A broad consensus has emerged that Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and the dismantling of Gush Katif, was a catastrophe that led to three wars with Hamas. It may well lead to more. As a country that has been at war, with little respite, since its inception, what is Israel to do in an age of seeming perpetual conflict? The same question might be put to the United States, which thought it had extricated itself from Iraq only to be pulled right back into the conflict by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The United States plans to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by end of this year, but few believe that this will be the end of American involvement.
Judaism extols peace above all other goals.
But that doesn’t mean it derides the concept of defensive war. True, King David was told by God that he could not build the Temple because he had shed blood in war. It would be left to his son Solomon who was a man of peace. Yet David still has the higher place in Jewish history. The Messiah, who will one day bring lasting peace, is called the Son of David rather than the Son of Solomon because it was David’s vanquishing of the enemy that allowed for Solomon’s peace.
The same is true in American history.
George Washington was not a man of peace.
He was a man of war. He could easily have lived the peaceful life of a Virginia planter and overlooked British taxation and increasing tyranny. The Canadians did so and they do not today seem that oppressed, even with the Queen’s visage on their currency and stamps. Washington could have waited for Britain’s rule to gradually relax, as did our neighbors to the north. But it’s precisely because he didn’t that he is remembered as the father of our nation.
Lincoln was the same. Eventually, slavery would have been abolished. Many historians point out the economic ruin that slavery was bringing to the South compared to the industrialized North who had to build machines to do their work since they lacked slaves. But Lincoln saw slavery as a monstrous injustice.
Its abolition could not wait. Amazingly, he sacrificed the lives of 700,000 Americans to end the abominable practice and save the Union.
Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s is today remembered as a time of phenomenal prosperity and tranquility for America. But that’s only because he utterly vanquished the German forces of tyranny that preceded his tenure.
I’m not knocking peace. To the contrary, it was the Jews who taught a savage, barbaric and militant ancient world that peace was the highest ideal. Even the UN – no friend of Israel – acknowledges as much with its Isaiah wall and its famous quotation, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). It was the Jews who rejected the entire concept of glory deriving from the battlefield. Our greatest warrior, David, is remembered for his harp and lyre rather than his sword and shield. Our astounding military victory over the Assyrian Greeks at Hanuka in the Second Century BCE is remembered not for a triumph of arms but for allowing the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of lights.
Search the length and breadth of both ancient and modern Israel and, unlike Rome and its arches of Titus and Constantine, you will never find a single triumphant military arch. Israel today has memorials for fallen soldiers. That is all. Even the electrifying victory of the Six Day War has never been commemorated with any parades as a military triumph.
But Judaism still embraces the concept of a defensive war that protects life and facilitates peace.