Was There Really No Other Way?


By Leonard Fein

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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According to all reports, synagogues in America were unusually well-attended this Tisha B’Av, which fell this year on August 3. It’s the day on which Jews — some, anyway — remember to mourn the destruction of the First Temple, and then, according to the tradition, a number of other calamities that befell our people through the centuries.

Outside the Orthodox community, Tisha B’Av has rather peculiarly become a day mostly commemorated at Jewish summer camps, principally, one imagines, because it is the only holiday of significance that takes place during the summer months. (At the camp I attended, we also marked the birthday of Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet of the modern period. It’s not that we were that devoted to Bialik, but that we looked for “occasions.” In fact — I have just checked — Bialik was born on January 9. But back then, we didn’t have Wikipedia to set us straight.)

There’s no mystery about the unusually high attendance this time around: People were experiencing very deep concern for the war in the Middle East and wanted to feel the embrace of others who share that concern. My powerful impression, however, is that much of what people felt was a queasiness that remained unarticulated, unexpressed. Or perhaps that is just what I want to believe?

After all the justifications for the war are recited, and all the anguish over the casualties in Israel, after all the talk of how Hezbollah uses human shields and how genuinely antisemitic Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is, after all the reminders that Hezbollah, whatever else it may be, is also a terrorist organization, after all the tears shed for the fallen Israeli soldiers and for the fallen Israeli civilians, the queasiness remains.

Part of it, most likely, is a sense that something has gone very wrong in Israel’s battle plan. That sense is quite widely supported by the controversy in the Israeli press regarding the barely concealed differences between the political leadership and the military command. Was it wise to rely so heavily in the first days on air power alone? Was it sensible to introduce ground troops in dribs and drabs and to delay for weeks the call-up and introduction to the battle of reserve units? If, after three full weeks of battle, Israeli troops are still fighting for control of Lebanese villages within eyeshot of the border between Israel and Lebanon, something seems to have gone wrong, no? And then there’s the intelligence failure: Was the size of the Hezbollah storehouse of rockets not known beforehand? The depth of the Hezbollah bunkers? And, most of all, the evidently professional training and ferocious devotion of the Hezbollah fighters?

All that and, of course, the absurdly high expectations that we have of Israel’s military capacity. The storied Israeli military, after all, heirs to the dazzling victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and of the still more daring rescue of the Entebbe hostages in 1976. Yet now the emerging consensus in Israel is that an army that for the last many years has been engaged in the work of occupation, policing Gaza and the West Bank, has simply lost its battleground skills.

But there is more to it even than all that, more to the queasiness. There’s Lebanon, and too many “mistakes,” too many dead children.

Quite incredibly, a popular (American-born) Israeli author wrote — after it had become well-known that very many of the war-dead in Lebanon are children — that she has no tears for them. “Save your sympathy,” Naomi Ragan writes in Haaretz, “for the mothers and sisters and girlfriends of our young soldiers who would rather be sitting in study halls learning Torah, but have no choice but to risk their precious lives full of hope, goodness and endless potential, to wipe out the cancerous terrorist cells that threaten their people and all mankind. Make your choice, and save your tears.”

I prefer to believe that we do not ration our tears, that whoever bears ultimate responsibility for the death of innocents, we are not indifferent to the anguish of bereaved parents or of new orphans. I prefer to believe, and to embrace, those who see the television reports of the rubble and the remains and shudder — and yes, even cry. And I know that the Torah the young Israeli soldiers are learning teaches that the lives of the others, too, are precious.

I have reservations regarding the accuracy of a detailed 50-page report by Human Rights Watch documenting supposed Israel’s recklessness in its choice of targets. My impression from a careful reading is that what the organization calls “deliberate targeting” was more likely “callous indifference” — itself, of course, nothing to boast of. Four days after being posted on line — on Tisha B’Av, as it happens — the report has yet to elicit an official response. Yet am I wrong to think — to believe and, truth be told, to hope — that though Human Rights Watch may be mistaken, we have not, most of us, been so desensitized that we are no longer jolted each day when we hear the latest numbers, that we no longer wonder how the targets were chosen, whether “human shields” is truly a sufficient explanation?

And there is more still: In the end, has Israel not through its own miscalculations committed the same dangerous error that the United States has committed, is comitting, in Iraq — anticipating a quick victory and instead fracturing the myth of its invincibility?

Was there really no other way? None?

Just thought I’d ask.

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