I tuned in to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day recently, and I heard Dr Chetna Kang discuss Hindu values in times of battle. Without referring to the war between Israel and Gaza, she said it was important never to forget the humanity of the enemy. If you forget their humanity, she said, the torment of war would endlessly haunt future generations on both sides.
Like many of us all week, I could only consider the opposite of these noble thoughts. That the Hamas terrorists who entered the southern kibbutzim and so cruelly murdered men, women, children and babies had not a vestige of humanity, but only pure evil. To find a shred of humanity in those people who perpetrated these atrocities and took 150 hostages, including young children and Holocaust survivors, would make you question your own humanity. An axis of pure evil was visited on Israel last week.
It would, nevertheless, be invidious not to recognise the humanity of Palestinians caught up in this blistering and eternal struggle. But Hamas is not fighting for their humanity. Hamas does not flinch from using their own people as human shields. Can we suggest, then, that such evil flows from extreme pain, from an intense and bitter sense of isolation? Can we say that the Israeli government’s criminal negligence in not protecting its citizens, inspired it? That the West Bank settlers whose often violent behaviour towards their Palestinian neighbours drove it? Without condoning any of the above, I feel that nothing can provoke the gratuitous cruelty of mutilating and killing innocent people. No, I can’t recognise any humanity in the leaders of Hamas. What I can recognise is our need for humane behaviour in our response.
I recognise the humanity in the many non-Jewish voices which have unexpectedly called on me with support for my friends and family in Israel. Some of them don’t know whether I have anyone in Israel. But still, they rushed to express their concern. One friend writes an impassioned WhatsApp message from Germany. Another family I regularly meet on holiday in Kent, with whom I rarely discuss Jewish issues, writes: “No words to convey it, but we have been thinking of you and your family in this time”. A close friend whose family in Italy I have never met sends regular messages of their concern. Many of them may dislike the extreme right-wing politics of Netanyahu, and believe the Palestinians have had a raw deal, but they know that Jews here and in Israel share a common humanity. They understand that Israelis have suffered a tragedy which has been compared to the Holocaust. They understand Israel’s need to defend itself, even though we all worry about what future civilians now displaced to the south of Gaza will face.
The real danger I fear is that the terrorists’ inhumanity may infect us, too. That the towering grief and rage Israel is experiencing now may spill over into a thirst for terrible revenge. That Israel may lose her soul in the process. Netanyahu says Israel will destroy Hamas. But how can you destroy an idea? Because that’s what Hamas is. A malevolent and destructive idea. Their will to eradicate every Jew on the planet will infect the next generation and the next. Much as Dr Kang was saying in Thought for the Day. Hamas is Hitler all over again. Its jihadist madrassas teach young students to hate Israel and to pledge to destroy it. It is nothing less than an antisemitic crusade from which no one is safe. Already anti-Jewish incidents have increased in the UK and elsewhere. Even at a time like this Israel’s enemies show not the slightest touch of humanity – could they not, at least, have stayed silent? I would love to accept Dr Kang’s Hindu teaching to show humanity to the enemy. It is not so far from Jewish thinking, after all. But in this case, I need serious help.
And then I think of something I read that proves the polar opposite of inhumanity. It is the power of love shown by a dying mother shielding her 16-year-old son, Rotem, with her own bloodied body as Hamas murderers rampaged through their kibbutz. Alone with the dead bodies of both his parents and almost demented with grief, the young man turned aside from his initial thoughts of suicide and decided to return to his kibbutz, promising to honour his parents with the life they saved and which he will now lead. That is the humanity I understand.