When you go out to wage war upon your enemies, G-d will deliver them in your hands – opening of this week’s Torah portion
Why is there is such a disagreement between intelligent people about the strategy for peace in Israel and about the war on terror perpetrated by Muslim extremists?
One side argues that we need to sit down with both parties and hammer out a deal. They argue the need for diplomacy, negotiations and concessions on both sides. A second school of thought adamantly disagrees and feels that we need to show strength, even it requires military action, and it would be a disaster to take the path of appeasement or compromise.
[There is of course a third category of people who simply would prefer to ignore the entire issue. For obvious reasons, this column is not addressing this attitude].
What lies at the root of these differences? If both sides are committed to peace and co-existence, why are their positions so diametrically opposed?
Some argue that the disagreement (which many feel is generally the difference between much of Europe and the United States, or to a greater extent the split between the West and the Russians and Chinese) is rooted in self-interest: European – and to a stronger degree: Russian and Chinese – oil interests are economically entwined with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. The United States sees its self interest served by confronting Iran and other extremist regimes in the Middle East. Some add, that America’s enormous power allows it the confidence to take on any global challenge, presently, Iran. Europe on the other hand does not wield such power, so they inevitably take on a more conciliatory and compromising stance. (See Two Faces of Esau).
Others chalk it up to plain anti-Semitism. Some of those advocating that Israel not use force (or “disproportionate” force, whatever that means) are just masking in “humanitarian” terms their antipathy to Israel and their belief that Israel is an “occupier” of Palestinian land. The argument goes (though rarely explicitly stated), that had Israel not existed in the first place we wouldn’t have all our problems with the Muslim world. On the other side, the American Christian Right, for instance, are fiercely pro-Israel and anti any concessions of land to the Arab world.
All these reasons may be valid, but there is something deeper.
May I submit that perhaps the root difference lies in two contrary perspectives on the nature of man and consequentially, two opposite visions of the world’s future.
Some believe that the human being is at heart an animal, albeit an evolved intelligent one, but nevertheless at the core humans are driven by the narcissistic survival drive (“survival of the fittest”). Allow the “id” out of the box and humans can perpetrate terrible atrocities against each other. Their intelligence, when distorted, can turn them into barbarians, far worse than the most aggressive natural predator. (see at length Psychology Today).
The logical conclusion of this perspective – which may be coined the Darwinian-Freudian model – is that the world will never change much. We will forever be plagued by war, violence and narrow-minded hatred. Despite moment of respite, people will inevitably gravitate back to their innate animal-like natures, always pitted against each other. Given, there are many good and noble people, but a large part (the majority?) the world’s population are selfish, petty and discriminate against each other.
According to this view, history is the greatest witness to the fact that people have always been at war with each other. People have done terrible things to each other. Thus it was and thus it will be. The only difference between one war and another is the time, place and the name of the empires and countries involved.
This school of thought argues that there will always be nations and cultures that will be dictatorial, autocratic and ruled not by democracy, but by a minority in power. Some regions will always be ruled by religious forces. Most of the Arab/Muslim countries fall into this category.
This world view dictates that the best strategy is to tolerate the powers that be, as long as they don’t cross certain lines (or even if they do). Even if we disagree with the totalitarian policies of these countries it is better to live with the known evil – which lends a certain level of stability – rather than upset the balance and then have to deal with the unpredictable and unstable unknown. Case in point: Iraq.
The argument goes: Since we don’t really believe that we can ever wipe away evil and ever put a stop to the unending, inherent greedy grab for power and control, we must make the best with what we have, to ensure a relatively stable world.
Of course, once in a while, when a Hitler emerges who refuses to maintain the status quo and demonstrates his real wishes to annihilate the free world, it becomes clear that there is no choice but to wage total war with the demand for unconditional surrender and the overthrow of the existing destructive regime.
But as long as it does not come to a blatant attack as perpetrated by the Nazis, we have to make the best with existing circumstances.
According to this rather somber – or some would call: resigned – world view, diplomacy, the U.N. and politics plays an important role of maintaining the fragile balance. (Of course those that feel this way will call themselves “realistic,” not fatalistic).
