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Jewish Journal

The Necessary Fight

by Gary Rosenblatt

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

With all the discussion, confusion and controversy about the Bush administration's planned actions against Saddam Hussein,it's ironic that President Bush, a born-again Bible reader, appears to have rejected the Christian position and adopted instead the Jewish stance on self-defense and responding to evil people.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, instructs: "If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other one as well," adding: "Offer the wicked man no resistance."

One shudders to think of the consequences of such behavior in the face of the Hitlers of the world.

Moses, by contrast, in his first act as an adult, kills an Egyptian taskmaster who is beating a Jewish slave. His response to violence is not pacifism but defending the innocent, an approach taught clearly in the Talmud: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a).

That blunt instruction, in turn, is based on a passage in the Torah noting that if a thief is killed while attempting to rob your house at night, "there is no blood guilt" (Exodus 22:1).

These ancient lessons are all too relevant today. When Islamic fundamentalists struck against America last Sept. 11, killing thousands of innocents, the United States responded by declaring war on the perpetrators and all those who seek to destroy this country through terror. Clearly, the notion of defending one's self -- be it a person or a nation -- is accepted most widely, as is the understanding that as tragic as wars can be, they are necessary at times, and even moral.

Jewish law distinguishes between two types of war, one waged to conquer territory and one fought in self-defense. The latter, milchemet mitzvah, is literally considered to be a mitzvah.

The question today is whether the U.S.-planned invasion of Iraq to oust Hussein is a war of aggression or self-defense. Bush, given to seeing the world in black and white and articulating policy along those lines has come to believe that Hussein represents a clear threat to regional, and perhaps international, stability and must be removed. Bush has argued that Hussein's race to develop biological, chemical and nuclear warfare -- and the fact that he has used chemicals for the mass killing of his own people -- are reason enough to act against him before he employs these instruments of mass destruction, as threatened, particularly against Israel.

Opposition to that position is mounting, though, even among the Republicans and close Bush allies. At first it was Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries that warned against a U.S. invasion, soon joined by the Europeans. They argued against America as Bully, trying to rearrange the world as it would like, not mentioning they do business with Iraq. Here at home, the Democrats have been calling for a debate on the planned war, given its profound importance. Fair enough, but their arguments seem to be more about the need for "a national dialogue" rather than specific reasons why a war would be wrong.

Most attention has gone to the opinion piece written by Brent Scowcroft in the Aug. 15 Wall Street Journal, warning that a war against Iraq would undermine Washington's war on terror. Scowcroft, national security adviser for the first President Bush and a close family friend of the Bushes, argues that Hussein has not been tied to the Sept. 11 terrorists, poses no real threat to the United States itself, and that attacking him would not only be costly in terms of American dollars and soldiers' lives but could unleash a more wide-scale war. Saddam, under attack, would strike at Israel, Scowcroft says, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction, prompting Israel to hit back, possibly with its own nuclear arsenal, setting off "an Armageddon in the Middle East."

Scowcroft says the key is for the United States to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or face the wrath of the Arab world.

Certainly, there is reason for Washington to exercise great caution and careful planning before setting out to take on Hussein, as it has said it will. (One wonders what happened to the element of surprise in warfare, but that's another story.) Going it alone, without the active help of Arab or European countries, would make such an effort all the more difficult. But Scowcroft, who opposed ousting Hussein in the Gulf War a decade ago, errs when he reasons that Hussein and the terrorist network are separate issues or that the United States must quell the Israeli-Palestinian violence before taking on Iraq.

This is all about confronting and defeating terror, not appeasing it or ignoring it, pretending it won't hurt us. One lesson we should have learned from Hitler is that when a despot shows his willingness to murder civilians and proclaims his intentions to destroy a people, or a nation, take him at his word. Believe him, and the fact that he won't stop until he is defeated.

The issue for the United States should not be whether to oust Saddam, but how. Turning the other cheek is suicide; what is called for is the moral imperative of destroying evil before it destroys you.

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