February 16, 2012
War with Iran, I vote no
Remember the movie “The Truman Show” with Jim Carrey? It’s a story about a guy who, unbeknownst to him, has been living his entire life, since birth, as the star of a major reality TV show. The producers have created an entire fake world for him to live in, hidden cameras follow his every move, his whole planned development where he lives is a movie set, his job, his wife, his friends are all actors. The ending is pretty good, so I won’t give it away. If you have not seen it, go rent it; its worth the watch if only to help frame the question that the liturgy is asking us every morning: mah anachnu, meh chayeinu, what are we, what is our life? This movie plays into our greatest fears that what we see is actually not true, not real, for what is reality anyway? Is it what we see, what we think is happening, what is actually happening? Can we know exactly what is happening, is objective truth and reality a possibility? Philosophers and thinkers have been pondering that for ages and its unclear. Is the Torah absolute truth, objective truth? I talked about that years ago in a sermon series, ultimate truths. I am thinking about how we frame our existence, how we understand our world and our place in it. The Truman Show came out in 1998, way before we had the 24/7 news cycle world in which we are trying to survive. Before Twitter and Facebook, tools that some of us use and some don’t, but inventions that will eventually, if they haven’t already, completely change what our lives will look like. Orwell wrote about it, Brave New World spelled out a version of it. Is that what’s happening today? We can’t really know, but because we have created the capacity to ultimately destroy ourselves, with nuclear weapons, what I am most concerned with now is about framing our existence in regard to the situation with Iran. Iran and Israel; Iran and the U.S.; Iran and the world.
The ramping up of tensions between Iran and Israel, especially in the last week with the targeted attacks on embassies around the world, has set the Jewish community on edge in regard to Iran. I have been asked numerous times in the past few weeks, by congregants, colleagues, media and family about whether I think Israel will attack Iran to try and take out some of their nuclear capabilities. The honest, hard truth is that I have no idea. There are only 3-4 people in the world who know the answer to this question. I read opinions on both sides, some saying that there is no way Israel would risk this kind of military action, some saying that they can’t afford not to in order to remain safe. What I do know is that this would be an incredibly risky and dangerous operation, for Iran is not like Iraq in the 1980s or Syria of 2007, where Israel was able to successfully target nuclear sites and strike with a short, calculated air assault and get back to Israel before either country had time to react. Iran will be a totally different operation. From what we know, they have much more advanced technology, it is spread around the country, much of it in unknown, underground sites, with the most sensitive sites surrounded by reinforced concrete that would require massive bombing, and even that wouldn’t guarantee success. So, is Israel, or the United States for that matter, ready for another major military attack, this time against a country of strength with a leader that seems to be waiting precisely for something like this to respond and explode? Because there are rabbis around the country, including some here in Los Angeles, that have been actively speaking out in favor of an attack, I wanted to add my voice to the side that says an attack of this nature is probably a horrible idea, both morally and strategically.
In his column a few weeks ago, Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, not known for shying away from difficult issues, addressed an attack on Iran and talked about how, in fact, the way that Iran is going about attaining nuclear power capability is exactly how another Middle Eastern country went about it: Israel. Developed in secret, going around international agreements and pressure, including from the United States, getting materials from other countries, developing the technology, all underground and protected at the site in Dimona, Israel’s biggest known “secret” was that it had joined the family of nuclear nations, even as it still doesn’t admit it and is not a part of the international treaties guiding the world in this dangerous area. Eshman put in words a hard truth that many Jews don’t want to acknowledge: namely, Israel, like the United States, has nuclear weapons and so how can we be so actively lobbying against another country doing the same? Now, before you fly off the handle and call me names, let me say this. I am not in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran is ruled by an unstable regime of fanatics, mullahs and a president that spout hate and venom toward Israel and the west, and we can’t know what they will actually do in the face of an attack. However, I am not in favor of any nation having nuclear weapons and feel that they should be banned, and we should be leading the world toward that end. President Obama, early in his term, actually said some very strong things about this goal. Current events have of course shifted that focus to the back burner, but it is a worthy goal, one that has great moral consequences.
From a Torah perspective, there is a piece in Deuteronomy that has always inspired me. “When you approach a city to make war, first you call out in peace.” (Deut. 20:10) Exhausting all available options on a diplomatic front before going to war is a very Jewish value. It teaches us two things: One, Jews are not pacifists, not afraid to do battle when necessary to protect ourselves. Two, Jews believe deeply in the role of diplomacy and peacemaking, and we must explore all avenues in that realm before deciding on war. In a recent spat reported in the media, Dennis Ross, someone who we can probably trust knows some things about this issue, says that sanctions on Iran are working and should be allowed to play out. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel said this week that sanctions are not working and other options must be explored. Who should we believe? Can both opinions be true? Think about our metaphors that surround war: the drums of war, the fog of war. Both drums and fog cloud our perception to hear and see what is actually happening, to see realities that may be there in front of us but we are choosing, or being led, to ignore. In a column this week, Doniel Hartman, a leading thinker and scholar in Israel, commented on this very issue, when he said things like, “Israel is no longer alone in the world. There is a truth that we have allies and they are supporting us…Israel needs to realize that there is not always a military solution to solve all of our problems…We are in a new world, with new dangers and new challenges, but also new opportunities…It is time for us to create consistent policies that enable us to maximize those opportunities.” Living in a Truman Show-like view of the world, especially about Israel, may lead us to continue thinking that Israel is a lonely, vulnerable, victim-based country unable to defend itself. However, when we zoom out, when we break out of the bubble that keeps us in that mindset, we see a very different reality. Israel is a strong country, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, wielding great strength and commanding respect, regardless of what we think of the UN, from nations the world over. Like many hard truths about America that many of us refuse to acknowledge, there are hard truths about Israel that we need to acknowledge, and from that knowledge, act.
Will Israel attack Iran? I certainly hope not, but I can’t know for sure. I pray that cooler heads prevail within the leadership of Israel’s government, that they are not sucked into the bluster of Iranian rhetoric, and that our nation, as a staunch and secure ally of Israel, can help her exhaust all the available diplomatic options, some of which seem to be working, before entertaining such a risky and potentially catastrophic path as war with Iran. Mah anachnu, meh chayeinu? What are we, what is our life? In the face of annihilation, these questions take on a whole new meaning. In an email exchange I had with David Wolpe this week on this very subject, he said, “This is very difficult and in international relations the balance between second thoughts and culpable weakness is tricky.” Let us pray that those making the decisions weigh this balance with the utmost of care. Shabbat shalom.