Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sleeping with the Enemy

The older I get, the less simple even the most widely accepted of life's rules turn out to be. Maybe it's just the insight that comes from having lived that much longer that prompts me to see the complexity in issues that once struck me as straightforward. Or maybe—this is the less flattering version of the previous thought—it's just easy to mouth platitudes, and significantly harder to say precisely what it is that you mean by them.

Endorsing the idea of behaving morally, for example, is simple enough. But moral choices are rarely simple, and rarely involve simply choosing between good and evil. A number of issues that I’ve been thinking about lately have driven home to me just how difficult living morally and ethically actually is.

A few months ago, I wrote about the question of the huge amounts of money certain Christian evangelists are raising for Israel. On the one hand, the sums involved are enormous, and Israel needs the money. On the other hand, we are accepting as allies (and, even, as friends) people who speak openly about their interest in luring Jews away from Judaism, about converting the entire Jewish people to their faith...and whose support for Israel is overtly and openly part of their larger effort to evangelize the world. Which is the morally defensible choice?

Speaking of Israel brings me to another example of how hard it is to know where the moral path lies. Israel is being asked to make peace with the Palestinians, now led by the same Fatah party which perpetrated some of the most horrific terror attacks Israel has had to endure. In terms of how things are these days, they're the moderates—and strengthening their hand against Hamas seems only to make good sense. Still, these are the people who brought us the Lod Airport massacre of 1972, as well as the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics that same year, and who have the blood of the children of Maalot and Kiryat Shemona on their hands. I won't list all the terror incidents that Fatah undertook. (There’s a very good list to peruse at Is it in Israel's best interests to make peace with these people because they are less bad than the alternative? Or does the moral high road never lead to look away from the murder of Jewish children, no matter how opportune such looking away might be at the moment? Does it matter how many children are involved? I won’t finish my thought…but you all know where I’m going.

And now the same set of questions assails the American government. Our man in Pakistan, General Musharaf, has abandoned any pretense of democracy, declaring martial law and arresting all sort of moderates in his country, including thousands of lawyers, judges and human rights activists. He is a major ally in the war against terror, of course. So where exactly do our best interests lie, in supporting an ally because he is less bad than whatever might replace him, or in refusing to be party to one man's efforts to demolish the democratic substructure of his own country? Is the moral path here to look the other way because the man has been our friend and our ally, or to insist that no good can ever come from abandoning our principles, that it can never be in our best interests to appear to be wobbly on issues that we ourselves insist are the defining features of our democratic ideals?

I don't raise all these questions because I know how to answer them, merely to put forward the suggestion that living ethically and in a morally justifiable way sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. The choices are almost never simply between good and evil...and, if they occasionally are, then we usually don't see the issue as one of moral ambiguity. The Torah says that we are always to choose life, to choose the path of decency and goodness, to translate faith in God into the desire to embody the finest Scriptural values in the context of our daily lives. All that is easy to say...but far harder to do when we are faced with the actual choices life constantly bring us. What is called for, however—and always—is the translation of this appreciation the moral ambiguity of daily life and its issues into a sense of natural respect for people who see an issue other than the way we ourselves have chosen to understand it. There really are, almost always, two sides to every issue. (November 15, 2007)

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