We all like to think of ourselves as men and women of principle. Yet identifying what those principles are often proves too much for us. When we try to pin them down, they keep slipping elusively away. And even when we think we can identify those principles, applying them proves difficult, as they keep banging up against one another.
Two of next week's coming attractions illustrate the problem.
As surely as the night follows the day (or vice versa for those who prefer Genesis to Shakespeare), this coming week some fearless camera crew will penetrate a haredi neighborhood (even if it has to go all the way to Emanuel in Samaria to do so) to film a haredi Jew not standing during the moment of silence on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars.
My own principle here is clear: It is both wrong and stupid to do things that will greatly offend others and needlessly arouse the hatred of one's fellow Jews.
On closer examination, however, that principle would seem to prove too much. The sight of other Jews violating Shabbat or eating nonkosher foods, for instance, deeply pains religious Jews. Yet no one would think of refraining from doing these things because of someone else's religious sensitivities.
The 'give no offense' principle leads to other confused applications.
A friend of mine was once instructed by his commanding officer not to eat in public during Ramadan while doing reserve duty in the West Bank. The officer explained that Moslems were fasting, and out of consideration, Israeli soldiers should not be seen eating.
My friend refused. He noted that no Moslem should be offended by a Jews' non-observance of Moslem fast days. He also wanted to know why on the fast day of 17 Tamuz, the commanding officer had not asked the reservists not to eat in front of their religious comrades.
The only rule that explains the officer's orders is: It's OK to offend your own religion or coreligionists, but not other peoples' religions.
That is, by the way pretty much the current legal doctrine in Israel. Both Jews and non-Jews are free to insult Judaism, but Tatiana Susskind receives two years in jail for posting a picture of Mohammed and a pig in Hebron.
ALSO next week, Shulamit Aloni will receive the Israel Prize as the living emblem of the rule to be nice to others unless they are Jewish.
The prize committee cited her for contributing to 'mutual respect' between different 'nations' in Israel. No doubt Ms. Aloni has always shown the greatest sympathy for the Arab population. But it would be hard to find anyone who has done more violence to the principle of mutual respect within the Jewish community.
She is free with the Judeo-Nazi equation; Netanyahu is 'a good student of Goebbels'; Rafael Eitan is 'from the school of Franco' the religious 'drink from the same wellsprings as the Nazis'; and rabbinical courts are 'executors of Nuremberg Laws.'
The prophet Joshua and Chelmenicki are 'equal' in her eyes; and the book of the former is a genocidal tract unworthy of study. Anyone to her Right is an object of scorn. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are praised as 'cholera - at least from cholera you sometimes recover.'
By the impoverished Israeli standards of free speech - standards which Aloni herself has often championed when employed against political opponents - many of her comments were likely criminal. On more than one occasion, her parliamentary immunity shielded her from prosecution for incitement. In 1987, justice Meir Shamgar termed her comments about present and past Supreme Court justices as beyond the pale of legitimate comment. Again, only her parliamentary immunity protected her.
Yet when MK Shaul Yahalom petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn the award of the Israel Prize to Aloni, Justice Dalia Dorner told him, 'Don't turn us into a committee for awarding prizes.'
A perfectly sensible principle indeed. Except three years ago, the High Court turned itself into precisely such a committee when it required the prize committee to reconsider its award for journalism to the late Shmuel Schnitzer.
True, Schnitzer had been censured by the Press Council for having given offense to the Ethiopian community in a column. But Aloni has done far more over decades to turn a far larger percentage of her fellow Jews into objects of hatred and scorn.
True, Schnitzer was unrepentant. But Aloni is equally defiant.
True, the prize committee did not know of Schnitzer's censure. But in response to Yahalom's suit, it was admitted that the prize committee did not have a detailed list of Aloni's vitriol, only that she was a controversial figure. Schnitzer's prize committee also knew he was no milquetoast, specifically citing him for adherence to his views, whether popular or not.
Most importantly, Aloni's prize committee had not known of justice Shamgar's sharp criticism of her from the bench or of the number of times she was protected by her parliamentary immunity.
Mindful that the two cases can barely be distinguished, except by the fact that Aloni's favorite targets are traditional Jews, Justice Turkel, in his concurrence, sought instead to anchor the court's decision in Aloni's right to free speech. He thereby jumped from the frying pan into the fire, completely misunderstanding the principle of free speech.
Aloni has, or at least should have, the legal right to say and write what she wants. But that does not entitle her to be rewarded for employing that right in such an ugly way.
Schnitzer, too, clearly had the right to express his views on matters of public policy. Unlike Aloni, he did not just defend his freedom of speech: His offending article was in part a defense of the public's right to know uncomfortable facts about the medical condition of the Falash Mura.
If such august jurists seem driven by little more that whose ox is gored - with Jews and Judaism the preferred ox - perhaps I shouldn't feel so bad about my own inability to work out the governing principles in the Elian Gonzalez case.