[Another variation of this way of thinking holds that a strong military is necessary to serve as a deterrent to the self-interest, which can lead to cruelty, innate in human nature].
Then there is a diametric opposite view of the human being and vision of the future. One that believes that we are fundamentally good people, driven to achieve heightened states of consciousness and discover harmony. Survival is a definite part of the human experience, but transcendence is ultimately more dominant.
Thus, the firm belief is that we will achieve global peace, and we will create a world in which war and injustice is entirely eliminated. This view, therefore, feels that everything possible must be done to help bring about a new era of universal peace and global co-existence, even if it means confronting and overturning existing regimes and causing short term unrest. The temporary pain is worth it because of the long term good that it will achieve.
Is it possible that some of those advocating appeasement simply do not believe that the world can ever fundamentally change for the better? Do they possibly not have confidence in the power of the human spirit to prevail over the material ego; that the power of love can prevail over the love of power? Is it conceivable that today’s disagreements about the attitude to the Muslim world and its war against Israel are rooted in these two different world visions?
Some will argue that one can embrace the second school of thought – the firm belief in a utopian future – and still not need to go to war against the totalitarian regimes. The best approach, they argue, to affect change in the Middle East regimes, is through peaceful dialogue, diplomacy, political and cultural exchange, not through aggression. On the contrary, the thinking goes: Since we believe in the inherent goodness of man, our ultimate solution will be achieved through peaceful interventions, not through war.
The problem is what is to be done when Muslim fundamentalists brazenly attack innocent people – whether they are in Israel, India, Spain, New York or Great Britain?
Can you just negotiate with a Hitler who declares his intention of annihilating you? Can diplomacy work with a group which explicitly calls for your destruction?
What this really comes down to is finding the unique combination, the delicate balance, between a profound belief in the magnificence of the human spirit and a beautiful future, and a sober recognition of human frailty and that we are not quite there yet.
It requires the humble wisdom of knowing when to go to battle against destructive forces, while retaining conviction in the goodness of man. Indeed, because of the love of beauty and faith in the greatest possibilities, we sadly have to at times do what it takes to fight when mans’ most base elements emerge. No different than, say, a loving parent who must discipline a delinquent child out of love and confidence in the child’s potential goodness.
The opening of this week’s Torah portion captures the subtle balance:
When you go out to wage war upon your enemies, G-d will deliver them in your hands.
The two operative phrases are “go out” and “upon,” seemingly superfluous terms. The Torah is telling us that “war,” even when necessary, is not the natural state of affairs. The inherent nature of existence is good. But at times, when you must battle forces that conceal that goodness, you “go out” – outside of your inherent nature – to wage battle. And therefore you always remain “upon” – above and more powerful – than “your enemies.” Even when you fight your adversary, you never become defined by it. Even as you wage war you always remain above it.
Diplomacy is fine – if it isn’t a smokescreen masking a philosophy of resignation and fear. A peaceful approach must come from a position of strength, coupled with the courage to go to war if necessary – in the firm belief that we can and will build a better world.
The month of Elul, in which now find ourselves, offers us this option: The absolute belief in the human spirit, the power of infinite hope, as reflected in Moses’ relentless efforts to achieve reconciliation following betrayal (as discussed in last’s week’s article).
Elul offers us a vision of the future – of a world which diverse nations will live in complete peace, without hate, war and discrimination. An absolute certainty that we can create such a world, and we will do whatever it takes to achieve it.
If necessary, we will not shrink away from battling the forces that want to destroy the foundations of civilization – the Divine dignity of each and every person, regardless of background. Of course, this commitment includes every possible effort to help inspire, through discussion and diplomacy, all countries, cultures and religions of the world to revolutionize their educations systems so that they not teach hate, destruction and deification of martyrdom through killing innocent people.
But, diplomacy cannot compromise the protection of the innocent. Discussions are only possible when we are not under the gun. As long as there are looming threats of terror everything must be done to eliminate the enemy. Yet, we must never forget that our war is not merely against others and their distorted ideology; it is a war for an ideology. It is not merely a defensive battle, but a proactive, offensive one: To build a world the way G-d intended – a world in which all G-d’s creatures live in complete harmony.
A universe in which there will be no more evil and destruction, because it will be “filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”