The Far Shore

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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The biblical portion read in synagogues this Saturday, Beshalach, recounts one of the most sublime moments in human memory, the Israelites’ flight from slavery across the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s pursuing army. In a soaring moment of wonder and gratitude, Moses gathers the Israelites on the far shore and sings a song of praise to the God who “smashes the enemy.” Mi kamocha, Moses sings: “Who is like You?”

Through the generations since then, Jews have sung those words, Mi kamocha, in their daily prayers, recapturing over and over the transcendent experience of struggle and freedom. And through the generations, at their annual Passover reenactment of the Exodus, Jews have spilled a few drops of sweet wine to remember the Egyptians whose suffering was a necessary part of the Israelites’ liberation. The moral lesson handed down in these traditions is clear: In a dangerous world, we must do what is necessary to protect ourselves. We regret the suffering of others. We use only the necessary force. But we do what we must.

That’s a lesson everyone might take to heart as the International Court of Justice prepares to weigh in on the suit brought against Israel for building a separation fence between itself and the Palestinians.

The fence is depicted by its critics as an outrage against human rights, sundering families, separating farmers from their fields, forcing shoppers to travel hours out of their way to buy milk or visit the dentist. Some say the purpose of the fence is to humiliate Palestinians, to draw a racist division between an arrogant Israel and its oppressed neighbors.

Israel replies that the fence, for all its flaws, is an effective way of preventing suicide bombers from entering Israel proper and doing their deadly work. Israelis don’t wish any more than their neighbors do to live surrounded by barbed wire and concrete walls. But as long as the neighboring society remains largely supportive of mass murder and the scattering of body parts in quiet neighborhoods as a tactic for achieving its political goals, Israelis insist on separating themselves from their neighbors.

That is the choice the World Court has been asked to make: inconvenience, perhaps even humiliation, versus body parts.

The route of the fence raises legitimate issues, as many in Israel and elsewhere have noted. The closer to the 1967 lines the fence is placed, the less it imposes on Palestinian lands. And, as Israeli military strategists have noted, the closer to the 1967 lines the shorter the fence becomes, the fewer soldiers it requires to guard it and the cleaner its sight lines.

But as much of the world acknowledged this week in asking the court to drop the case, where the fence lies is a matter for negotiation. The principle of separation should not be questioned. Nor should Israel’s right to protect its citizens.

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