The following was written as a response to a blog post authored by Rabbi Carl M. Perkins discussing the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners as a precondition to the commencement of the current set of negotiations, posted on a listserve I belong to. The original post (linked to here
) was in part a tribute to Prof. Menachem Stern of Hebrew University, murdered by a Palestinian in 1989, and whose murderer will apparently be released shortly. I should note that despite his criticism of the prisoner release, Rabbi Perkins did not suggest that the Israeli government should not have implemented the release. I assert in my rejoinder below is that it is short-sighted to focus solely on your own side’s pain; without understanding both the humanity and the political goals of the other side there can be no comprehension of the larger picture.
With all respect to Rabbi Perkins, and even more to Menachem Stern z”l, his article misses the point. Rabbi Perkins’s seeming inability to comprehend that there are two sides to this war – or even that it is a war – is perhaps the greatest danger to this fragile peace process.
No one could defend the murder of Menachem Stern. But no one could defend the murder of many thousands of people – Arabs and Israelis – who have died in this struggle, not a few – on both sides – as undeserving of death as he was. The brutal fact is that Menachem Stern’s murder was not a criminal act but a political one; it was part of a war. And prisoners of war are released as part of a peace process. Usually at the end of the process, but most do not last for 20 years (the 20th anniversary of the White House handshake is next month).
I would not expect the relatives of people killed to take this larger view. Their loss and grief is personal, but a person somewhat removed – especially a rabbi – has a duty to take a larger view. And Rabbi Perkins seems unable to recognize this.
This is an asymmetrical war, as so many are now. Could anyone seriously maintain that, had the Palestinians not engaged in their struggle over many years, including numerous attacks against civilians in Israel and abroad, that their nationhood would have been recognized by Israel in 1993 on the White House lawn? And those who murdered Professor Stern were in effect the Palestinian soldiers who brought Israel to negotiations. Those are more brutal facts that anyone seeking to understand this conflict – including the murders of civilians on both sides – has to recognize.
I want to make clear I am not defending those who engaged in murder of civilians. I do think there is a moral difference between a soldier who fights on a battlefield and someone who kills an unarmed civilian. However, those of us who are partisans of the infinitely stronger side – Israel – have a responsibility to take a larger view when there is a chance of ending the conflict, and ending the murders of more Menachem Sterns and their Palestinian equivalents.
Palestinian families want their men back just as Jewish families do. And if they are expected to compromise for peace, then they are entitled to have them. And rabbis should be the ones who remind Jews that Palestinians are people with the same feelings as Jews – and entitled to the same rights. Israelis elected Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – terrorists by any definition – prime ministers of their country. Palestinians likewise see their own terrorists as heroes. We do not have to agree with them, but if we want to live in peace with them then we have to recognize the larger picture.
Rabbi Perkins does a disservice to the larger value of peace by focusing simply and solely on Jewish pain. There are two sides to any war, and a spiritual leader should be pointing that out.
I have no idea if this current process will work. But Israelis can make it more likely to succeed by recognizing the common humanity of their enemy, even when it involves releasing the murderers of people like Menachem Stern.