Saturday, January 26, 2008
When Compassion Kills:
By: Steven Plaut Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Sixty years ago, the Jews of Israel and the world learned one of the
harshest lessons in political realism and the ethics of war. It was a
tragedy that forced them to abandon their moral naivete and acknowledge
the harshness and brutality of military reality. And it is a lesson that
Israeli politicians and the leftist media would have the country forget
The United Nations in November 1947 had approved the partition plan
for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab Palestinian state in
Western Palestine. A different Arab state had already been constructed in
the eastern two-thirds of Mandatory Palestine and was named Jordan
(earlier, Transjordan). Western Palestine at the time was ruled by the
British, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations after Britain
drove the Ottomans out of Palestine in World War I.
In 1920, the territory of Palestine had been separated from Syria by
French-British agreement, so that France could rule Syria and Britain
could rule Palestine. The Arabs of Palestine rioted because they
considered themselves Syrians and demanded not to be cut off from their
actual homeland. Those same Arabs would later be misnamed "Palestinians."
After the 1947 UN partition vote and before the Jews officially
declared independence (which would occur in May 1948), the Arabs of the
territories earmarked for the Jewish state launched an all-out war against
the Jews, complete with mass massacres of Jewish civilians. They were
openly supported by the surrounding Arab states, which sent arms and
.volunteer. troops and later invaded Israel with their own armies.
Because the Jewish towns and settlements were scattered, some of
those outside the main Jewish population centers were cut off and besieged
by the Arab militias. One such besieged set of four Jewish villages was
known as Gush Etzion, located south of Jerusalem. The first of its
settlements had been established in 1927 by Jews from Yemen. It had been
attacked during the 1936-39 pogroms carried out by Palestinian Arabs
In January 1948, Gush Etzion was surrounded by Arab militias.
Jerusalem itself was also besieged and would soon be cut off and starved.
An Israeli army did not yet exist; instead, a number of ragtag and poorly
equipped Jewish militias attempted to defend the Jewish areas against the
attackers. In cases where the Jewish militias failed, captured civilians
were generally massacred by the Arabs. Many of the murdered Jews were
The Jerusalem militias sent out a company of 38 young men, half of
them students from Hebrew University, to relieve the besieged Gush Etzion
villages. It shows the desperation of the Israeli Jews at the time that a
company of 38 people was considered a major reinforcement. The fighters
carried heavy packs of food and ammunition, and so proceeded slowly. On
the way to Gush Etzion, one militiaman fractured his ankle and was taken
back to Jerusalem by two others, leaving the company with 35 fighters.
They marched by night, led by two experienced scouts. But before
reaching their goal, they were discovered by an elderly Arab shepherd. (A
British version of events later had them detected by two Arab women
The militiamen grabbed the shepherd, but were then faced with a
moral dilemma. Some proposed shooting him on the spot, because, they said,
if he were released he would immediately alert the Arab militias in the
vicinity, who would attack the relief company. War is war, they argued,
and the lives of hundreds of people depended on the success of their
Others among the Jewish militiamen objected. We cannot just kill him
in cold blood, they said. Our military operation must be ethically pure.
And we can't even tie him up and leave him in a cave - he might die there
slowly, or he might escape and alert the Arabs.
The shepherd (or shepherds in the alternative version) swore on all
that was holy that if released, he would not breathe a word. In the end,
the Jewish militiamen decided to release the shepherd.
The shepherd immediately ran to the nearest village housing the Arab
militias and alerted them to the presence of the Jews. The Arabs attacked
the outmanned and outgunned Jews. Every single Jewish militiaman was
massacred. Their bodies were horribly mutilated. Later, the Arabs demanded
money from the British in return for the corpses.
Even worse, the Gush Etzion villages were never relieved or
reinforced. Without reinforcements, those villages eventually fell to the
onslaught of the Arab marauders and the regular Jordanian army (the Arab
Legion). When Kfar Etzion, the largest of the villages, fell, virtually
the entire Jewish civilian population was massacred, 250 people in all.
Only three Jews survived. The residents of the other three villages were
luckier - after their surrender the Jordanians took them prisoner and
later released them.
Jews had long engaged in sterile, scholarly debate over military
behavior without the hazard of being mugged by reality. Prior to the
struggle for Israel.s independence, Jews hadn.t run an army of their own
(as opposed to participating as soldiers in armies of other countries)
since the seventh century, when a small Jewish militia aided the Persian
invaders attempting to drive out the Byzantine occupiers of Palestine.
But then, in the late 1940's, Jews were suddenly confronted with the
necessity of propounding ethical rules for dealing with real-world
There are lessons to be learned from the massacre of the Gush Etzion
Thirty-Five. The only way to avoid undertaking military actions that might
possibly result in the death of innocent non-combatants is to surrender
and capitulate. Squeamishness in the midst of battle always results in far
Rabbinic tradition teaches that those who are compassionate in
situations where cruelty is called for will end up being cruel in
situations where compassion is called for.
Our Sages could have taught a thing or two to the armchair critics
of Israel's targeted assassinations and other military actions, and to the
practitioners of recreational compassion who love to whine about the
"brutality" of the American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Afterword: The Gush Etzion "settlements" were rebuilt after 1967 and
represent some of those "settlements" that the Israeli Left demonizes as
having been built on "Palestinian land." On Thursday this past week,
terrorists entered the "settlement's" yeshiva, wounded two yeshiva
teachers, who fired back while wounded and killed the terrorists.
2. For no man can redeem the redemption of a brother, nor give to God
his ransom value.
--- 49th Psalm, verse 8