Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Concept of War

When we read the beginning of כי תצא, we may find ourselves asking a very basic question: What is the purpose of war? Though they are obviously towards the bottom of the preferred list of ways to resolve conflicts, the Torah teaches that there are wars which are actually required, מלחמות מצווה. The understanding that war is not something that can always be avoided is one which demonstrates to us truths about the pragmatism of the Torah, and the way in which we are to navigate our imperfect world.

In an imagined perfect world, it can be reasonably assumed that the violence and horrors of war would be absent. Idealized attempts at utopia-building, such as Marx's Communist Manifesto, commonly included the cessation of war as part of their vision. Why does the Torah not outlaw war? The answer to this question can be found in a letter written by Rabbi Kook (אגרות הראי"ה חלק א' אגרת פט עמוד ק pointed out at Rav Kook Torah), where he wrote that it would have been impossible that, at a time when the surrounding nations were wolves, the Jews would unilaterally abstain. The nations would quickly form an axis that would destroy the Hebrew people. On the contrary, says Rabbi Kook, it was imperative that the Jews act mercilessly, to deter the threats around them.

Rabbi Kook here makes an important point: the Torah is not some abstract ideal which has little relation to the world in which it is placed. Rather, its purpose is to teach humanity how, from within the realia of that world, to slowly, step by step, bring about its perfection. It would be disastrous for humanity if any nation chosen to bear the Torah's truths were to be extinguished immediately upon observance of those truths. And so, the Jews are to make use of war, as bad as it is, when necessary to survive, and continue in their task of bettering the world.

The Torah, however, has a different view of what war morality is. There are five values which the Torah supports that may come in conflict with general western ideas. 1) Mercilessness: As Rav Kook writes above, a war must be fought with ferocity. Mercy has no place on the battlefield. As Rashi states on the words כי תצא למלחמה על אויבך, it is not on our brothers that we go to war, who would have mercy upon us. It is rather on enemies, who will not have any mercy. In order to win, we must be willing to be the same. 2) Motivation: Warriors need to be ready to do what is necessary with willingness and resolve. Ehud Olmert is quoted as saying, "we are tired of fighting, we are tired of winning". As Rambam makes clear in הלכות מלכים, this attitude is defeatist, giving the strong and victorious the attitude of the defeated. The Olmertian attitude is described in Yeats' The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity." This is no way for good to triumph. Good must be more motivated, filled with more intensity than evil. 3) Civilian losses: We must be willing to allow enemy civillians to die. The enemy civilian in a time of war is not differentiated from the enemy combatant. Jewish morality sees the value of life in Jewish soldiers. The '90's concept of טוהר הנשק, purity of arms, resulted in numerous Israeli casualties in Lebanon because terrorists dressed as women to fight, throwing the Israelis off guard. 4) Independence: Jewish war must be fought with faith in God and our own right, not with reliance upon external powers. As the prophet exhorted Egypt, יען הייתם משענת קנה, since Egypt provided Israel with an ostensible ally (who later abandonded the Jews), she is cursed. While alliances upon equal footing are sometimes beneficial, total reliance on anyone but ourselves and God is  wrong and will only lead to failure. 5) Enemy population: The enemy population may not be allowed to remain in areas that are Israeli territory. Those that do, become thorns in our eyes and sides.

When Israel maintains these Jewish values of war, peace can prevail. However, when Israel neglects them, two things immediately happen: 1) Israel, by being merciful to the evil, ends up being evil to those who are merciful. Nothing is more clearly and example of this than the permissive attitude of the Israeli Government in the years before 2005 towards rocket attacks from Gaza, which led to the criminal Gaza Evacuation. 2) Israel teases its enemies by allowing them to think that they have never been fully beaten. Thus, the enemies continue conflicts for decades that should really last weeks. The Biblical story of Shaul and Amalek is a perfect example of this, in that Haman came from the Amalek King's union the night before he was killed by Sh'muel.

