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Jewish Journal

War necessary and just under Jewish Law

by Rabbi Irving Greenberg

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

One cannot answer the question of whether going to war with Iraq is morally justified without first establishing what state we are in now.

The truth, which many American Jews find too bitter to swallow, is that we are in a state of total war already. We face an implacable enemy who has struck and killed Jews repeatedly, who has vowed to wipe out the State of Israel while making clear -- in Djerba, in Mombasa, in Pakistan -- that all Jews worldwide are targets of this murderous hostility.

The very same enemy is at war with the United States of America. Sept. 11 represents open warfare and mass murder, but this war has been waged, overtly and covertly, for decades. The aggression includes relentless indoctrination of hatred against Americans, aid to America's enemies, bombing of U.S. embassies and terrorist violence against its allies and interests.

The "co-incidence" of war on America and the Jews is not a coincidence. America is seen as the source of economic dynamism sweeping away traditional hierarchies and of cultural transformation that is undermining authoritarian faiths and inherited structures. The West, modernity, media, "uppity women," homosexuality, unlimited cultural choices, the decline of Islamic civilization in the arts, science and human rights are all lumped together and blamed on the "Great Satan": America.

These hated values are further stigmatized by hanging them on Jews and on Israel, the "Little Satan."

Anti-Semites charged that Jews introduced modernity and capitalism in Western Europe; other anti-Semites blamed Jews for communism in Eastern Europe. Now, Islamic Jew-haters blame them for purveying the evils of Western capitalist democracy.

Arabists have recently claimed that America is hated because it supports Israel. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. Israel is hated as the outpost of Western civilization successfully placed in Dar-al-Islam (the land divinely ordained for Muslim rule only) and maintained by its Western technology and skills.

Some argue that the war is being waged by Al Qaeda, not Iraq. No. This 50-plus-year war has been waged by a loose, shifting collection of states and groups, not infrequently divided and fighting among each other but all drawing upon Arab cultural resentment and radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The question is whether our overt war against Al Qaeda should be extended to Iraq.

The answer: Iraq, by its behavior since 1990, has confronted the United States and made war a needed response. Iraq invaded Kuwait. After losing the Gulf War and to avoid invasion, it promised to disarm. Instead, Iraq frustrated and expelled inspectors while renewing its effort to achieve nuclear arms.

In conjunction with chemical and biological weapons, these instruments are intended to conquer Israel, to subdue and extort Iraq's neighbors and to intimidate and drive out the West. Should Iraq succeed in rearming, it would not hesitate to use these terror weapons -- or to supply them to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups and regimes -- for use against the United States, Israel or Jews anywhere or against other populations.

Here we come to the core questions: Maybe Iraq can be hamstrung or delayed? Maybe, even if armed, Iraq's dictator will not strike in fear of American retaliation -- just as he has held back since 1991?

This is precisely the needed judgment call. Unlike a situation in which we have been openly attacked, and striking back in self-defense is self-evidently justified, the Iraq situation is debatable. Maybe Saddam Hussein will never attack, and we can get by without a war.

My personal judgment is: Taking the risk of no imposed disarmament is intolerable. No dictator so vile and no regime so dangerous dare be allowed to become a nuclear-biological threat. We need only remember the massive losses of life due to the world's initial appeasement of Hitler and Stalin.

If the United States strikes preemptively, it risks inflicting limited deaths. If we allow Saddam to maneuver successfully and gain a first strike, the death toll will be staggering. The calculus of risk tilts overwhelmingly toward preemptive action.

Jewish tradition values peace as the highest good. It envisions a messianic age in which war will disappear. However, until the world is perfected, Jewish law rules that there are two legitimate types of wars. Other types of wars are illegitimate and condemned.

The first is a war of self-defense "to save the people of Israel from an enemy coming at them." (Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, Book of Judges). Self-defense is considered a milchemet mitzvah (a commanded "good deed" war).

The second type of legitimate war is in a situation when it is not clear that the enemy will definitely attack. However, the government feels that a preemptive strike is warranted for greater security or for expanded boundaries yielding greater defensive depth against a possible future onslaught. Since the war is not definitively one of self-defense, it cannot be labeled a mitzvah.

However, the ruler is authorized to pursue this course of action by his definition of national security. This war is categorized as a milchemet reshut (permitted war).

Given that this war is not self-evidently justified, extra restrictions are placed on the government:

  • Going to war must be approved by the Sanhedrin (a legislative-judicial body) and not just the executive branch.

  • There are a wide range of exemptions from service, including those people who are afraid (which I interpret to include those who morally object to the war).

  • The permitted military tactics are more tightly regulated. Maimonides rules that in both kinds of war, one must first offer peace to the enemy. Only if the enemy refuses to surrender can one proceed.

In my judgment, the Iraq situation is a classic case of a permitted war. The Bush administration has decided that America's security demands preemptive action now. Since the justification is not self-evident, it is right that Congress be asked to approve -- it already has done so -- and that a wide range of exemptions (and expressions of opposition to the war) be allowed.

The likely loss of life among U.S. armed forces and Iraqis, both military and civilian, is tragic and heartbreaking. However, given Saddam Hussein's cruel and barbarous reign, many more lives will likely be saved by his overthrow than will be harmed in this war.

Personally, I hope for much more. Smashing this dictatorship will erode terrorists' standing everywhere, encourage moderates and unleash forces of democratization throughout the region. States that harbor terrorist groups will be shocked into distancing themselves from these reprehensible forces.

Of course, this demarche could fail; if so, the forces of terror would be strengthened. This is the risk of freedom. There are no guarantees in history anymore.

In my judgment, the risks of not acting are far greater; the cancerous growth of violence and terror cannot be stopped any other way. If we fail, we must take responsibility for our actions. If we succeed, democracy and human dignity will take a giant leap forward.

Israel, too, may gain new neighbors willing to make peace. For the Jewish people, then, what is good for America and American lives, will be a blessing for Jews as well. In other words, if this war succeeds, then, as the Bible promises, what is a blessing for the Jewish people will again be a blessing for all the families of the earth.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg is the president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.

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