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Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue
“Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof-Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
But just how just do we have to be?
I begin with a question. Have any of you ever served in the armed forces of any country? And if so, did you receive training on how to treat prisoners of war?
The Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF, has an Ethical Code. “ A soldier will use his weapon only for the performance of his duty, only to the extent necessary, and will preserve human life even while fighting, and he will do all he can to avoid harming the lives, bodies, dignity and property of noncombatants and prisoners.”
Did you see the article on Izhak Brook, who was featured in the Jewish times a few weeks ago? He served as an army medic for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 Six Day War, and again in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and part of his job was to take care of wounded enemy prisoners. On the one hand, Israel claims to be the most moral army in the world, and they have the code of ethics which I just read to you. On the other hand, these enemy soldiers were sent to kill you and your family.
This is how Dr. Brook, who currently is a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University, resolved that dilemma.
“For me, they were human beings in need of medical attention. Watching my medical school teachers and the medical teams at Hadassah fight for the lives of men who were fighting against us set an ethical standard for me that I adhered to when I became a physician.
Even though I had mixed feelings about treating wounded enemy soldiers, I saw them first and foremost as human beings in need of help.
Caring for these enemy prisoners of war humanized our adversary to me, and I felt inner satisfaction that I could still honor the sanctity of human life, a value with which I had been raised.
Most of these soldiers were tense and apprehensive throughout the treatment and looked in disbelief as we worked to care for their wounds. I was proud that I could overcome my anger and treat these individuals as I would have wanted to be treated in a similar situation. I knew that as a Jew and as a medical professional, it was my duty to do so.”
How many of you are proud of Itzhak Brook, and how he served in his role as medic in the IDF?
So, let’s step it up a notch.
Instead of enemy soldiers, let’s focus in on terrorists. Let’s consider a real event. Two terrorists attack and stab an Israeli soldier in Hebron. Other Israeli soldiers react. One of the terrorists was killed, and the other lay incapacitated on the road.
Elor Azaria, a medic for the IDF, approaches the terrorist who is still alive. According to witnesses, Azaria says, “He deserves to die.” He walks up to him, and from less than two meters away, he shoots him in the head. And now he is dead.
The entire incident is captured on film, and given to B”Tzelem, a human rights organization in Israel.
The video goes viral around the world.
Sgt. Azaria claimed that the terrorist was still a threat because it looked to him like he was wearing an explosive belt, and he also felt that he could have reached for his knife. Both claims were refuted by the IDF tribunal investigating the case.
So, I ask you, if you were on that tribunal, what would you have decided regarding the fate of this medic? Is he a hero, or is he guilty of a crime? What is justice in this case?
The court president, Maj. Gen. Doron Piles, said, according to reporters in the court, “The unnecessary or disproportional use of a weapon is forbidden and immoral, is ineffective and even harmful. The IDF is the organized military of a country that operates according to law. Soldiers must not settle accounts with terrorists after the danger from them has passed.”
The Hebron shooting, which occurred in March, 2016, prompted a furious debate over military ethics and the fate of Palestinian perpetrators, polarizing Israel, where most Jewish 18-year-olds are drafted for more than two years of compulsory service and the military is seen by many as an embodiment of the country’s values.
Prime Minister Netanyahu at first condemned Sgt. Azaria’s conduct. Then, apparently carried by the wave of public sympathy for the sergeant, he phoned his family to express solidarity.
Moshe Ya’lon, who was then Defense Minister, responded immediately and harshly,
“The incident in which an IDF soldier was documented shooting a terrorist minutes after he had been neutralized and lying on the ground is very severe, completely opposed to the IDF’s values and its morality of fighting. We have to know how to win and remain human. ”
So, what do you think of Yalon’s words? If you are a liberal, you would say, “Kol HaKavod l’Tzahal! (More power to the IDF!). And if you were Netanyahu, you said to Yalon, “You’re fired.”
Thousands of Israelis refused to accept the terrorist’s right to life and his killer’s moral blame. Four days after the incident, the Beit Shemesh municipality called for citizens to rally for the hero’s release, and the Chief Rabbi of Safed stated that Azaria deserves praise. Avigdor Liberman, the new defense minister, showed up outside of the courtroom, and told reporters that this trial was a theater of the absurd. Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that the attack on the soldier, who defends us all, harms Israel’s standing abroad and obstructs the prevention of future terrorist attacks.
Many on the right viewed the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, as being a closet liberal. Shouting demonstrators outside of the courtroom chanted, “Eisenkot, Rabin is looking for a friend,” a thinly veiled death threat. The demonstrators demanding Azaria’s release carried signs that said, “Terrorists shouldn’t be neutralized. They should be killed.”
