Deadly Idealism–The Fast of Gedalya

Haim Watzman

The ruins of Mitzpa, from Encyclopedia.comJeremiah 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

5 thoughts on “Deadly Idealism–The Fast of Gedalya”

  1. a. Mitzpa is at the southern entrance to Ramallah and I visited it in 1989 but found myself being chased by IDF soldiers. Our group managed to eldue our pursuers and made it safely to Givat Zev after a chase through the fields. The things one has to do to visit sites in the Bible.

    b. As for “Sternhell’s attackers and revilers”,
    I too identify even though Sternhell sought to direct Pal. terrorists to bomb my home, or was it my neighbor’s? as well as army bases in his wisdom (or was it just his reviling of me?). And check this out:

  2. Just to be clear as many readers of this site may be ignorant: In the Haaretz newspaper, in 2001, Sternhell said: “There is no doubt about the legitimacy of [Palestinian] armed resistance in the territories themselves. If the Palestinians had a little sense, they would concentrate their struggle against the settlements… and refrain from planting bombs west of the Green Line.”

  3. I’m trying to figure that last one out, Yisrael. Logically, as far as I can see, you are saying that Sternhell’s position should be one of the two following propositions:
    1) Palestinian armed resistance is legitimate, both in the occupied territories and in Israel.
    2) Palestinian armed resistance is illegitimate, both in Israel and the occupied territories.
    I suspect you intend proposition 2. That leads us to two other alternative propositions:
    1) Palestinian armed resistance is illegitimate in Israel and the occupied territories because the Palestinians have no legitimate grievances against Israeli rule.
    2) Palestinian armed resistance is illegitimate in Israel and the occupied territories because they may achieve just remedy to their grievances by non-violent methods.
    Which of these is your position?

  4. Yisrael – since you seem to understand the motives for the attack on the good professor, I am curious – why Sternhell, of all people?

    After all, if his greatest crime was to suggest a better strategy for the Palestinians in their fight for independence, that was well in line with what many people at the time in israel said – and felt as well – not all of them on the left, either. It so happened that indeed, sympathy for the settlers in Israel proper was quite limited in 2000 – and still is among many. Sometimes because their acts did not seem to jibe with the essence and spirit of true zionism, and many many have said so – often for reasons that had more to do with what was healthy for israel, rather than any sudden love for the palestinians’ and/or their quest for statehood. Of all the things that were written by Israelis at the time of the intifada’s breakout, prof. Sternhell’s admonition to limit the resistance’s tactics and scope were some of milder ones.

    So the question remains: why single out this individual – and more significantly – why now?

    So the question remains – why Sternhell

  5. I can’t speak for Mr Medad, but I pick proposition number 2. We of the “pro-settler Right” are all for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Arabs. However, we do not accept that expelling Jews from Judea/Samaria is such a solution, nor do we think an independent Palestinian state in Judea/Samaria is the answer. Nor, for that matter, do the Palestinians, which is why the repeatedly rejected offers for such a thing ever since 1947. However, we do INSIST on a peaceful solution.

Comments are closed.