The sixth Jewish value in war is that of purity: once the battlefield is left, the warriors spend 7 days outside normal society to divest themselves of the negative traits needed in war. Mercilessness is replaced again by mercy, might by flexibility, gentility and empathetic kindness.

Today, we may feel that we find ourselves no nearer to the goal of world perfection and peace. I once read a book review in the New York Times, in which the author claimed that twentieth century was the bloodiest ever. Indeed, the greek term for a perfect world, 'utopia' (coined by Thomas More), also derives from οὐ, "not", and τόπος, "place", in other words, a place that is imaginary, and will never exist. In light of this, what is our job? The answer of the Torah is a pragmatic one: accepting the need for the grime and blood of war, maintain our morality while within it. The laws of אשת יפת תואר and beseiging an enemy city are some examples of this. In holiness, we go out to the camp of war.

We also ensure that the negative traits of character needed in war such as cruelty, anger and hatred never become naturalized characteristics. Kindness, empathy, love, gentleness, these are the characteristics that make up our persona. The others are like armor that is put on in times of need and removed at the earliest opportunity. In holiness we wage war, and in holiness we leave the field of battle, immediately divesting ourselves of the negative traits.

In a larger sense, this view of "war as clean as practically possible", is one which guides our path throughout our lives. For as Rav Neriyah has said, "we live in a world of בדיעבד." From the moment we are born to the moment we die, from morning to night, we are met by constant choices. We often must choose between two unappetizing options. It is in these situations where we often demonstrate our committment to the abstract ideals of Torah. In frustration at something, do we react calmly at the child who has just tracked mud into the house, or do we lose it? These kinds of questions are also applications of מלחמת מצווה. By fighting our baser desires and knee-jerk reactions, we conquer ourselves, and go to personal mini-war in holiness, as it were.

(Rav Soloveitchik makes another point in a similar vein. He says that, as a people constantly surrounded by other cultures, we often bring home יפת תואר, beautiful things and concepts from outside. Our job, as Rav Hirsch writes in his essays on education, is not to reject them out of hand, but to sublimate that which is good into our service of God. We take good, after studying it and assuring ourselves that it is indeed good, from any source.)

However, another aspect of war is that it fulfills an important purpose in our world. Rabbi Kook in Orot (המלחמה א) writes that war stirs the powers of Messiah. Just as a pressure cooker can cook in a short time things that would take hours in a conventional oven, so does war produce unnatural pressure in the world which allows change and upheavals at a faster rate than under normal circumstances. Borders shift and nations wrest from one another victory and status. God utilizes these changes to re-position geo-political realities that further the process of global redemption. When the general shake-up and pandemonium settles down, the stillness of punch-drunk adversaries leads to a renewed interest in true peace.

Thus, military upheavals may move the world in the direction God desires. As opposed to the greek "utopia", Judaism sees world harmony not only as possible, but as an inevitable teleological event. Yeshaya prophesies that in the end of days, the nations of the world will recognize God. The Temple will be a focal point for world spiritual strivings, and the inhabitants of our globe will beat their swords and spears to agricultural implements. At this time, the perfection of the general world and individuals will be accomplished slowly and incrementally, without the need for war.

So war is inevitable in our imperfect world, and it can even serve an important positive purpose. We may hear in today's headlines the drumbeats of tomorrow's war; we are quite cognizant of the dangers. We may wonder, how will the redemption ever be completed?

We can be strengthened in our faith in God's ultimate game-plan as was Rabbi Akiva. While his friends wept at the destruction of the Temple, he rejoiced and saw the fulfillment of the negative prophecies as a guarantee that God would eventually fulfill the fortellings of good. While danger still exists, we know that there is, in the not-distant future, a time when the world will, indeed, live in peace, with no need for the ravages of war. God and truth will reign supreme, and Man will serve Him in unity. It will be a time when the most destructive of forces will be used to build, when swords will be used to till the soil. Through the present haze of the battlefield upon which we still struggle, we hear the voice of God, promising that the redemption is no pipe-dream. Work towards it; wait for it; expect it. In the words of our הפטרה, "Though the mountains crumble and the valleys disintegrate, my loving-kindness for you, Israel, will never falter, says the Merciful One."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Response to Neve Gordon's Op-Ed

I am planning to begin blogging regularly again this week. However, I felt so outraged after reading an op-ed in the LA Times, that I composed this as a response:

In Response to Neve Gordon's Op-Ed piece, here.