So, what was the verdict? Sgt. Elor Azaria was found guilty of manslaughter. While the shooting was not premeditated, the court found him guilty of intentionally killing a wounded terrorist who no longer posed a threat to human life. In doing so, Sgt. Azaria violated Israeli military law and the moral foundations on which the Israeli army stands.
Before I share with you the sentence, the punishment, I want you to know the response of many Israelis to the verdict.
“But, Azaria is our son.”
“Azaria may be guilty, but he deserves an immediate pardon.”
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He looks at politics in Israel through a Jewish values lens.
This is what he said regarding the reaction to the guilty verdict.
“Azaria is indeed our son, a part of our family. Family membership, or for that matter citizenship in our society, is not contingent on one’s actions. We ask our children to defend us and send them into harm’s way. We are in their debt, and they remain our children, whether they are in the right or in the wrong. Our children demand our love, loyalty, care, and compassion. But we are not required to morally acquiesce and accept everything that our children do. In fact, we are derelict in our duty as parents and family if we do so…
Over and again, we declare that our army is the most moral army in the world. Is that a declaration we inherit by right, or a responsibility we must earn? One of our greatest challenges is that our national rebirth has occurred in one of the most violent and morally challenged places on earth. We must learn to survive in the Middle East, but without becoming yet one more Middle Eastern phenomenon. Living by our moral principles, that all human life is sacred and can only be taken in an act of self-defense, is not merely our challenge, but our greatest strength.
Our children, whom we send to defend us, must be given the best training and equipment our resources can provide. But as a soldier, I knew that my greatest strength lay in my certainty in the justice of my cause and in the moral fortitude of my country and my army. It was with this certainty that I sent my children to the army. It was with this certainty that I knew — in the deepest sense — that my children would be OK.
Because Sgt. Azaria and all the soldiers in our army are indeed our children, our greatest act of care and loyalty is to guarantee that they will serve in an army that truly aspires to be the most moral in the world. In the rabbinic legal discourse, the rebellious son is punished now, because of what he might become. Sgt. Azaria must be held accountable, for if we pardon him, I fear what we may become: A society that has lost its moral compass.
Rabbi Hartman continues.
Sgt. Azaria has been found guilty, but he is also a victim. Our children, whom we send to protect us, must endure moral challenges often too great for their young shoulders to bear.
He is a victim, because while our army is crystal clear on its rules of engagement and of the moral standards it demands of its soldiers, our civil society is not so clear. It has become acceptable for political, religious, and social leaders to advocate for actions and policies of revenge and retribution. Despite our immense power and success, fear has penetrated into the heart of our reality, and legitimized advocating for the abrogation of human rights. Sgt. Azaria is guilty, but he is also a victim.
It would be a great miscarriage of justice if the severity of his sentence reflected the enormity of the issue that his actions unleashed.
Let the sentence reflect the fact that he is both guilty and a victim. Let us then go on from the debate around the fate of our rebellious son to a debate around the future of who we ought to become.”
Thank you, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman.
Here is the sentence.
Citing the special efforts Azaria made to become a combat soldier, the distinction with which he served, his felony’s unique circumstances, his lack of a criminal record, and the suffering his family went through including a stroke his father sustained while the trial progressed, the court mandated an 18-month prison term. And although Azaria received an added year’s suspended sentence and was also demoted to private, his punishment could well have been closer to its legal maximum of 20 years in jail.
Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue.
Was justice served in the case of Sgt., now private, Elor Azaria?
Was there too much justice? Was there too little justice?
Or, as I mentioned in the introduction to the Torah reading, is this Rav Ashis’s understanding of the second Tzedek as compromise?
What do you think? Please share with me your thinking at Kiddush.
Rabbi Paul D. Schneider grew up in Detroit. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his doctorate in educational administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.
He served as the headmaster of Chizuk Amuno’s Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore for 29 years, and following that, was engaged by the congregation to serve as its Director of Congregational Life. In 2014-2015, Rabbi Schneider served as interim principal of the high school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. In 2015-2016, he was interim rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. This last year, Rabbi Schneider was the interim rabbi of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens.
Rabbi Schneider has served as president of both the Association of Independent Schools of Maryland and DC, and the Jewish Educators Assembly. He is married to Marilyn Schneider, a CPA , and they have three grown sons, a wonderful daughter-in-law and two delicious granddaughters. His passion is for Israel, and he loves stories.