In an article titled “Zionism: A Call to Awe and Compassion,” Rabbi Justin David wrote, “Zionism relies on an ancient tradition that gives voice to human pathos, calling all to mercy and empathy in spirit and deed.”
Indeed, the Talmud records a teaching by King David that says, “There are three characteristics that distinguish the Jewish people: They are merciful, bashful (ashamed of sin) and do many great acts of kindness.” The Talmud then quotes the Bible verse, “God will give you mercy, and have mercy upon you and multiply you.”
Zionism’s emphasis on mercy can be seen in the way Israel conducts war. In the current war against Hamas, Israel has shown great mercy to the people of Gaza. Under international law, combatants are required to permit relief operations for the benefit of civilians, including enemy civilians. Israel has done so, even though much of the humanitarian aid has been stolen by Hamas.
Mercy, however, has its limits. If distorted, it can become merciless. Maimonides wrote, “Compassion towards the wicked is cruelty to all beings.” This teaching was echoed by an Israeli Supreme Court ruling on terrorist prisoners.
The Court stated: “No consideration, neither the psychological make-up of the appellants nor the suffering of their families, can stand before the overriding necessity to protect the well-being of the public; a fact which forces the court to harden its heart, because misplaced compassion leads to cruelty to the public.”
Since the start of the current war, some Jews have distorted the principles of mercy by extending it to people who don’t deserve it. In doing so, they have harmed the Jewish people. Those who advocate this kind of mercy either do not understand that they are causing such damage or choose to ignore it because of their commitment to a cause they consider more important.
For example, on Oct. 19, a group of American Jews staged a sit-in at the Capitol. They wore prayer shawls, kippot and keffiyehs. They demanded a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, claiming, “We are here as Jews—many descendants of survivors of genocide—to stop a genocide from unfolding in real time.” These Jews thought they were being merciful, but if they had succeeded in forcing the IDF to stop its military operations, thousands of terrorists would have survived to fight another day and commit horrific atrocities.
In Israel, it was reported that a teenager had begun a 30-day jail sentence for refusing to serve in the IDF. He claimed to be a conscientious objector and an opponent of the Israel-Hamas war. The teen wrote, “There is no military solution to a political problem. Therefore, I refuse to enlist in an army that believes that the real problem can be ignored, under a government that only continues the bereavement and pain.”
When he was arrested, the teen was escorted by a small group of supporters who cheered him on. Clearly, they considered themselves merciful people. Indeed, they were willing to go to jail to stand up for this kind of mercy. But refusing to go to war because of an aversion to causing pain to others ignores that, quite often, the only way to stop an enemy from causing pain to others is through causing them pain.
In a now notorious incident, three Ivy League university presidents told Congress that calls for the genocide of Jews is not necessarily a violation of their schools’ codes of conduct. It depends, they said, on the “context.” While one of them has been forced to resign and all three have been widely criticized, some Jews have defended them. These Jews claim that the presidents were correct as a matter of legal policy, but gave emotionally and politically inept answers. But this merciful view of the presidents and their hateful statements will only lead to more campus antisemitism.
Zionists, Jews and the Jewish state should be merciful, even to their enemies. But there is a limit to this mercy. When it damages the Jewish people and the Jewish state, it may be merciful to our enemies, but it is merciless towards everyone else.