A Dark Anniversary

In September 1982, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5753, Israel’s Christian allies murdered over 700 Palestinian men, women and children in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Like Kennedy’s assassination, many Jews will vividly recall what they were doing when the news broke and will not easily forget the pictures of the dead and dying that haunted them on the television news. There are no Israeli songs about the Lebanon war. It is not an event we want to remember, but neither is it something we can easily forget. It challenged our historic perception of the Jew as victim. 13 years later, this is a ‘barmitzvah’, no one wishes to commemorate. In hindsight, it was a watershed. It is pertinent to ask how did religious Jews react to the news of this terrible event. How was the Lebanon war interpreted?

Menachem Begin was in shul during Rosh Hashanah and only heard the news about the massacre later from the BBC World Service. Begin’s instinctive reaction was to turn his back on his international critics. He appealed to the Cabinet to close ranks in an act of solidarity against a hostile world.

‘Goyim are killing goyim’ he reputedly commented ‘and the whole world is trying to hang Jews for the crime’. In addition to invoking such historic Jewish suspicion, he obfuscated the difference between Israeli moral responsibility for the crime and the actual crime itself which was committed by the Christian Phalangists. In this, he was helped by Palestinian propaganda and Western reporting that ambiguously attributed the actual massacre to the Israelis. The government’s communique distanced Israel from any connection and labelled ‘a Lebanese unit’ as the culprits.

In the days that passed, the more that Begin attempted to play down the incident, the greater the clamour for a judicial inquiry. In the Knesset on 22 September, he praised the success of the war with the claim that no more Katyushas were falling on the Galilee. The more he attacked critics and refused to acknowledge that something terrible had happened, the more vociferous was the next wave of criticism. Yehoshua Sobol, the Israeli playwright, wrote that

Begin’s characteristic response was a moral autism, accompanied by hypocrisy and self-righteousness. After turning the Holocaust into an oversized symbol, after using it like a dishcloth with which to wipe one’s dirty hands clean, he has revived the notion of a “blood libel” in the quagmire in which he and his government are floundering and into which he has dragged the people as a whole .1

Significantly, the course of the war and the massacre in the camps became almost a struggle for the correct interpretation of Jewishness. Assimilated Jewish intellectuals in the Diaspora and devout Israeli secularists like Sobol looked to religious sources to support their understanding of Jewish values. Jonathan Sacks who then occupied the Dunstan Road pulpit later noted this inversion of attitudes when he publicly pledged his support for President Navon’s demand for an inquiry.

Among my congregation in Golders Green at the time was an old and distinguished rabbi, zichrono livracha, the leading spokesman of the yeshiva world who then held the senior position on the London Bet Din. My custom had been to extend the pulpit to him at various times during the year. One of his favourite themes was the denunciation of the State of Israel for its secularity, choosing the streets of Tel Aviv as the part that represented the whole. On this occasion, however, as I finished my derasha, he mounted the pulpit, and declared to the congregation that my call for an enquiry into Sabra and Shatilla was tantamount to chillul ha’ Shem [the desecration of God’s name]. There was little doubt in my mind that the sympathies of the congregation were with him.

Here, then, was as neat an irony as one could wish. Those who had hitherto been avowedly secular Jews, for whom the State of Israel constituted a significant part of their self-definition, were to be found appropriating religious terminology and values in order to criticize and dissociate themselves from the actions of the State, while those whose identity was religious and had hitherto been vociferous critics of Israel, leapt to its defence.2

In the Diaspora, the long derided opponents of the war became the dominant voice displacing the hitherto compliant communal and philanthropic leadership. American Jewish leaders such as Julius Berman of the Presidents’ Conference or the Anti-Defamation League’s Kenneth Bialkin had preached the doctrine of solidarity with Israel and now had to work hard to cope with the barrage of criticism. They had followed Sharon’s approach that the war was inevitable and that ‘the basic consensus of American Jewry is solidly in support’ .3 Indeed such a statement without hard statistical evidence at the time was certainly dubious.

The Likud government expected Diaspora Jews to give their unconditional support to its war effort.  They were expected to repeat the latest government statement whether it made sense or not. The task of the Diaspora leadership was to wage a hasbara campaign in the belief that any event could be explained positively with good public relations. Likud functionaries interpreted the growing international clamour against the war as a matter of poor public relations rather than a question of misguided policies.

