War necessary and just under Jewish Law
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.