Why Jews Should Oppose Israel Demolishing homes of Palestinians involved in violent activities against Israel

Israel is the only country in the world that demolishes the family homes of Palestinians involved in violent activities against Israel, a collective punishment that is an ineffective deterrent and transgresses both human rights and core Jewish values

When asked how he would summarize the Torah’s teachings in one sentence, Rabbi Hillel - one of Judaism’s most venerable scholars - responded with his now infamous answer: “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.”

Rene Cassin, one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a proud French Jew, noted that while human rights transcend religious differences, they have roots in the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments. Often phrased in terms of duties, seven of which fall into the ‘do not’ category, each commandment presumes a right.

Now, as the Israeli government expands its harsh, inhumane collective punishment by demolishing the homes of Palestinians who’ve committed acts of terror, it’s imperative that we as Jewish Israelis ask ourselves some urgent questions.

Inspired by the model of our own Ten Commandments, here are ten questions to reflect on:

Ten Questions to Reflect On

1. Do we, as Jews, find it morally justified to punish a group – in this case a family living under one roof – for a crime committed by one member?

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim in a recent CNN interview that he does not “believe in collective punishment” and that his government only targets “family members who were involved in the terror attacks” or “supported it,” we know that it’s impossible that in Israel's history of house demolitions, shelter has never been taken away from a child, or an elderly or handicapped family member - in other words, a person who cannot be proven guilty of supporting or abating terror.

2. To what extent do we as Jews, now with our own country, wish to be bound by international laws and norms?

Even in times of war, demolishing a home without direct strategic military value or inhabited by innocent civilians is strictly prohibited. The injunction imposed by Israel’s Supreme Court against imminent destruction is ultimately ineffective. In fact, according to Professor Jeff Halper, head of The Israeli Center Against House Demolitions, there have been no cases in which the Supreme Court has prevented the destruction of a Palestinian home, partially or entirely, as a form of punishment.

3. How many countries are using house demolition as a form of legal punishment?

Except in Israel, no country is currently enacting such a policy. The last to do so was South Africa under Apartheid rule.

4. Last month, following a West Bank shooting in the Palestinian town of Hawara that left two Jewish Israelis dead, hundreds of Israeli settlers also engaged in what is, by definition, terrorism: They took the law into their own hands and rampaged Hawara, setting fire to cars and homes, killing one and wounding 98 others. Can we reasonably believe that Israel will demolish the homes of the Jews who took the life of 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, and if not, why don’t the same laws apply to Jewish terrorists?

5. How do we feel about the fact that “house demolition decrees” were used by the British Mandatory authorities in Palestine against the Zionist state, and that among the main opponents of such an arbitrary approach to punishment was Menachem Begin – then the leader of the Irgun militia, and later the founder of the Likud party that Benjamin Netanyahu now leads?

6. In Israel, where we have been brought up to believe that our Israel Defense Forces is the “most moral army” in the world, to what extent does home demolition not only deflate such a myth, but make a mockery of such claims?

7. What is the value of a “home,” not just in material terms, but in cultural and psychological terms for Palestinians?

Traditional societies often migrate from rural areas with isolated housing to urban areas with extreme proximity to one another. Palestinians’ homes were often built with their own hands or with the help of other villagers and family members. This creates a sense of permanence for them, especially as a displaced society. The sense of destruction that comes with house demolitions thus resonates even more deeply – and traumatically.

8. In terms of expediency, to what extent have house demolitions functioned as an efficient deterrent against Palestinian acts of terror?

A 2005 Israeli army commission not only found no proof that demolitions were an effective tool of deterrence, but that any deterrence - limited if at all - paled in comparison to the hatred and hostility toward Israel that the demolitions provoked among Palestinians. It is only reasonable to assume that such a deep sense of deprivation encourages revenge attacks.

9. In Jewish law, punishment is meant to serve as a deterrent and also as a tool of rehabilitation and reconciliation. If house demolitions do not discourage future attacks on Jews and push us further away from reconciliation, what is their purpose?

10. Lastly, looking ahead, where does the demolition of Palestinian homes lead us?

Decide Justly between the Israelite and the Stranger Alike

As a Palestinian colleague once told me: “Your government looks at each problem it has with us as a nail, and uses a big hammer to destroy us and build for you instead.”

It’s time we unmask the motives behind house demolitions and recognize the damage such a policy does to Israel’s image, our Jewish conscience and most importantly - to our neighbor, a community we have no choice but to live beside.

As Exodus 23:8 states: "You shall not be partial in judgment; hear out low and high alike. Decide justly between the Israelite and the stranger alike."

This blog article original appeared in the Op-Ed section of Ha’aretz on March 13, 2023.