Just and Unjust War

Sermon given November 16, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Most of you were at services on Rosh Hashanah morning, when I spoke about my experience of being on a clergy panel for KMOL television on the night of September 11. I told you that Dr. Buckner Fanning and I were asked whether we were of a mind to seek revenge against the terrorists who had killed thousands of Americans at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania. My response was cautious. I said that the best revenge is to retain our faith in God and in the goodness of life; the best victory is to strengthen our loyalty to America and the principles of freedom and goodness for which it stands. Buckner Fanning’s response was somewhat more pointed. He counseled prayer and love, but he also said that we know who is responsible, that the government of Afghanistan should be given five days to hand over Osama bin Laden, and if they don’t, the United States should bring the full force of our military power to bear upon Afghanistan.

As I told you on Rosh Hashanah, I later asked Toni what she thought; she uttered those now immortal words: “Go Buckner!”

Toni’s opinion notwithstanding, the President of the United States did not follow Dr. Fanning’s advice. President Bush took time to consider the situation carefully. He spoke with clarity, but withheld military action for weeks. He worked to assure that American military action would be both justified and effective. He ordered that humanitarian aid be dropped on Afghanistan along with bombs. Those who hoped that our Armed Forces would “reduce Afghanistan to an ashtray” were perhaps disappointed. Those who feared that the United States and its allies would indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghani people might have been pleased.

Oddly, though, the hawks of our society seem to be reasonably satisfied with President Bush’s actions. On the other hand, I continue to receive countless forwarded email messages, suggesting that American military action has been precipitous, unjust, and inhumane. Small but forceful protests have sprung up in American cities, calling on our government to halt the bombing.

My natural tendency would be to support the cause of peace. Our prayer book repeatedly calls upon us to “seek peace and pursue it.” We are taught that “making peace where there is strife” is one of our greatest mitzvot. We pray for the coming of a Messianic Era, when perfect peace shall rule the Earth, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, swords shall be beaten into plowshares, and none study war any more. Our tradition also teaches us that we must do more than pray. We must work to bring peace to our world.

With those teachings in mind, many Jewish Americans were at the forefront of the peace movement during the Viet Nam War. Today, most of us regard the Viet Nam War as a tragic mistake. We should honor those who selflessly and obediently served our country during that conflict, sacrificing so much for America, without the satisfaction of victory. Too often, American soldiers who fought in Viet Nam faced derision upon their return home. Just as we should honor them, though, we also respect others who practiced civil disobedience, standing up for their own beliefs and protesting the war. Those heroic protestors exemplified the virtue of American democracy and freedom of speech. They eventually halted the senseless slaughter in Viet Nam.

Once again, in 2001, I applaud the protestors’ exercise of First Amendment freedoms. They remind us all of the blessings of living in America. To be sure, the Afghani people have lacked the right to protest the rule of the Taliban. America is a better country, in part because of our peace protestors.

This time, though, I’m not so sure that the peace protestors are correct. I don’t think that’s because I want “an eye for an eye” after September 11. Yes, I am filled with outrage, when I think of those events. The matter is personal to me. Thank God, I did not lose any loved ones on that terrible day, but my sister and two year old nephew witnessed the events from just a few blocks’ distance. They were evacuated by ferry, and the family has been forced to abandon their home in Battery Park City, near the World Trade Center. Even through my anger, though, I am not one with an impulse for revenge. I think, and I hope, that my support of our nation’s current military endeavor is based on Jewish teachings about what makes a war just and proper.

Turning to the Bible, we find poetic pleas for peace. Much more, though, we discover starkly hawkish calls to arms, sanctioned by God. One passage, in particular, comes to mind. God commands King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites. These people are the Israelites’ most consistent and heinous enemy in the Bible. During the desert wanderings, the Amalkites ambush and attack the Children of Israel. We are told that the people of Amalek will be a constant menace to our Jewish people for all time. Therefore, God’s marching order to Saul is to kill every single Amalekite–man, woman and child–and even all their livestock. Saul accomplishes almost the entire task. However, he takes the King of Amalek as his prisoner; Saul and his men keep some of the best livestock as booty. For failing to obey God’s commandment, Saul is deposed as King of Israel, and David is anointed in his place.

