Jeremiah the prophet, bound in chains in the convoy of Judean exiles the conquering army was taking to Babylonia, is freed by the captain of the guard. Jeremiah goes to Mitzpa, near destroyed Jerusalem, where Gedalya, whom the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had appointed governor over Judea.
Jewish idealists and patriots who opposed the Babylonian occupation viewed Gedalya as a traitor and collaborator. In a sense they were right—Gedalya was working for the enemy. But Gedalya, like Jeremiah, understood that resistance to the conquers was hopeless. Better to accept the autonomy the Babylonians were offering and do what could be done to help the nation recover from the ravages of the war.
“Now it came to pass in the seventh month that Yishma’el the son of Netanya the son of Elishama, of the royal line, and some of the chief officers of the king, and ten men with him, came to Gedalyahu the son of Ahiqam to Mitzpa; and there they ate bread together in Mitzpa. Then Yishma’el the son of Netanya and the ten men that were with him arose and struck Gedalyahu the son of Ahiqam the son of Shafan with the sword and slew him” (Jeremiah 40:1-2).
By murdering a political opponent whom he believed was a traitor, Yishma’el set an awful precedent that has haunted the Jewish people to the present day—most recently last week, when right-wing religious extremists in Israel set off a bomb at the home of Zeev Sternhell, a Hebrew University political scientist and public intellectual who has been highly critical of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
Fortunately, Sternhell was injured, not killed, but the incident is a frightening reminder, just thirteen years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of how easily patriotism and idealism can blind people to the most fundamental of moral values.
Patriotism, national solidarity, and idealism are virtues—but like all virtues, they become crimes if they are not balanced against other values and if they are pursued without consideration of real-world constraints. It’s important to recognize that Yishma’el the son of Ahiqam, like Sternhell’s assailants, are not common criminals. They are self-sacrificing idealists who have lost their compass. They must be captured and punished. But we cannot stop there. It is vital to show the public, and especially young people, who tend to take ideals to extremes, that one can be a patriot and still accept limits, that being an idealist does not mean disposing of rationality, that ends, no matter how sacred, do not justify all means.
Today Jews observe the fast of Gedalya, a day in which we remember the crime of his murder. A coalition of civil sector and religious groups will hold a vigil outside Sternhell’s home this afternoon, to protest the attack on him and warn of the dangers we face. Sternhell’s attackers and revilers would do well to note that it is Gedalya, not his murderer, whom Jews remember as a hero today.
(Recommended reading: Uriel Simon’s “The Murder of Gedaliah: An Anatomy of Self Destruction”)
(Photo of the ruins of Mitzpa courtesy of Encyclopedia.com)