Nothing Personal / The Wars and the Jews

Like some other post-Cold War theories, like the end of history and the end of science, the clash of civilizations has taken a hammering for being too contrived, or too monolithic, in attempting to assess the grand sweep of 21st century world affairs.

Thomas O'Dwyer
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Thomas O'Dwyer

"Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

So wrote Prof. Samuel P. Huntington in the opening paragraphs of his famous paper "The Clash of Civilizations" in the summer issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, 10 years ago. Like some other post-Cold War theories, like the end of history and the end of science, the clash of civilizations has taken a hammering for being too contrived, or too monolithic, in attempting to assess the grand sweep of 21st century world affairs and history in the making.

Especially critical were Muslims who objected to Huntington's contention that "Islam has bloody borders." By this he meant, as he explained in an interview: "If you look around the borders of the Muslim world, you find a whole series of local conflicts involving Muslims and non-Muslims - Bosnia, Kosovo, the Caucasus, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Kashmir, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, North Africa, Palestine-Israel - but Muslims also fight Muslims, and much more than the people of other civilizations fight each other.

"You may have Muslims fighting Westerners, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists - but there are a billion Muslims in the world, stretching across the Eastern hemisphere from Western Africa to eastern Indonesia, and they interact with dozens of different peoples. So they have more opportunity to clash with others."

In any case, he pointed out that Islam, a religion that did set out to spread itself by the sword, has a long way to go before it slaughters as many people as Christianity, a religion founded by a Jewish pacifist who said "put up your sword, for he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword." Go figure, as the Americans say.

At the time of writing, the heated debates on the second Gulf war were already over as we waited for Saddam's shoe to drop, but oddly enough the almost unheard debate had been the one between Jews for war and Jews against war.

While there were occasional and surprisingly strident anti-war opinions in the Hebrew media, and one anti-war march in Tel Aviv, the general smug acquiescence of the Israeli public - and the barely concealed glee of the generals - to the invasion of Iraq has been pathetic. But then, perhaps it's no more pathetic than the smug acquiescence and unconcern about the steadily mounting Palestinian civilian casualties and the incarceration of an entire nation behind a wall of steel and blatant racism.

If I were a law-abiding Iraqi citizen in Baghdad I might take some wry comfort in thumbing through a copy of The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, as he pondered the folly of a little nation taking up arms against a great empire. In a speech attributed to Agrippa II, counseling the Jews against the war, Josephus wrote: "The only refuge left to you then, is divine assistance. But even this is ranged on the side of the Romans, for without God's aid so vast an empire could never have been built up."

If there's some pious Iraqi Josephus out there in Karbala or Basra, he may also conclude fatalistically that the subjugation of Iraq to Emperor Dubya is also part of God's plan. To rebel against whatever arrogant Roman rules the roost of the day is to rebel against God himself, as Josephus thought.

"That it [Judea] owed its ruin to civil strife, and that it was the Jewish tyrants who drew down upon the holy temple the unwilling hand of the Romans and the conflagration, is attested to by Titus Caesar himself," wrote Josephus - and he would no doubt say the same of the Iraqi tyrants of the Hussein clan today. Did someone suggest history has ended?

But enough of the lofty metaphors - after all, we're dealing with one-syllable, one-thought G.W. Bush here. This past week he increasingly and visibly left all explanations to the public - even his own - to be done by the passionate and brilliantly articulate Tony Blair, who continued to win an an admiration that was not even grudging from those who disagreed fervently with him about the morality of this "kick some ass and grab the gas" war.

"If we were right we'd have more allies," quipped one peace activist on CNN. When morality becomes irrelevant, you can bet there's some religion or other around to benefit. Sure enough, bumper stickers have been sighted in red-neck land that ask the devout to ponder, "Who would Jesus bomb?"

Given the serious morality issues of this war - unlike the first Gulf war which was a clearly mandated and just liberation of occupied Kuwait - the paucity of public Jewish debate on the matter has been startling, but there has been some. It mostly swirled around a comment made by the Democrat congressman from Virginia, Jim Moran (or is that Moron?) who insinuated that Jews were controlling America's move to war with Iraq.

"If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should."

It's not a good thing to be a Democrat and find yourself on the same wavelength as Pat Buchanan, even a Buchanan coming out against the war - a man on the right side for all the wrong reasons, like a sort of reverse of Tony Blair who was on the wrong side for all the right reasons.

Here was Buchanan: "We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America's interests. We charge them with colluding with Israel to ignite those wars..." Don't they just love that word "cabal?"

Diaspora Jews against the war with Iraq found themselves caught between two worlds. On the one hand, they had to confront the anti-Israel sentiment that was clearly visible among anti-war activists, some of whom have tried to harness the cause to Palestinian concerns. Many in the Jewish community were even more alienated by the strident anti-Israel agenda of Answer, a group that organized several of the major anti-war rallies, including the huge protest in Washington last October.

As war loomed, it appeared that the worries of most American Jews were about what might happen in Israel. However, it was little noted that the families of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews had a more immediate worry - for this is the number of Jews believed to be in the United States military. (The military does not count people by ethnic or religious persuasion.)

One of those tasked with looking after the spiritual welfare of Jewish believers at war is Rabbi Carlos Huerta, a chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. He left last week along with the legendary 101st Airborne Division, which will be at the front of the thrust deep into Iraq.

Huerta, 52, who was ordained at Jerusalem's Yeshiva Or HaTorah, and who entered the rabbinate after a career in the military, is one of 27 Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, and like the rest of them, he caters to the spiritual needs of the soldiers no matter what their religion. "God forbid I look at a soldier of a different faith and say, `I don't want to serve you because I don't believe what you believe,'" he commented to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently. And he scorned any "hero" label - "I'm just sand on a beach of heroes."

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