On The Brink of War | Congregation Beth Am

On The Brink of War

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
December 20, 2002

Jerusalem…December, 2002. “Being in a sealed room or bomb shelter at the best of times is not easy for an adult, but should we have to go into our sealed rooms in the next war, how can we make this an easier experience for our children?

“Most children will cope very well with being in a shelter, as they will be with their parents. Assuming that parents remain calm and are in control, children will feel very safe. It is important to remember that if you are calm, they will be calm. You can make this a ‘fun’ experience, stay in control and give them a sense of safety and security.”

Those words, written by psychologist Batya Ludman, are part of an article prepared for Israeli parents that appeared on the website of Israel News Agency. It contains helpful suggestions for maintaining a pleasant atmosphere while spending hours locked up with your children in a sealed room, awaiting attacks by bombs or missiles, perhaps bearing chemical or biological weapons. Suggestions like “make sure there are plenty of child-friendly snacks. Provide a stock of videotapes to watch. Don’t forget your child’s security blanket and favorite toys.” The kind of advice we’d give to parents setting out on a family vacation – except these Israeli families are not going away. With memories of the sealed rooms where they took refuge in the 1991 Gulf War still vivid in their minds, they’re preparing themselves for the next war with Iraq.

So are we all. So are people around the world readying themselves for a war that now feels well nigh inevitable. Debate has been raging for many months now over the strategic and moral justification for an invasion of Iraq designed to bring down Saddam Hussein. By now, the arguments both for and against such a war are familiar to us. They were neatly summarized in an article by George Packer in last week’s New York Times magazine.

Arguments for war:

1.Saddam is cruel and dangerous.

2.Saddam has used weapons of mass destruction and has never stopped trying to develop them.

3.Iraqis are suffering under tyranny and sanctions.

4.Democracy would benefit Iraq.

5.A democratic Iraq could drain influence from repressive Saudi Arabia.

6.A democratic Iraq could unlock the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

7.A democratic Iraq could begin to liberate the Arab world.

8.Al Qaeda will be at war with us regardless of what we do in Iraq.

Arguments against war:

1.Containment [of Saddam] has worked for 10 years, and inspections could still work.

2.We shouldn’t start wars without immediate provocation and international support.

3.We could inflict terrible casualties, and so could Saddam.

4.A regional war could break out, and anti-Americanism could build to a more dangerous level.

5.Democracy can’t be imposed on a country like Iraq.

6.Bush’s political aims are unknown, and his record is not reassuring.

7.America’s will and capacity for nation-building are limited.

8.War in Iraq will distract from the war on terrorism and swell Al Qaeda’s ranks.

In the newspapers and in the airwaves, in the halls of Congress and the chambers of the United Nations, on the street and in our homes we hear these arguments put forth. Some would say that the discussion belongs in those places – that political questions, especially controversial ones, should not disrupt the spiritual atmosphere of the sanctuary. Certainly, it is important to have a place of tranquility that gives us the inner strength to withstand the violence around us. But ultimately, the synagogue is not meant to be an escape from real life. The prophets of ancient Israel stood up in the sanctuaries of their day and spoke out, with courage and passion, on the political issues of their time. Reform Judaism, especially, has followed the model of the prophets. From its very inception, the founders of our movement insisted that if our religion is to have any significance, it must not shy away from addressing what happens in the world around us.

This sanctuary of Beth Am has never been a sealed room. We are open to the winds of our time. So do we participate, as Americans and as Jews, in the urgent debate about war and peace.

As Jews, how might we frame this debate? What insights can we glean from our tradition that might shape our own position on war with Iraq? In my response to this question, I draw on a legal opinion recently issued by the CCAR Responsa Committee, composed of Reform rabbinic scholars.

We begin by acknowledging that peace is a value of paramount importance to Jewish tradition. We are commanded to “seek peace and pursue it” [Ps.34:15]. Peace, our Sages said, is one of the names of God, and the name of the Messiah [Derech Eretz Zuta, Perek Hashalom]. God did not permit the altar in our ancient sanctuary to be built with iron implements, for iron is used in weapons of war; for the same reason, many of us follow the custom of not cutting the challah with a knife on Shabbat. King David was not permitted to build the Temple, we read in the Book of Chronicles, because he was a man of war and there was blood on his hands [1 Chron.22:8].

We all know the Midrash, often recited at our Passover seders, in which God warns the victorious Israelites not to rejoice over the downfall of their enemies, for they, too, are created in the image of God [Talmud Megilla 6b and Sanhedrin 39b]. And we know the even more powerful statement in the Mishna [Sanhedrin 4:5] that one who destroys a single life is like one who destroys an entire world. Deuteronomy chapter 20 [vs. 10] commands the Israelites, before undertaking a war, to reach out to their enemies and extend an offer of peace. All this, we are taught, is because “the blessing of peace is equal to all other blessings combined" [Rashi to Lev.26:6, from the Sifra].

But the story does not end there. Ours is a peace-loving tradition, a tradition that celebrates and cherishes peace – but it is not a pacifist tradition, for our Torah recognizes that sometimes war is necessary.

Maimonides, the great medieval scholar of Jewish law, is our main source today for teachings about political theory, although he addresses a hypothetical situation in which there is an independent Jewish kingdom. He speaks of two different sorts of war in which an Israelite king might engage: milchemet mitzvah, a commanded war, and milchemet reshut, a discretionary war. A commanded war is a war of self-defense, fought against enemies who have attacked us. In such a war, Maimonides says, all Jews must participate. As the CCAR responsum puts it, “The Torah does not expect us to submit to armed aggression, to stand silently and passively when others seek to conquer and dominate us.” By implication, all people – not merely Jews – have the right and the obligation to defend themselves, to protect their citizens and to take up arms in the face of attack.