Our Rabbis tell us of the disastrous results of Saul’s decision to take the King prisoner, rather than killing him. We are told that the King produces an heir in captivity. The child has progeny of his own, so the people of Amalek are not entirely destroyed. One of these Amalekite descendants is Haman, the villain who seeks to kill all the Jews in the Book of Esther. Throughout Jewish history, we are taught that our persecutors have been descendants of that Amalekite King, Adolph Hitler among them.

The traditional message is clear: True enemies must be thoroughly destroyed. The impulse is not revenge, but rather the protection of one’s own people. If the forces of good do not destroy the forces of evil, then the wicked will rise up again to harass and murder the children of God.

Yes, that lesson is clear, but our Torah and our Rabbis offer other guidance as well. Of particular interest to us at this season may be the fate of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, considered to be the ancestor of the Arab peoples. In recent weeks, we read the Torah story of the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother from the home of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham sends the mother and child off with plenty of food and drink, but after a time, they run out of water. Ishmael cries, and God hears.

In an ancient midrash, the angels point out that the children of Ishmael will harass the children of Israel. Therefore, the angels argue that God should let little Ishmael die before he has any progeny. God demurs. Admitting that the Ishmaelites will cause harm to future Israelites, God nevertheless insists that Ishmael is innocent at this time. Therefore, God miraculously provides a well, saving young Ishmael’s life.

These teachings can guide us in our current international crisis. Like ancient Israelites, we know who our enemies are. Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network must be utterly destroyed, together with the Taliban and all other forces that would fight freedom with terror. Similarly, the State of Israel may justly wage war against the terrorists who devalue Jewish lives in the same way the Nazis did. As our Torah teaches us, Amalek, the quintessential and eternal enemy, must be destroyed. If we do not utterly wipe out the wicked, they will continue to harass and murder the children of God in every generation.

At the same time, we are civilized. We love life and love freedom. We are responsible for differentiating between young Ishmael, who should be saved, and the Amalekites, who must be destroyed. Conducting a just war requires us to avoid killing or injuring innocent civilians. Viet Nam taught us that distinguishing between combatants and civilians is not always easy. And yet, the difficulty of a task must not dissuade us from taking up the challenge.

Under some circumstances, we must absolutely destroy an enemy, and we have no way of doing so without harming civilians. And yet, we must be careful. When we are at war in a place where the people seem very different from us, we may become callous to the very humanity of the men, women and children there. When the crimes against the innocent in our own nation are horribly heinous, as they were September 11, we may be tempted to seek revenge upon bystanders who share the ethnicity or nationality or religion of the perpetrators. Let us not give into those impulses, but let us instead recall the actions of our God, Who saved the life of young Ishmael.

A just war takes thought and planning and careful consideration. A just war takes time. A just war requires prayer. Let us ask God to continue to guide the President of the United States. May President Bush continue to in defense of American lives and American freedom. May God bless the President for resisting the temptation to bomb Afghanistan into oblivion. May God grant continued success to the men and women of our Armed Forces. We pray for the safety and well-being of each man and woman who wears the uniform of the United States military and of our allies.

We pray, too, for the leaders and soldiers and people of the State of Israel. At this difficult time, may they struggle to differentiate between the descendants of Amalek who must be destroyed and the children of Ishmael who should be protected. May our brothers and sisters in Israel soon live at peace, alongside our Arab cousins.

And let us pray, too, for the men and women and children of Afghanistan, and for their Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters throughout the world. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, we ask that God protect the innocent men, women and children of war-torn lands. May God guide the hands and hearts of Muslims throughout the world to the peaceful message of Islam. Surely, in its true sense, the Muslim concept of Jihad is not fundamentally different from our own concept of just war. Let forces in Afghanistan, and the Palestinian people, too, embrace those Muslim teachings of moral struggle, of sparing the innocent, and of peace.

One day, with God’s help, we will live in a world of perfect peace. We shall study war no more. In the meantime, before the coming of the Messianic Era our nation has been assaulted. We must study war; we must wage war. Let us win this war, with justice, with righteousness, and with honor.

Amen.