The Likud directed their political influence at the philanthropists and the donors whom they wrongly believed were opinion makers. Many had been bussed to selective areas of Lebanon and given the official explanation. Abba Eban condemned this exercise as ‘the vulgarity of the fundraisers’. The Jewish press :‘was also wooed and slavishly followed the official line during the early stages of the war.4 Begin told a leading US Reform Rabbi that ‘to be a good Jew means to give full support to the government of Israel and to back the Prime Minister unequivocally on all issues whether you agree with him or not. Given the intellectual and dissident tradition of the Jews, many disagreed with that formulation.

As the war became bogged down both militarily and in terms of its rationale, Jewish leadership moved from a position of advocacy to one of studied neutrality. Thus no comment was made when Sir Isaiah Berlin later called for an inquiry into the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. At a special meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London to discuss the massacre, the leadership remained silent and simply acted as a neutral chairman for speakers for and against the war. Although the Board also added its voice for an inquiry, its President along with other Diaspora leaders had attacked the statement of Nahum Goldman, Philip Klutznick and Pierre Mendes-France earlier during the war for their call to lift the siege of Beirut and to negotiate with the PLO. Many Diaspora Jews now openly called upon both Begin and Sharon to resign. Arthur Hertzberg, an academic and conservative rabbi, was that rare example of an American Jewish communal leader who actively opposed the war, prophetically took the argument further.

Menachem Begin may not resign next week, but he has lost the power to govern effectively. A Prime Minister of Israel can survive blunders at home, deep strains with the US and disagreements within World Jewry, but he cannot remain in office if he has squandered Israel’s fundamental asset – its respect for itself and the respect of the world. 6

Despite such protestations, Begin did not immediately budge from his stand of self-justification. It was not a moral argument that finally persuaded him to appoint Judge Kahan to head an official inquiry but a political one. Although the National Religious Party Ministers took heed of the moral arguments, they did not initially support the demand for an inquiry. It was only when private pressure from leading scholars and teachers such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in the United States emphasized the importance of such an inquiry to the National Religious Party [NRP] Ministers that the first rumblings of a coalition crisis were heard – and noted by Begin.

Yet a day after he had initiated the inquiry, in a letter to US Senator Cranston, he painted a picture of an anti-Semitic world once more turning against the Jews. It seemed more important for Begin to correct misreporting and to deflect the argument.

Levelling false accusations is a repeated feature of our own experience. It is almost inexplicable but true, the astonishing fact – Jews condemned as the poisoners of wells, the killers of Christian children for the Pesach ritual, the spreaders of the Black Plague …and now this.

The question of responsibility for the massacre quickly moved beyond the political to the realm of morality. A demonstration of religious Jews outside the main synagogue in Jerusalem, Hechal Shlomo became the forerunner of Netivot Shalom [Paths to Peace], the religious peace movement. Typical of the advocates of settlement in the Territories was the response of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a leader of Gush Emunim and an NRP member of the Knesset. He accused those who called for an inquiry, of being yefei nefesh — do-gooders.

The spiritual crisis caused by the massacre and the lack of an appropriate response was the zenith of a period of triumphalism which engulfed both the secular and the religious people. Rabbi Druckman had voted with the far Right against the government (hiring a vote of confidence two months before the war. The remnant of La’am which had originated in the Labour Party merged with Herut while the late Moshe Dayan’s Telem and the far Right Techiya joined the government. The government which fought the war was therefore even further to the right.

Techiya called for the annexation of Southern Lebanon while religious elements produced maps indicating it to be ‘the territory of the tribe of Asher’. Indeed, its chairman, Yuval Ne’eman viewed the war as merely a continuation of Israel’s war of independence. He called the invasion ‘the last act of the war for this country, the whole of Eretz Israel’ and advocated joint use with the Lebanese of the waters of the Litani river. This, of course, flew in the face of government policy as articulated in its first statement on 6 June that ‘Israel continues to aspire to the signing of a peace treaty with independent Lebanon, its territorial integrity preserved’. Techiya’s demands revived Zionist claims to Southern Lebanon as far as the River Litani when borders were in the process of being defined by the Imperial powers at the end of World War I. There were precedents for this line of thought. Ben-Gurion was also an enthusiastic advocate of a Christian state in Lebanon and was strongly opposed by the more pragmatic Moshe Sharett in the mid-1950s.9

Such arguments were supported by many religious Jews who considered large tracts of Lebanon as the domain of the Tribe of Asher. Beirut was even hebraized to Be ‘ erot – the Hebrew for ‘wells’. Members of the IDF’ s Rabbinate issued a leaflet which quoted the inheritance of Asher in the Book of Joshua. Chapter 19, Verses 24-31 delineate both territorial boundaries as well as cities. Although some places are unknown today, it included Tyre, part of the Jezreel valley and the land around Sidon.

