Israel is at war. Hundreds of missiles have landed in the country’s south, sirens have sounded in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and tens of thousands of Israel Defense Forces soldiers are making their way to their bases in response to the call to arms.
Jews are haunted by images of past persecution and the need to defend our country against implacable foes. Recently, someone asked me whether the definition of a Jew is someone who trains their children to have nightmares about the Holocaust. The State of Israel was created to be an antidote to that: the place where Jews can live safely and in peace. Novelist, Howard Jacobson recognized that in his description of the euphoria following the Entebbe Raid, "Hadn’t that been one of the declared aims of Zionism – the creation of a people who would no longer value themselves for the wit they brought to bear on their misfortunes".
The rabbis were not fond of war. When one sage suggested that a sword could be worn as a decorative accessory on Shabbat, the overwhelming majority of the Talmudic scholars disagreed (Mishna Shabbat VI:4). They insisted that the Torah views weapons of destruction as an undesirable necessity that will one day disappear, as the prophet Isaiah says, "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore" (Isaiah II: 4).
Maimonides too points out in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:11) that from a religious perspective, most wars and violence make very little sense. If people were wise, they would understand that we are all created by one God. Ultimately, "quarrel and fighting will come to an end, because people will then have a true knowledge of God. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
We aspire to a time of peace and observant Jews pray for it at least three times a day. However much we may like John Lennon's famous call to imagine a world with "Nothing to kill or die for," sadly, as Lennon's biographer John Blaney wrote, "Lennon knew he had nothing concrete to offer, so instead he offers a dream, a concept to be built upon." Dreams are important, we should hold on to them, and make sure that our government is doing everything possible to promote peace. Nevertheless, while hundreds of missiles are blasting into the south of the country, there are few choices. No country can tolerate continuous attacks on its civilians. Peace rallies are appropriate most of the time, but in a defensive war while our citizens are at risk, they are not helpful. As Tony Blair said of the politician who led anti-war protests in Britain, "Tony Benn was like a preacher not a general and battles are won by generals not preachers."
The obligation to protect one's civilians against violent attacks is expressed by the great nineteenth century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "Peace is a precious thing for which one may sacrifice all of one's own rights and possessions, but never the rights of others and never those values that God has declared to be good and true" (Commentary to Bamidbar XXV:12).
When war is inevitable, it must be executed courageously, but we must never forget our aspiration for peace. This was beautifully expressed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach when he entertained the troops during one of Israel's wars. A Dutch journalist asked him, "Aren’t the two sides doing the same thing – shooting at each other in a cycle of violence?" Rabbi Carlebach replied, "The difference is in their prayers. Our enemies may pray that their bullet should hit its target, but Jewish soldiers should pray that just before the bullet hits, the Messiah will come and end the war.”
When the war is over, we will have to re-explore the possibility of reaching a just peace bringing forward the time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah II: 4).
In the meantime, we must support our people and our troops under fire.
Rabbi Gideon D Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and directs the educational program of the Rene Cassin Fellowship in Judaism and Human Rights.