A discretionary war, on the other hand, is a war fought for different motives – a war undertaken by leaders “to increase their greatness and their reputation.” Today we would call it an expansionist war, intended to acquire territory or power. In order to wage such a war, Maimonides says, an Israelite king must secure the permission of the Sanhedrin, the legal and judicial body of that time. In addition, all Israelites are not required to participate in a discretionary war; indeed, the Torah provides for many classes of exemptions [see Deut.20:5-8; 24:5].

For Jewish tradition, then, war is a necessary evil – evil and tragic in its destruction of life, but necessary in urgent cases of national defense, when the nation is attacked. Absent such circumstances, a leader is obliged to make a compelling case to the legislature and to secure its authorization, before involving the nation in war. The CCAR responsum that I have cited comments that in our time, there can be no moral justification for a discretionary war – a war fought for purely expansionist purposes. Peace, as we have seen, is a supreme value, and peace may be disrupted only when failure to fight would lead to greater suffering and destruction.

The question before us as Jews, therefore, is whether a war against Saddam Hussein is a war of national defense, a war fought to protect our citizens and preserve our nation. As Jews, strategic justifications for this war, while important, are not sufficient; if we are to support it, we must be able to justify it morally, as well.

Some things are clear. We know that Saddam’s regime is harsh and oppressive, that he imprisons and tortures dissidents in horrific ways, and has murdered his political opponents. He has suppressed his Kurdish minority by destroying their villages and spraying them with poison gas – the first leader since World War I to use chemical weapons on a large scale, and the only one to use them on his own people. In 1979 he launched an 8-year war against Iran that caused the loss of a million lives. In 1990 he invaded and annexed Kuwait, and, knowing that Israel is a nuclear power, fired ballistic missiles into Tel Aviv, hoping to provoke a full-scale Arab-Israeli war [see “The Case for War,” The Economist, August 1, 2002].

About other things we are not as clear. Former arms inspectors and Iraq experts think Saddam may have biological weapons and is working assiduously to acquire nuclear weapons – weapons that he might turn on his neighbors or make available to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.

On September 11, 2002 a coalition of religious leaders sent a letter to President Bush, warning him that a war against Iraq would lead to catastrophic loss of life and increased suffering for the Iraqi people, already impoverished by UN-imposed sanctions. Other interfaith statements have been issued since then. I have not signed such statements, nor have I participated in anti-war rallies.

Certainly, I am frightened by the prospect of this war – particularly if the experts are wrong and Saddam is not toppled within a month; if, instead, we are entangled in prolonged urban warfare with massive casualties. I am concerned about what will happen in the aftermath of such a war, and especially disturbed that a campaign against Iraq will shift focus away from what should be our first priority: disrupting Al Qaeda and protecting our country from another terrorist attack.

Why, then, have I not come out against the war? Because I have not seen in these statements a plan for how to address the threat that Saddam poses. I have seen only wishful thinking – the hope that he might be neutralized by peaceful diplomatic means. Nothing in Saddam’s history suggests that he is responsive to peaceful diplomatic means. The sanctions have been a failure; they have punished the Iraqi people without curbing their leader’s aggression. Nothing in Saddam’s history suggests, to me, that, were he to acquire biological or nuclear weapons, he would refrain from using them. Sooner or later, we may well have to resort to military action to protect ourselves and our allies, including Israel, from this dangerous and aggressive dictator. And if we wait for him to acquire the bomb, our options will be much more limited.

So I am not in the anti-war camp. But before I can accept the need for war now, President Bush must meet the test prescribed by Jewish law that I cited above. In the absence of an attack on our country, he must present a clear and compelling case that spells out why Saddam poses an imminent danger. The Bush administration has said that the initial 12,000 pages of documents Iraq has turned over to UN weapons inspectors do not disclose the truth. If our government has information not contained in these documents – information that would justify the urgent necessity of war, it is time for that information to be shared with the American people. Moreover, thus far the administration has presented no clear evidence of a strong link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. If the President can explain why Saddam, and not Al Qaeda, should be our first priority now, he should do it.

This is not a president in whose motives I place great trust. But as an American, and as a Jew, I am prepared to support our president if he is able to make such a case. No one who has learned the lessons of World War II could favor passivity in the face of a murderous despot with aggressive intentions – especially when he lives in a region of vital strategic importance to most of the world. Passivity in such circumstances could ultimately lead to more death and destruction.

But no one who takes Jewish teachings seriously can approach this war without demanding that we be shown exactly why an invasion of Iraq is necessary at this time – and not, let’s say in a year or two, after we have focused our efforts on Al Qaeda. I would add, by the way, that I believe we should also demand from our government an energy policy that will wean us away from our dependence on Arab oil, lest we be forever vulnerable to the antics of rogue states and dictators in the Middle East.

I think of those Israeli parents and children preparing themselves to wait once again in sealed rooms and bomb shelters, trying so hard to be calm and in control in the midst of a situation completely out of their control. I think of all the innocent lives that will be disrupted or destroyed if this war comes about. I agonize over what my duty should be – as an American citizen, a Jew, a lover of Israel. I wait, along with you, as the diplomatic process runs its course, hoping that our government will act with wisdom and deliberation, and will respect the American people enough to communicate honestly with them. This winter the drums are beating for war. But I pray, despite everything, that the new year will bring us peace.

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