40 American Rabbis who had been brought to the hills surrounding Beirut to view the besieged capital, declared that Operation Peace for Galilee was Judaically, a just war and a milchemet mitzva, an obligatory war. A leading American Torah scholar, Rabbi J. David Bleich suggested that a verse from the Song of Songs supported the acquisition of Southern Lebanon ‘Come with me from Lebanon, my bride, with me from Lebanon you shall come’. Bleich interpreted this as another step towards complete

redemption. He remarkably suggested that any evaluation of the ethical basis for an episode on the road to redemption was in this case an irrelevance.

Referring to Operation Peace for Galilee, he wrote ‘there are events in the lives of men that, irrespective of their morality or immorality, are nevertheless harnessed by God and utilized by Him as instruments of divine providence’. 12

The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, the late Shlomo Goren, went further and, following Maimonides, cited three categories of obligatory war. The first was Joshua’s battle to clear Eretz Israel when the Israelites crossed over into Canaan. The second was the battle against the Amalekites 13 who became symbolic of the enemies of the Jews down the centuries. The final category of an obligatory war was to fight in order to save any Jewish community under threat. Goren interpreted the settlements in Northern Israel and in the Galilee panhandle as in this category. He extrapolated the idea of pikuach nefesh – the saving of a Jewish life — to that of saving an entire people.

The air attacks on and the bombardment of Beirut – even before the war – had been criticized by both the Labour Party and the representatives of Israel’s intelligensia. Begin accused the opposition of double standards and reminded them of the Israeli shelling of Egyptian cities during the war of attrition just after the Six Day War when a Labour government had been in power. Religious moderates such as Avrum Burg, the son of the NRP leader, asked Begin if he would have shelled Beirut and effectively targeted innocent civilians as well as terrorists if those civilians happened to be Jews. Burg argued that all human beings, regardless of their race or religion were created in God’s image. Therefore if the IDF would have avoided the bombing and shelling of Beirut to save Jewish lives, then the criterion would also apply to save non-Jews.

Goren significantly referred to Chapter 20 of the Second Book of Samuel to justify his position. This concerns the revolt of Sheva ben Bichri of the tribe of Benjamin against King David. Ben Bichri led the northern tribes, Israel, against Judea which remained loyal to David. The King’s commander Yoav ben Zeruiah was a mighty, ruthless soldier who finally besieged Sheva ben Bichri in Abel of Beit Maacah with his followers, the Barim.

As Yoav prepared to batter the city, ‘a wise woman’ appealed to him that there were some within who were ‘peaceful and faithful’. She asked ‘why do you wish to destroy a city and a mother in Israel? Why do you want to devour the inheritance of the Lord?’

Yoav, in all reasonableness, replied that he only wished to capture the rebel Sheva ben Bichri. ‘Deliver him only and I will depart from the city’. The woman obliged and located ben Bichri, cut off his head and tossed it to Yoav who – satisfied that he had completed his task – blew the shofar [the ram’s horn] – and departed for Jerusalem with his army.

Goren clearly saw a typological example here in that the peaceful people of Beirut – perhaps the Barim – should deliver Arafat and his henchmen to Sharon. If this did not transpire, then the IDF should take the city by force, saving the innocent, the women and children if possible. The saving of life was justified through the Mishnaic saying that ‘he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the entire world `.14

Yet Goren did not fully explain the analogy which if taken to its logical conclusion would have been politically counter-productive. The characters in the story of Sheva ben Bichri clearly related to the current war. According to Goren, the position of the Prime Minister, labelled by his supporters as ‘Begin, melech Israel’, (Begin, King of Israel) was based on that of King David who was proscribed from building the Temple because he was a man of war. Yoav ben Zeruiah was depicted in the character of Ariel Sharon. Yoav, the uncontrollable tool of his master, King David, who while showing great loyalty to him, was also power hungry and adept at settling personal scores. For example, Yoav murdered Avner who had made a covenant with King David, accusing him of being a spy. He also killed the King’s son, Avshalom who had rebelled against his father despite David’s wish that his son should be spared.

