Placing Blame in a Religious State

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 2, 1984, p. 451. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Talmud demands a higher standard that one’s merely absolving oneself of direct responsibility. Thus citizens of Israel take their politics seriously though most of the population is made up of nonobservant Jews. But even these people are willing to take note of the writings of Deuteronomy and the Talmud.

Stepping into the political turmoil of Israel after being steeped in the United States presidential campaign is akin to moving into an advanced seminar on theological ethics from a third-grade church school classroom. In the New York primary, the level of political discussion never rose above the issue of relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- a blatant, shallow appeal for Jewish votes. And the matter of whether prayer should be permitted in schoolrooms almost exhausts the theological agenda of the White House incumbent.

But in Israel, which holds a national election July 23, citizens will be voting for candidates who recently were exposed to a national inquiry over the difference between direct and indirect responsibility for evil. Following the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut, an Israeli Commission of Inquiry acknowledged that the actual killing had been carried out by Christian Phalangist troops. But it reached into Jewish religious tradition to insist that indirectly, some of its own government leadership was responsible.

In its Final Report the Commission stated that a basis for such [indirect] responsibility may be found in the outlook of our ancestors, which was expressed in things that were said about the moral significance of the Biblical portion concerning the ‘beheaded heifer’ (Deut. 21: 6-7).’’ In that passage, a man had been slain near a city. The principle was set forth that the elders of the city may, on such an occasion, wash their hands of responsibility for the death in the blood of a slain heifer. This is further explained in the Talmud:

The necessity for the heifer whose neck is broken only arises on account of the niggardliness of spirit,  as it is said, “Our hands have not shed this blood.” But can it enter our minds that the elders of a Court of Justice are shedders of blood! The meaning is, [the man found dead] did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go- -- i.e., he did not come to us for help and we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort [Tractate Sota 38b].

The Talmud demands a higher standard thati one’s merely absolving oneself of direct responsibility. At another point, the Talmud insists:

Whosoever has the capacity to protest to prevent his household from committing a crime and does not is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens, he is accountable for the crimes of his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world. [Sabbath 54b].

According to Reuven Kimelman in “Judging Man by the Standards of God,” in the Jewish Monthly (May 1983), when Brigadier General Amos Yaron was relieved of his duties for three years because the Phalangists’ massacre took place under his jurisdiction, he did not protest that he was being tried by Jewish standards “instead of normal military procedure.” Rather. he issued a statement noting:

I do not have a single complaint against a single word written in the Report of Inquiry Commission. I have but one consideration -- that which we are duty-bound to bequeath to the soldiers of the future of the I. D. F. [the Israeli army], the values whereby they shall love and sacrifice for the sake of the security of Israel. And as in the past, so in the future, they must be trained in the highest Jewish value of all -- that human life is a sacred absolute

Kimelman, a professor at Brandeis University, concludes in his analysis of the commission’s report that “It remains to be seen whether a modern nation state, beseiged on so many fronts, can maintain such a demanding moral standard. . . .If the Israeli effort to admit and rectify errors bears fruit, the lyricism ‘a light to the nations’ may yet become reality.”

It is against this background of public moral struggle that the people of Israel prepare to vote on July 23 for their next government, in an election that pits the conservative Likud Party of Menachem Begin and current Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir against the Labor Party headed by two-time loser Shimon Peres. During a mid-April visit to Israel, I discovered once again the seriousness with which citizens of this nation take their politics. And while most of the population is made up of nonobservant Jews, even these people are willing to take note of the writings of Deuteronomy and the Talmud in reaching judgments about the national character.

During one long luncheon discussion in a fashionable Jerusalem restaurant a few hundred yards from the southeast corner of the wall surrounding the Old City, an Israeli friend lamented to me the high cost his people pay for continued occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war --that territory the world calls the West Bank, carefully renamed by the current government Judea and Samaria (Gaza is still Gaza, of course). He was speaking not of the price of constructing the rapidly developing housing units and actual cities on the West Bank, but of the cost to the national character.

I could not forget a story he had told me earlier of his own role in the military capture of Mt. Zion in the aforementioned Six-Day War. That was what was on my mind as my friend stated quietly that his compatriots were helping to “create a generation of young people in danger of sanctioning barbarous actions.” Like so many middle-aged Zionists, this man had suffered moral agonies during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. At first he reluctantly agreed that a tentative probe northward would solve the problem of Palestinian attacks from Soviet-built missiles that were raining death on northern Galilee. But as the army pushed further toward Beirut and it became clear that the occupation of all of Lebanon had been the purpose of the invasion from the start, moderate and liberal Israelis turned from supporting the policies of Begin and former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to vocal disapproval.

