Mercy is a core Jewish value; Jews must show mercy to fellow Jews, gentiles, and even animals. It is only the enemies of the Jewish people and the most evil of people who aren’t deemed worthy of the Jewish people’s mercy. Even in a situation where someone is convicted of a crime worthy of execution, the Jewish court is mandated to find any way to overturn the verdict and spare the criminal’s life. A court unable to find a pathway to mercy is characterized as a murderous court.
By now the video of the terror attack in Be’er Sheva has been seen by millions of people. In Be’er Sheva, an Arab attacker stabbed two mothers to death after running over and murdering a rabbi and father. The attack ended when the attacker was shot dead by two Jews. One of the two Jews, a bus driver, hesitated a few seconds while the Arab terrorist tried to get close enough to stab him and another Jew ran up and shot the terrorist twice while the bus driver shot him once.
When asked why he hesitated in shooting the terrorist, the bus driver told reporters that he did all he could to avoid shooting the terrorist and was pained to have done so, despite the attacker’s murderous actions. The driver said, “He’s a person, not an animal you need to kill. He was also a person… We’re human beings, we’re not animals. I’m not used to such a situation, to shoot a person. I’m sorry for him but he brought it on himself.”
There are people who criticized the bus driver for his hesitancy in shooting the terrorist. They characterized the Arab attacker as sub-human, and as the Torah wrote, gave up his right to life the minute he murdered another human being. Other people praised the bus driver for putting himself at risk because he saw the humanity in the attacker and wanted to save his life. The bus driver shouldn’t be judged by anyone until they’re in his shoes, but his actions and statement teach a lesson about appropriate and inappropriate mercy. The two vastly different judgments about the bus driver’s actions aren’t about the bus driver but about the attacker. The debate centered around whether the attacker was to be considered human and deserved mercy or had forfeited his humanity and any kind treatment by others.
Our Sages taught that as the Jewish army prepares for battle against its enemies they are commanded to reach out and offer a peace treaty. It is only once an offer of peace is rejected that the Jewish army is permitted to attack. Mercy is shown to the Jewish people’s enemies up until the point where they are certain their enemies have set their ways against them. Once the Jewish people are sure war is the only path, they show their enemies no mercy. They fight with all their might with victory over their enemy until their enemy is defeated.
In his essay on Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofek,” Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik wrote, “For good reason the Torah relates that two of its great heroes, Abraham and Moses, took sword in hand to defend their brethren: ‘When Abraham heard that his kinsman was taken captive, he led forth his retainers.’ ‘When Moses saw the Egyptian smite a Jew … he struck down the Egyptian.’ This behavior does not contradict the principle of loving-kindness and compassion. On the contrary, a passive position, without self-defense, may sometimes lead to the most awesome brutality.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words are reminiscent of the Medrash that quoted Rebbe Eliezer: “‘One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate,’ and similarly, Rebbe Simon ben Lakish taught, ‘One who becomes merciful instead of cruel will ultimately become cruel instead of merciful.’” Although referring to a court sentencing someone to death and not war, Maimonides’s words speak to the same misplaced mercy: “The wicked and calculating person – if he seeks sanctuary among us, we must not provide him with asylum and not have mercy upon him … because compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings.”
Feelings of mercy are appropriate when the subject of the mercy deserves it. There are many lovers of Israel who want to show mercy to Palestinians at this point. They want to keep the borders open, American aid flowing – all in the hope that it will calm the anger of the Palestinian street. These feelings are understandable, but I believe, misplaced.
After each attack the Palestinian street has come out to celebrate, handing out candies, marching in angry parades, and firing off fireworks. These demonstrations show the Palestinian leadership and street are equally supportive of the latest attacks against the Jewish people. “Lone wolf attackers” is a misnomer for these latest terrorists. While it is true that the terrorists don’t seems to be sent by any central terrorist organization, they are anything but alone. They are incentivized by Palestinian “Pay to Slay” funds and the honor shown by their communities. To show mercy to a people actively supporting terrorism is improper.
Israeli leadership’s only concern at this point should be the safety and security of the Israeli people. If Israel’s security experts conclude security is best achieved by closing borders, canceling work permits and preventing terrorist movement, then those steps must be taken. Innocent Palestinians will inevitably be caught up in security measures, just as innocent Israelis have been caught up in Palestinian terror attacks. Our opponents and enemies will charge Israel with “collective punishment,” but these measures aren’t punitive, they’re preventative. Mercy is an inappropriate response when under attack – and Israel is under attack.