There are very few actions that, after any consideration, still seem morally unambiguous. One example, taken from the context of the Middle East conflict but easily applicable to any violent conflict, is that of celebrating a defeat of your enemy. Time after time, for as long as I can remember, Palestinians have been portrayed as morally inferior — indeed, as deserving of opprobrium — for the fact that they publicly celebrate violence committed against Israel (or the US after 9/11). Far from seeking to defend such acts, I wish simply to complicate the picture by trying to put oneself in the shoes of another.
Such empathy requires, first and foremost, understanding the level of oppression, hatred and powerlessness with which an average Palestinian views Israel and the United States. Coupling that with the widespread human inclination to celebrate when your life is improved, whether that be by the direct improvement of your quality of life or the degradation of those keeping you down, and this begins to seem more understandable. Granted, there was a lot of hand wringing in conversations I had about any celebration of Osama Bin Laden’s death, and I am not sure whether a similar amount of self-reflection is present in all societies, but there is no reason not to assume that there is (and the moral equivalency is hard to draw, given the freedoms and quality of life that the upper-middle class Westerners who I talked with about Bin Laden enjoy).
Concerning the case of the Palestinians in the Middle East, and the Jewish response to such celebrations, one also must consider what Jewish tradition has said on the matter. One of the most ancient surviving songs in the Jewish tradition was composed to narrate the jubilation the Israelites felt at the downfall of their oppressors, the Egyptians. שירת הים, or the Song of the Sea (Shmot 15:1-19), tells of that defeat in vivid detail, and traditional Jewish liturgy has all Jews repeat it once a day!
Given the multi-vocal nature of the Jewish tradition, it is no surprise that the Rabbis voice criticism of this view (though not resulting in removing the Song from the liturgy). In Bavli Sanhedirn 39b, the following story is recounted:
“What is the meaning of the verse [Shmot 14:20] “They did not approach each other all night”? At that time [as the Israelites escaped and the Egyptians drowned in the Sea of Reeds] the angels of the heavenly assembly requested to sing a song before Hashem. He said to them: ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing a song before Me?’ (translation mine)
I think that this story, on top of voicing criticism for anyone who celebrates the downfall of another person (and Jewish tradition, taken as a whole, is extremely ambivalent on whether it is praiseworthy or blameworthy to do so), expresses two other things. First, that it is natural for people to celebrate in such moments of national liberation — so much so that the angels, in many ways portrayed in Judaism as ideals towards which humans can only strive (though lacking free will), also feel this need. Second, only God can transcend this need, and even then, the Rabbis portray Hashem as doing as for pragmatic reasons. Because Hashem created both the Israelites and the Egyptians — and equally בצלם אלוקים (in the image/likeness of Hashem) — and because Hashem loves all of the beings created in the universe, there is a natural inclination to abhor any celebrations that come at the expense of any other created being. I believe that this midrash is urging us to exhibit a profound love for all beings on this planet, thereby giving us a very human reason not to rejoice at the pain and suffering of any other person (or non-human animal or ecosystem, for that matter).
Rather than pointing to another person or group of people and considering them the embodiment of evil (i.e. an Other) because they celebrate what appears to you to be an event characterized solely by loss and heartache, it is crucial to reformulate the event as seen from their eyes. Only then can the critical question be asked: how would you act if you were in their shoes?
Thanks is due to Rabbi Daniel Roth and the Pardes Peace and Conflict Track for illuminating the multiplicity of responses Judaism has on this subject.