Sitting in the pleasant sunshine of an April afternoon, my friend and I worried about the future of Israel, which may turn even further to the right if the Likud government is retained in the election. There is hope in the fact that so many Israelis anguish over the difference between direct and indirect responsibility.

Our own nation’s willingness to limit responsibility for the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam to those immediately involved suggests a vast difference between a democracy based strictly on a legal code and one rooted in Old Testament morality. Indirect responsibility for the My Lai killing of 347 civilians was not borne by anyone -- from the high-ranking officials who learned of the massacre and took no punitive action to Captain Ernest Medina, Lieutenant William Calley’s commanding officer. He was absolved of charges that he was culpable for the deaths of 100 people. Only Calley himself was found guilty.

Much to the consternation of many Israelis and American Jews, Israel does things differently. It was founded as a religious state and continues to measure itself by religious standards. There is something which could erode that religious commitment, however: the occupation of Arab land seized in the 1967 war.

I drove around the “suburbs” of Jerusalem with Ibrahim Matar, a Palestinian engineer and planner who works for the Mennonite Central Committee in East Jerusalem. Conditions on the West Bank remain as bad as I had found them on several previous visits. Without a body to call its “government”-- the Lebanon war reduced the Palestine Liberation Organization from a leadership entity to a merely symbolic force -- the Palestinians are deprived of any real hope that the land grab by Israel will be halted. Jewish settlements, built on confiscated Palestinian land, now ring the city of Jerusalem like a modern city wall: sprawling collections of small cities, filled with immigrants from the United States, Europe and especially from North Africa. The latter come to Israel with little openness to positive relationships with Arabs, having suffered themselves as minorities in Arab states. These are the Sephardic Jews, now filling the lower economic strata of Israeli society. They constitute the strong voting bloc exploited by Begin in his earlier victories and certain to provide the Likud Party with a heavy voter turnout in the July elections.

The Israeli takeover of the West Bank is rapidly reaching a point of no return. I remember the mayor of Bethlehem’s telling a group of us in 1982 that the clock’s hands stood at nearly midnight; soon it would be too late to reverse Israel’s control of the West Bank. Two years later, as we observe the settlements that have spread unabated despite feeble U.S. protests. we must conclude that Israel has no intention, under any government, of relinquishing this territory it considers so vital to its own security.

But, as I find myself repeating on each return trip here, at what a terrible cost! Eight years ago, according to an orthodox Jewish settler quoted by Amos Oz in his book, In the Land of Israe1 (Fontana, 1983), There were, in all of Samaria [the northern half of the West Bank], from Afula down to Jerusalem, exactly fifteen Jewish settlers.” .Today, in both Judea and Samaria, there are ‘‘twenty-five thousand-Jews, not counting greater Jerusalem. And, he adds, with personal satisfaction, five years from now, if you go by home construction starts, there’ll be fifty to a hundred thousand.”

I watched some of those construction projects, including one that had begun north of Jerusalem in a wheat field, confiscated in recent days from a Palestinian farmer. As the bulldozers roared, I was reminded of the suburban growth around U.S. cities, and of the fact that farmlands have to give way there, too, as homes are constructed. But there is a difference; here ownership and identity of the land are in dispute.

On a road outside the large West Bank Arab city of Ramallah, a Hyatt Regency hotel is being built on land also expropriated from Arab owners. Israeli law permits this takeover from Palestinian residents, but it has been reluctant actually to remove homes in which Palestinians live. So in the shadow of the new Hyatt Regency, several modest-sized houses still stand, occupied by Palestinian families whose farmland has already disappeared -- soon to be replaced by expensive housing for tourists and traveling business personnel. Israel’s occupation can be expected to progress apace, disturbed only by occasional outbursts of senseless violence on the part of Palestinians who think they can gain an international hearing by brutally murdering civilians on Jerusalem streets. They are wrong, of course; world opinion respects accomplished facts and power, both of which are now ranged on Israel’s side.

There is hope for some resolution of the continued violation of human rights in this 17-year occupation, however. It lies in the people of Israel themselves, many of whom still take seriously the words of the Talmud, which insists that indirect responsibility belongs to those who have the ability to correct evil.