In the story of Sheva ben Bichri, Yoav – Sharon disposes of a seemingly lukewarm ally, Amasa. Yoav tugs Amasa’s beard as a sign of friendship and kills him with his sword in the other hand, leaving the dead man ‘wallowing in his blood in the midst of the highway’. Amasa had been promised the post of commander-in-chief by David and had thereby become a rival to Yoav. David’s response to a series of brutal unauthorized acts was simply to rebuke Yoav, but not to dismiss him. David feared the power of Yoav and his followers — ‘these men the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me’.

Like Sharon in Israel’s conflicts, Yoav was active in each of David’s wars. In Edom, he created terror by remaining for six months in order to exterminate all the male population. Moreover, rabbinical literature did not regard Yoav as endowed with powers of analysis or understanding. In the Talmud,15 he explains to King David that he committed genocide against the male Edomites because it is written ‘You shall blot out the male [zachar] Amalekites’ 16 . Whereupon, David points out Yoav’s stupid error that he should have read the word as zecher — `rememberance’.

A midrash has Yoav besieging Kinsali, the capital of the Amalekites. 17 When the siege does not prevail, he enters the city incognito, proclaiming ‘I am an Amalekite’. He then proceeds to kill not only the soldiers and mercenaries but also all the inhabitants including the young woman who has given him food and shelter. When the Israelites saw the blood flowing from the city gates they knew that Yoav had been successful in liquidating the legendary enemy of the Jews.

Significantly Yoav came to an untimely end when he supported Adoniyahu’s claim to the throne over David’s chosen heir, Solomon. As he prepared to die, David instructed Solomon to pursue Yoav in revenge for his slaying of Avner and Amasa and for all the destruction and loss of life that he had caused in the King’s name. Yoav fled to the Tent of Lord where he should have been given the right of asylum in this sanctuary. Instead, Solomon ignored this and ordered Benaniah ben Yehoiada to kill him.

Yoav, the model for Sharon, is described in a standard reference work, the Jewish Encyclopaedia, as ‘a loyal and willing tool in the hands of his master, David; a sturdy, unscrupulous military chieftain, such as surround Asiatic despots and leaders of freebooters.’ It is not a description Shlomo Goren would have appreciated from his reading of the sources.

Significantly, Begin always refused to condemn Sharon even when the errors and duplicity of the Lebanon war became apparent to him. His close colleagues believed that as Prime Minister, he had appointed Sharon as Minister of Defence against his better judgement and displaying a true Revisionist sense of honour thereby had to take full responsibility.

13 years after Sabra and Shatilla, Sharon is still a player on the political scene. Much to the irritation of his nominal leader, Bibi Netanyahu, Sharon has announced his intention to run in the direct elections for Prime Minister next year. Unlike Yoav ben Zeruiah, Sharon has astutely weathered each political storm and has not so far come to a sticky end. Even if he loses next year, as seems likely, he remains a man deeply feared by Israeli politicians of all political colours.

  1. Al Hamishmar 21 September 1982.
  2. Jonathan Sacks, ‘Religious and National Identity: British Jewry and the State of Israel’ in Eliezer Don-Yehiya (ed) Comparative Jewish Politics: Israel and Diaspora Jewry (Tel Aviv, 1991) p55
  3. Jerusalem Post 15 July 1982.
  4. David Cesarani, The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry 1841 – 1991 (London, 1994) p244.
  5. Yediot Aharanot 17 October 1982.
  6. New York Times 26 September 1982.

7, New York Times 2 October 1982.

  1. Times 29 July 1982.
  2. Jonathan Randal, The Tragedy of Lebanon (London, 1990), pp189-195.
  3. There is a certain degree of confusion and uncertainty as to the location of boundaries and sites arising from the Biblical account. See Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol III (Jerusalem 1977) p700.
  4. Song of Songs 4:8.
  5. J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol III (New York, 1989), pp 291 -292
  6. The Amalekites were the hereditary enemies of the Jews since the wanderings in the wilderness. They were a desert people that lived in the Negev.
  7. Sanhedrin
  8. Baba Batra 21a,b.
  9. Deuteronomy 25:19.
  10. B.H. 146-148.
  11. The Jewish Encyclopaedia Vol VII (New York 1925) p189.

Judaism Today Autumn 1995


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