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August 11, 2014 10:46 am

Living With War in an Age of Perpetual Conflict

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Israel Defense Forces tanks on the move. Photo: IDF.

Israel Defense Forces tanks on the move. Photo: IDF.

A broad consensus has emerged that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and the dismantling of Gush Katif, was a catastrophe that led to three Hamas wars. It may well lead to more. As a country that has been at war, with little respite, since its inception, what is Israel to do in an age of seeming perpetual conflict?

The same question might be put to the United States which thought it had extricated itself from Iraq only to be pulled right back into the conflict by ISIS? The United States plans to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by end of this year, but few believe that this will be the end of American involvement.

Judaism extols peace above all other goals. But that doesn’t mean it derides the concept of defensive war. True, King David was told by God that he could not build the Temple because he had shed blood in war. It would be left to his son Solomon who was a man of peace. Yet David still has the higher place in Jewish history. The Messiah, who will one day bring lasting peace, is called the Son of David rather than the Son of Solomon because it was David’s vanquishing of the enemy that allowed for Solomon’s peace.

The same is true in American history. George Washington was not a man of peace. He was a man of war. He could easily have lived the peaceful life of a Virginia planter and overlooked British taxation and increasing tyranny. The Canadians did so and they do not today seem that oppressed, even with the Queen’s visage on their currency and stamps. Washington could have waited for Britain’s rule to gradually relax, as did our neighbors to the North. But it’s precisely because he didn’t that he is remembered as the father of our nation.

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Lincoln was the same. Eventually, slavery would have been abolished. Many historians point out the economic ruin that slavery was bringing to the South compared to the industrialized North who had to build machines to do their work since they lacked slaves. But Lincoln saw slavery as a monstrous injustice. Its abolition could not wait. Amazingly, he sacrificed the lives of 700,000 Americans to end the abominable practice and save the Union.

Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950’s is today remembered as a time of phenomenal prosperity and tranquility for America. But that’s only because he utterly vanquished the German forces of tyranny that preceded his tenure.

I’m not knocking peace. To the contrary, it was the Jews who taught a savage, barbaric, and militant ancient world that peace was the highest ideal. Even the UN – no friend of Israel – acknowledges as much with its Isaiah wall and its famous quotation, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) It was the Jews who rejected the entire concept of glory deriving from the battlefield. Our greatest warrior, David, is remembered for his harp and lyre rather than his sword and shield. Our astounding military victory over the Assyrian Greeks at Hanuka in the Second Century BCE is remembered not for a triumph of arms but for allowing the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of lights.

Search the length and breadth of both ancient and modern Israel and, unlike Rome and its Arches of Titus and Constantine, you will never find a single triumphant military arch. Israel today has memorials for fallen soldiers. That is all. Even the electrifying victory of the Six Day War has never been commemorated with any parades as a military triumph.

But Judaism still embraces the concept of a defensive war that protects life and facilitates peace.

One hundred years ago last week the world commemorated the centennial of the War to End All Wars. The First World War is today acknowledged to have been the greatest military folly in the history of the world, fought for almost no tangible reason, achieving virtually no discernible goals. And it led directly to an even more deadly conflagration, the Second World War and the holocaust.

War is a terrible thing.

But why has Europe been at peace ever since? Because of the total destruction of Germany and Japan’s capacity to make war. Franklin Roosevelt did not have to insist on unconditional surrender at the Casablanca Conference of 1943. Even Churchill thought it might be taking things to an extreme. But Roosevelt did not want a Third World War war to succeed the Second. He realized that only by carrying through the battle against the Nazis and the Japanese to the absolute end would militarism as an idea be defeated by these two powers.

He borrowed the term “Unconditional Surrender” from the response given by Ulysses S. Grant to the Confederate Commander at Fort Donelson and said to the nation in a radio address, “In our uncompromising policy we mean no harm to the common people of the Axis nations. But we do mean to impose punishment and retribution upon their guilty, barbaric leaders.”

No one wants Israel or the United States to become accustomed to war. We Jews pray thrice daily for peace. But neither should we dismiss the morality of wars fought to stop terrorism and neutralize and defeat barbaric regimes like Hamas. Only through their defeat can there be peace.

The three Jewish patriarchs might be said to represent three Jewish postures toward war. Abraham is the isolationist. Avraham Ha’Ivri means “Abraham who stood apart.” Abraham fought wars to protect his vital interests, like saving his kidnapped nephew Lot. But otherwise he secludes himself from the barbarity of the world, intent instead on building monotheism. Isaac can represent pacifism, submitting as he does to his father’s plan to sacrifice him on Mount Moriah with no objection. But Jacob, after whom we are all called “Israelites,” represents a willingness to engage and fight evil and stop it from growing stronger. He was prepared to engage in controversial tactics to prevent his brother Esau from achieving dominance from a blessing he had not earned and did not deserve. He was prepared to fight for what was rightly his against his deceitful father-in-law Laban who repeatedly tried to cheat him. And he was named “Israel” because he wrestled with an archangel and defeated him.

We all pray for peace. We seek the harmony and tranquility of universal brotherhood. But we are well aware that at times the only way to achieve peace is through a just, defensive war.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the founder of “This World: The Values Network,” the world’s leading organization promoting universal Jewish values in politics, culture, and the media. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he has recently published “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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