It is tragic and dangerous when a member of Israel's supposed intellectual elite joins forces with the Jewish State's enemies. It is painful for Jews around the world to witness such overt self-hate. And yet, readers of the Los Angeles Times were treated to such a display in the above-mentioned op-ed. As a Jew who sees the situation through less simplistic lenses, I offer this response to Neve Gordon.

1) Your article ignores the history that led to Israel's control over the West Bank. As you know, Israel accepted the UN Partition Plan in 1947 and declared Statehood over a land they had returned to after 2000 years. The Jews accepted a severely reduced amount of land than what had been promised by the British, and it excluded the West Bank. Israel was immediately attacked by more than 5 Arab armies, and over the next decades, was attacked three more times. In each of these wars publicly planned by the Arabs to "throw the Jews into the sea", Israel beat back their aggressors. Israel came to control the West Bank (historically part of ancient Israel) after the Six Day War.

In ignoring the way in which Israel came to the West Bank, you erase any moral highground that belongs to the defensive victor in a war. Israel's old "Aushwitz borders" (to quote Abba Eban, a leftist who, unlike you, had some sense) were redrawn to provide the fledgling State reasonable natural frontiers across which to defend itself. Israel's wars have all been defensive, and this is an important point which you neglect. There is no moral equivalence between the Israeli assumption of the West Bank and an offensive land-grab. To imply that there is is a dishonest play into the hands of Israel's enemies.

2) Your article states that there are only two options, one is a one-state solution with Arabs and Jews granted full and equal rights, and the second is a two-state solution. I am sorry that a university professor is victim to such a fallacy as the false dilemma you present. In reality, there are other options, many of which are part of a vigorous discussion within Israel today. As was the case in the separation of India and Pakistan, a transfer of populations is only one of a number of other options, in which the Jews transferred from Arab lands in the past 6 decades would be traded for a future transfer of Arabs to those lands. An important point to mention is that all suggestions of transfer voiced in Israel include fair renumeration to Arab families for property left in Israel. This is something which was not done when Jews were forcibly transferred from their homes in Arab lands.

3) Finally, the climax of your op-ed piece is a subscription to a Palestinian initiative to isolate Israel by way of boycott. This odious suggestion from a Jew to the world, to marginalize and isolate the Jewish State does indeed, as you point out, smack of anti-semitism, and in your case, self-hate. However, I wish to point out the hypocrisy of your position. You do not call for boycott of Hamas or Fatah or the PA, all of which routinely, as you know, in their own broadcasts to their population, advocate armed terror against the Israeli civillian population. It is common for PA television to broadcast children speaking of their desire to be "martyrs" (Arab double-talk for "terrorists"). You do not call for a boycott of Iran or Syria. You do not speak out against any other world evils. You choose, rather, to focus all your public, international voice against your own country and people, who are defending themselves against increasingly deadly and existential dangers including terrorism and nuclear annihalation.

You have turned the victim into the aggressor, ignoring history and morality. In doing so, you have weakened the State of Israel and the the Jewish People. You have opened a door for other anti-semites by joining forces with the Palestinian boycott anti-semites; after all, they gleefully reason, if a Jewish University Professor from Israel can agree with it, it must be acceptable.

And so, shame on you. In a fit of emotional frenzy, you have sold your pen and your soul to your enemy.

Thank God Israel and the free world do not rely on the likes of you to fight evil.

In light of the above, I call for another, Israeli initiative, and I hope it is more successful than yours will be. I call for your ouster as a tenured professor at Ben Gurion University. The people of Israel should not have to pay your salary, as you poison the minds of students with your self-loathing.