Yair Eldan, a writer, poet and lecturer at the Ono Academic College Law School published a piece in the Ha’aretz newspaper entitled “In the end he will be cruel to the innocent.” [Rabbi Elazar in the Midrash Tanhuma says, “Anyone who is merciful to the cruel, will, in the end, behave cruelly to the merciful.”- Ed.]

Eldan was addressing the above proverb that the writer David Enoch mentioned in a previous column in Ha’aretz. Enoch contended that this proverb has no psychological underpinning or basis in reality.

Eldan disagreed saying that the proverb describes perfectly and succinctly the social dynamics associated with the loss of deterrence. Eldan believes that fear of applying the full extent of the law on the cruel is liable to lead to a social reality in which “might makes right”.  In such a situation, it will be necessary, in the end, to use force against those who are not cruel or violent [to regain deterrence].

Rabbi Shimon Ben-Levi, in a different Midrash collection (Midrash Shmuel), phrases this concept conversely, saying: “Anyone who is cruel to the merciful, will, in the end, behave mercifully to the cruel.” Eldan says that this phrasing focuses our attention on the fact that in a society where there are no criteria for punishment or justice, offenders go unpunished.

Today, notes Eldan, this aphorism is used by some to prove that if the government does not demolish the homes of convicted terrorists, this inaction will cause a loss of deterrence, or will bring about a situation where in the end, innocent people will suffer because punishment is not meted out according to just standards.

If so, Eldan argues, the proverb’s problem is only in its misuse in the context of demolishing terrorists’ homes. This is because Eldan claims experts believe destroying terrorists’ homes does NOT deter future terrorists. Eldan also objects to the destruction of terrorists’ homes because he feels it is unjust collective punishment, and thus runs counter to the values of a Jewish democratic state.

On the other hand, Eldan believes that Enoch is accurate in drawing attention to the proverb in its original context – describing how in Samuel I, King Saul has mercy on the evil King Agag of Amalek and later exhibits extreme cruelty in the wholesale massacre of the inhabitants of Nob. Enoch argues that the contemporary use of this aphorism compares the family of the terrorist and the Amalekites [to whom, as it were, it would be appropriate to behave cruelly]. However, Eldan claims that this is an incorrect analysis that teaches something about the consciousness or subconscious of the users of the proverb and should serve as a warning sign for them. The portion of the aphorism reading, “[He]will, in the end, behave cruelly to the merciful” refers to the killing of the residents of Nob who were innocent. Eldan claims that the terrorist’s family members are also innocent.

The full text can be found at: https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/letters/.premium-1.9088456