HIROSHIMA, Japan – Having been in Seoul, South Korea for a global peace summit and to make a speech, which I delivered in Olympic Stadium, I took the onehour flight to Hiroshima, a city whose name will forever be associated with tragic victimhood of a caliber the world can scarcely comprehend. I wanted to come here to try and understand. Why did the United States – a country that I look up to as the greatest on earth – drop an atom bomb on a city which, amid having important military installations, was filled with civilians? Why was Hiroshima chosen by the United States as the target for the nuclear demonstration? How has the city recovered from something unimaginable? And what do the people living there feel toward Americans today? But I did not only come as an American. As with most of my fellow countrymen and historians, I accept that as destructive as it was, the dropping of the bomb may have saved lives. It’s estimated that, given the fanatical defense launched by the Japanese to hold on to their Pacific island possessions, a million American soldiers would have died in an amphibious invasion of the Japanese mainland.
The dropping of the bomb destroyed the Japanese will to fight, and after Nagasaki, they surrendered. No amount of debate as to the morality of the action can change the simple fact that the Japanese emperor personally intervened to stop the war after seeing the destructive power of the American doomsday weapons on his cities.
Rather, I also wanted to come to Hiroshima as a Jew who is deeply engaged in the defense of Israel in media and public forums.
At the peace summit last week a former European head of state said to me, “No one can reasonably condemn Israel for defending itself against Hamas. Nations of course have not just the right but the obligation to defend their citizens.
Rather, what I object to is the disproportionality of the response. Israel quite simply overdid it and there were far too many civilian casualties.”
While we all mourn the tragic loss of innocent Palestinian life, Hiroshima lays waste to all concepts of proportionality.
Did it take a nuclear demonstration for the Japanese to surrender? Did Truman believe that dropping two A-bombs was a proportionate response to Pearl Harbor and the fighting that followed? Here was a city pulverized in the blink of an eye, leading, all told, to 166,000 deaths. In reading Last Train to Hiroshima the full horror of the attack becomes apparent. Not only the people at ground zero of the blast, but even their cavity fillings were vaporized. There is the story of the man whom they call “the clicker” because, as he ran from the blast, miraculously surviving, his feet made a strange clicking sound. He soon discovered why. His feet had completely melted from the explosion and he was running on his ankle-bones. Then there were those vaporized so quickly that their very bodies left shadows that are still visible.
Israel also has nuclear weapons, and even with its conventional air force it could have carpet-bombed Gaza into oblivion. But it has not only never even contemplated any mass destruction of Gaza, but lost a disproportionate number of soldiers in house-to-house fighting in order to minimize civilian deaths. From the air it used precision strikes against an enemy deeply embedded into the civilian population and firing rockets from hospitals and schools.
And still, it arguably came under much more ferocious criticism for its actions than Truman ever experienced.
The peace park in Hiroshima at the hypocenter of the blast has many monuments. Amazingly, not one condemns the United States for dropping the bomb.
An IDF colonel whom we recently hosted explained to me that Israel accepts no more than a 1:2, or at most 1:3 terrorist-to-civilian casualty ratio in urban warfare, even while other Western governments absorb a rate of up to 1:10. Israel used to accept only a 1:2 ratio but it has gone up because of Hamas’ insistence of using children as bullet- proof vests.
In Hiroshima today, little of the devastation is still visible, with the notable exception of the A-Bomb dome.
Monuments to peace have replaced the ruined landscape and rubble. It seems that the devastation in Hiroshima – and indeed across Japan – was so thorough that militarism itself was defeated. Japan, like Germany, would in the future once again seek to dominate the world. But this time economically and not militarily (and in the case of Germany, on the sports field as well).
No one would even dream of suggesting, God forbid, that Israel or any other moral nation even consider Hiroshima- levels of devastation in order to vanquish a foe. To the contrary, as a Jew I take pride in the kind of restraint Israel has always shown because of Jewish teachings of the infinite value and equality of every human life, Arab and Jew alike. But we cannot pretend that such restraint does not raise its own questions.
Whenever Israel is about to demolish a genocidal foe, Western pressure forces it to stop. When Israel conquered all of Sinai in the 1956 campaign, president Eisenhower forced it to withdraw. In 1973, after seeing the Jewish state virtually destroyed in a surprise attack, Israel eventually encircled the Egyptian Third Army, which it could have annihilated if not for pressure from Henry Kissinger. The 1982 Lebanon War saw Western pressure on Israel allowing Yasser Arafat and the PLO to escape to Tunisia. And the three Gaza wars that Israel has fought against Hamas since its complete departure from the territory in 2005 have been characterized by massive international pressure on Israel to leave Hamas in power.
The net result is that militarism as an idea has never been repudiated by the Palestinians. On the contrary, they always see their aggression rewarded with further international pressure on the Jewish state.
The same considerations apply to North Korea, which I peered into from the DMZ last week. The North was never defeated. Saved by an invasion of 300,000 Chinese troops in 1951 after being routed by MacArthur and the UN (mostly American) forces, they fought on until 1953 when an armistice was signed. The North learned that brutal invasion and non-stop aggression pays. To this day the North’s principal source of food and external income is extorting the West and South Korea through nuclear saber-rattling every few years.
Franklin Roosevelt wanted peace in Europe through the defeat of Hitler. But he did not want a peace that would last five years. He wanted peace with no end. For that reason he demanded unconditional surrender, a fight to the very end so that German and Japanese thinking about advantage obtained through aggression could be forever destroyed. Few doubt that Israel will be forced back into Gaza once the murderous rockets and tunnels begin anew.
Which begs the question of how Israel can ultimately surmount the conundrum of needing to permanently destroy Hamas’ will to make war while simultaneously upholding the Jewish value of protecting the innocent civilians and safeguarding the very lives which Hamas insists on employing as human shields.The author, “America’s rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network, the international best-selling author of 30 books, he has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.