Only Death Is Irreversible

You know our moral compass has gone haywire when people who don't give a fig for religious precepts start brandishing the Bible to back their arguments.

You know our moral compass has gone haywire when people who don't give a fig for religious precepts start brandishing the Bible to back their arguments. That happened earlier this week, with died-in-the-wool secularists citing Ezekiel as grounds to oppose the deportation of the families of suicide bombers. But selectively quoting the Bible cuts both ways. In the Ten Commandments, for instance, God "visits the sins of the fathers upon the sons, the grandsons and the great-grandsons."

The same goes for International Law. Suddenly last Sunday we were solemnly informed that relocating these people from Nablus to Gaza would violate the tenets of International Law. This from a country that in the eyes of much of the international community, including most international jurists, has been blithely defying International Law for more than 35 years.

Of course in principle, as civilized and Jewish people, we want to abide by the ethical norms of our Prophets, and also by the norms of International Law, which represents humanity's best effort to impose a code of morals upon an incessantly warring world. But to do so with moral and intellectual honesty, we need first to acknowledge that devilish, ingenious Man is forever expanding the boundaries of Evil, and that Good - our understanding of the Bible, of International Law, of Natural Justice - must constantly strive to keep up.

At Nuremberg, for instance, the prosecutors could not readily invoke International Law in regard to the Jews of Germany. Until then, what a state did to its own citizens was adjudged inherently permissible under International Law. Subsequently, International Law evolved in order to contend with this new twist of bestiality.

By the same token, as Mossad Director Ephraim Halevy recently pointed out in a lecture to the NATO Council, the law of war is right now in the throes of intense evolution in order to contend with a new, hitherto uncontemplated horror: mass suicide-attacks against civilians. Hence the hypocrisy of those who rushed to condemn the American detention camp at Guantanamo, Cuba on grounds of International Law. September 11, and what followed from it, did not fit into existing International Law. New, state-of-the-art legal and moral norms need to evolve.

A good point of departure for such evolution in the Israeli context might be the principle of life. Not the sanctity of life; that, like every moral criterion, is amenable to argument in any given case. But rather, the irreversibility of death. That, at least in the present state of science, in unarguable.

Judged on that basis, Israel has unarguably flubbed twice, and flubbed badly, this past week.

The second disastrous transgression is widely recognized. Even the prime minister, who in the morning was congratulating himself on "a hugely successful operation," was admitting by nightfall that it should never have been allowed to happen. (He, of course, dumped the blame on the army, but that behavior raises normative questions of a different order.) Under our moral code (which not many other countries live up to), we not only avoid intentionally killing innocents when targeting master terrorists, we abort such operations if untargeted innocents are likely to be unintentionally

hurt. The trouble in the Shehadeh case was with the definition of "intention." As the Talmud neatly puts it, you cannot decapitate a chicken (on the Sabbath) and then argue that you intended only to remove the head, not to kill the bird.

Turning to the earlier, less widely acknowledged blunder of the week - the government's decision to back down and not deport relatives of suicide bombers - one wonders if perhaps now, in the wake of the Gaza catastrophe, that aspect of the treatment of innocents might be ripe for reconsideration. At the beginning of the week, the preponderance of liberal opinion was unanimous in rejecting what it unhesitatingly termed "collective punishment." Some of us clutched at Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein's issue-dodging distinction between innocents and not-so-innocents. Deporting total innocents, all liberals sanctimoniously chorused, would be against International Law.

But what law was that? Which yet-unterrorized segment of the international community were we out to impress? During World War II, some German-Jewish refugees - it is hard to conceive of more innocent innocents - were unceremoniously deported from the UK to the farthest reaches of Canada, there to serve out the long war years. To this day, they unreservedly bless Britain for its beneficence. Because after the war - they came back and enjoyed living again, marred only by their grief over their relatives who didn't make it to that Canadian deportees camp.

Surely the prospect of coming back alive after it is all over is a legitimate consideration in justifying the deportation of innocents in order to deter - as the Shin Bet says it might deter - otherwise undeterrable suicide bombers. Perhaps we need to reprioritize our moral categories as we evolve, reluctantly but inevitably, new norms of warfare against an enemy who indiscriminately dispenses death, and embraces it.