. It seems as if they are constantly pushing the envelope and getting away with it.

During the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Hizbollah militias regularly hid behind civilian populations, secreting their ammunition in private civilian dwellings, and using civilian human shields as a very effective tactic against the Israeli soldiers, who they knew would do everything possible to avoid harming innocents. They effectively changed the rules of engagement.

As a result, the Israel Defense Forces were forced to fight the Lebanese war, not with one hand tied behind their back, but with both hands tied, because their Palestinian foes would not hesitate to put young children in harm’s way and broadcast photos of their shattered bodies to effectively win over world sympathy for their cause.

This new reality of war places the State of Israel and Jews the world over in a most challenging position. Shall one man sin, and Israel punish them all? Should the Israeli Defense Forces, despite inevitable numerous civilian casualties, bomb towns or villages that harbor terrorists? Can Israel indiscriminately shoot back at areas from where Qassam rockets are launched into the Israeli city of Sderot? Is it moral to do so, and will world opinion tolerate it?

Perhaps the rules of engagement and the procedures governing the conduct of war have now changed. It appears to be virtually impossible for a democratic or a would-be ethical army or state to do battle with “barbarians” who do not care how many innocents are killed. They are even prepared to sacrifice their own wives and children, because it is the greatest honor to die in Allah’s name.

If such is reality, should the Geneva rules of engagement be changed to state that civilians who harbor terrorists may no longer claim civilian status, and are not entitled to civilian protection in times of battle? Can civilian communities be ordered to rid the terrorists from their midst, and if they fail to do so or cannot do so, must leave the terrorist-infested areas, otherwise they will be regarded as terrorist collaborators? Can collective punishment, especially of civilians, ever be justified?

These weighty questions must be dealt with forthrightly, because the future of our civilization is at stake.

When Moses said to G-d, “Shall one man sin and You be angry with the entire assembly?” he was obviously arguing that innocents should not be punished. However, in the new reality, these new challenges have to be wrestled with. And, the answer may not be pleasant.

May G-d give us the strength and insight to confront these challenges boldly, resolve them wisely, and vanquish the evil enemies who not only threaten our lives, but also challenge our most cherished values at their very core.

May you be blessed.