Just War: Why Afghanistan is Different

Sermon delivered May 8, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Jews are commanded to be rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace. We pray for peace during each and every worship service. The Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing the congregations and the rabbis of Reform Judaism, have taken positions opposing the war in Iraq.

Many of you have heard me say that I am actively agnostic about the Iraq War. I tend to think that most positions supporting and opposing that war are altogether too simplistic. I have offered a variety of sermons about that war; tonight, I will not deliver another.

In 2009, we are all acutely aware that our country is engaged in more than one war. Previously, thought, the American people, following our government’s lead, lost interest in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, South-Central Asia became an increasingly dangerous place, not only for our U.S. Armed Forces, but also as a threat to western civilization.

Most recently, our President has asked our nation to re-focus on Afghanistan, where American and its allies have been at war against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters since 2001. Most Jews are very slow to support any war effort. And yet, even the same Reform Movement that has opposed the War in Iraq had favored a vigorous approach in Afghanistan, not only since January 20 of this year, but also when President Bush was at the helm.

Why would our religious movement and others oppose one war and support another, when both seem to be aimed against the same global terrorist threat?

Why would a peace-seeking religious people back war, under any condition, ever?

Make no mistake: Judaism is not a pacifist religion. Our faith did not oppose all armed conflict at its origin; and it does not require us to do so today. Quite the contrary.

After the parting of the Red Sea, God is praised as a “man of war,” for the Holy One has “thrust horse and chariot into the Sea.” God’s act of salvation, drowning the Egyptian armies in order to free the Israelites, is understood as a necessary, laudable act of war.

God, though, is not the Bible’s only holy warrior. The people, too, are commanded to wage God’s battles.

To cite only one example in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are preparing to conquer the Promised Land. Our ancestors are told to kill every single thing that lives – man, woman, child, and beast – when they come upon the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivvites, and Jebusites. The reason, by the way, does not seem to be that these nations have done something horrific to our ancestors. Instead, God is said to seek the utter destruction of these people because Adonai wants us, the Children of Israel, to inherit their land untroubled.

Across the centuries, Jews of every age have been inspired by the successful skirmishes of the Maccabees. No less a sage than Rabbi Akiva believed that the Messiah had arrived, when Bar Kochba proposed to defeat the Roman Army in the year 135. That foolhardy military exploit led to a devastating slaughter of our people. And yet, the righteousness of the cause is never questioned.

Who among us would question the appropriateness of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Who does not take pride in the seemingly miraculous victories of the Israeli Army, particularly in 1948 and 1967? Time and again, we have been taught and we have believed that God has sanctioned military action, preserving our people, or at least bolstering our pride.

As Americans, too, we cannot rightly argue that war must always be avoided at all costs. Even here in a State that was once part of the Confederacy, we have long acknowledged that the Union cause was just. President Lincoln had no moral option to armed conflict when the southern states began to secede.

American isolationism in the early days of World War II is often forgotten. If we are honest, though, we will confess that our country was two slow to join the battle against the Nazis and the Japanese Imperialists. How many Jews and other Europeans, as well as Chinese, not to mention American soldiers, died needlessly, because American did not take up the battle quickly enough?

No, Judaism is not a pacifist religion, and America is not a nation that has profited by avoiding war at all costs. I do not cite these examples because I believe war is always the correct option. Far from it. We protested the Vietnam War. We raise questions, more than a century later, about such conflicts as the Spanish-American War. When we read the Book of Esther, if we read all the way through and are aware that the Jews slaughter 75,000 near the end of the story, we are squeamish to say the least. The killing does not seem to be necessary; Esther has already saved her people.

Despite all the stories and commandments of war, we are taught “to seek peace and pursue it.” During every worship service, we pray for peace. On Shabbat, we omit most petitionary prayers, as this day is God’s day of rest, even as it is our own. Nevertheless, even on this Sabbath Day, do ask God to make peace. Peace is our greatest hope and our most fervent prayer.

But peace is not always possible. In the words of Ecclesiastes, there is “a time for war.” Eight years later, in Afghanistan, the “time for war” continues for the United States of America.

Let us never forget: On September 11, 2001, our nation was attacked, on our native soil, by an enemy bent on our destruction.

Let us never forget: That attack was planned in Afghanistan, carried out by al-Qaeda, which continues to have a significant presence in that country and in neighboring Pakistan. Al-Qaeda was and is supported by the Taliban, then Afghanistan’s government and still a threat to the stability of that country and now also of Pakistan. Together, al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue to devise evil against peace-loving men, women and children, near and far.

Let us acknowledge: The United States successfully dislodged the Taliban from rule. And yet, we have not yet succeeded to bring peace and stability to the Afghani people. We have failed to bring their tormentors, and ours, to justice. We have not succeeded to train legitimate Afghani forces to defend their own country. America has responsibilities yet to discharge in Afghanistan.

Let us acknowledge: We became so polarized over Iraq that we forgot about our own Armed Forces in Afghanistan; we forgot that our mission there is clear; one could say we forgot to win the war where we really must prevail.

Let us celebrate: Unlike in Iraq, where the United States and Great Britain have acted virtually alone, we are part of a great coalition in Afghanistan. Some sixty-plus nations have troops in Afghanistan. Though our own forces are by far the largest and most important, our allies combined rival our numbers. The world is with us in Afghanistan. We are still leading “a coalition of the willing” there.

Let us pray: Even though today is still a time for war in Afghanistan, we look forward to the day when American military men and women will come home from South Central Asia for good. We are eager for a time for peace. We pray that God will ever be at our side Partner, as we strive to bring peace to the whole world. With partnership divine and human, may we build a day when never again shall there be a time for war.