Judaism and Just War: The Case of the 1991 Gulf War

Reference: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

By Al Vorspan and David Saperstein

This excerpt from Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time uses the 1991 Gulf War as an example to address the question of how Judaism reconciles hopes for peace with the use of military force when the situation requires it.

In the winter of 1998, Washington, D.C. was awash with rumors and speculation about a sex scandal which, some believed, would threaten the Presidency itself. But urgent world affairs did not wait for the scandal to reach its legal and political denouement. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein defied the United Nations and threw out the international inspectors who, according to the cease-fire terms reached after the Gulf War in 1991, are charged with the responsibility of inspecting, monitoring, and destroying that nation’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including biological, chemical, and nuclear devices. Lacking the international coalition which was able to evict Saddam from Kuwait the last time, weakened by his domestic crisis, President Clinton sought to rally American public opinion. Should the Jewish community support the projected air war? If so, on what grounds? Or should we have joined those voices demanding a negotiated settlement? Or should we have kept silent and why?

It has been argued that the above dilemma is really a no-brainer, that the value of peace has the highest priority in the Jewish value system, and that therefore Jews should be peacemakers on issues of foreign policy. This would be a valid argument if we conclude that Judaism is a pacifist faith and therefore we Jews, like Quakers, would automatically line up against the use of force or violence.

Jewish tradition does not glorify war or extol the warmaker. In Jewish history, the heroes are sages and saints, rarely warriors. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, for example, is revered for his nonviolent triumph over Roman might. The historian Josephus reminds us of Jewish nonviolent resistance to the bloody Caligula. King David himself was not permitted to build the Temple because his hands had spilled blood in battle. A talmudic story depicts God rebuking the angels of heaven for bursting into songs of joy when the Red Sea closed on the drowning Egyptian pursuers: “My creatures are perishing and you want to sing praises!” (B. Talmud, Megillah 10b).

Likewise, Chanukah, because it originally celebrated a military victory, was virtually ignored by Jews until it was transformed into a holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple. It is no accident that, on the Sabbath during Chanukah, Jews recite the passage: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Adonai” (Zechariah 4:6). The Book of Proverbs declares: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21). And in the same spirit we are taught, “Rejoice not when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:17).

With the destruction of the Jewish state in 70 C.E., the prophetic vision of peace became the dream of the Jewish people. Whether by ideology or by external circumstances, military action by the Jewish community almost completely ceases from the end of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. until the 18th century enlightenment allowed Jews to participate as citizens of the nations in which they lived. Only in the 20th century, in their struggle for Israel and resisting the Nazis did Jewish communities go to “war.” The ideal of universal peace had become the hope, and at times, the mission of the people of Israel.

The Apocrypha, the Midrash, and the Talmud place a high priority on the ideal of peace. Indeed, no subject of morality is accorded such depth of feeling and passion of conviction as the value of world peace. Jews are taught not merely to love peace but to “pursue it.” Israel’s majestic contribution to civilization was the inspired vision of a universal peace, not only for Israel but for all peoples. Micah’s prophecy casts a ray of hope across the millennia:

And God shall judge between many peoples,
And shall decide concerning mighty nations afar off;
And 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.
(Micah 4:3)

This attitude, so basic to Judaism, was strikingly reaffirmed in the classical rabbinic period:

    Great is peace, for all blessings are contained in it, as it is written . . . Seek peace and pursue it (Psalms 34:15). Great is peace, for God’s name is peace (Leviticus Rabbah, Tzav, 19:9). The Law does not command you to run after or pursue the other commandments, but only to fulfill them upon the appropriate occasion. But peace you must seek in your own place and pursue it even to another place as well (Numbers Rabbah, Hukkat, 19:27).

But the tradition did not rest content with generalities; it was very specific about applying these ideals to daily life. Thus, for example, while Judaism does recognize the duty of a person to preserve his or her own life and defend others, it is very specific in prohibiting the shedding of innocent blood.
Judaism further insists that, even in the most clear-cut case of self-defense against a precisely identified assailant, the use of excessive violence is not to be sanctioned:

It has been taught by Rabbi Jonathan b. Saul: If one was pursuing his fellow to slay him, and the pursued could have saved himself by maiming a limb of the pursuer but instead killed his pursuer, the pursued is subject to execution on that account (Sanhedrin 74a).

During the agony of the Vietnam War, which split Americans like no issue since the Civil War, many Jewish young men invoked the Jewish teachings cited above to win conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war. The UAHC and the CCAR opposed the war as a violation of both Jewish and American principles and we tried to establish the principle of selective conscientious objection for young Jewish men who were pacifists in general but were deeply opposed to that particular war.

But if the Vietnam war was immoral and destroyed two countries –Vietnam and America — did that mean that every war was wrong, that force was never justified, that the spilling of blood was never necessary to avert an even greater evil?

In our paradoxical history, in which Jews dreamed of peace but frequently fought wars, how are these two realities reconciled? An evaluation of the 1991 Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, provides an insight into the substance, and the relevancy, of the Jewish balance struck through its creation of rules regulating when wars could be fought and how they must be fought.
The Gulf War and the Jewish Community
A Real Dilemma: Should the UAHC Support War in the Gulf?

In December 1990, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) [today the Union for Reform Judaism] Board of Trustees met to consider whether or not to support President Bush in his threat to use force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. “Seeking peace,” organizations like the UAHC and other Jewish bodies vigorously opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, strongly criticized the escalating defense budgets of the 1980s, and called for arms control agreements to reduce the number of nuclear and conventional armaments proliferating throughout the world.

Could these same Jewish organizations, long identified with antiwar positions, justify a position in 1991 as enthusiastic supporters of President Bush in his military campaign to reverse Iraqi aggression against Kuwait? Was it simply that, unlike the Vietnam War in which Israel was not directly involved, Israel’s very survival was seen to be at stake in the Gulf War? And, if that was the reason for passionate Jewish support, weren’t columnists like Pat Buchanan basically correct in asserting that American Jews were for the Gulf War because of their commitment to Israel?

If you were a UAHC board member, how would you have voted? Why?

The board voted overwhelmingly to support the United Nations vote and the leadership of President Bush in resisting Saddam Hussein’s aggression. In fact, most American Jews were unashamedly concerned about Israel’s survival in a region dominated by a dangerous tyrant brandishing an arsenal of conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons and proudly affirming his plan to “incinerate half of Israel.” But Jews and non-Jews alike also believed that fundamental American interests were at stake in the Gulf. Saddam Hussein was viewed as a threat to all the nations in the region and therefore to the peace of the world. Also, America had a duty to protect the oil supplies vital to the free world and to America.

Did the Gulf War make Israel safer? Obviously, yes, by weakening Saddam Hussein. Did it, as President Bush predicted, open a window of opportunity for peace in the Middle East? The enhanced credibility of the United States with the Arab countries was certainly responsible in large measure for their willingness to engage in the peace process.

History, as always, will be the final judge of the efficacy and morality of the Gulf War. Will it be seen as the start of a new world order or just business as usual? On the one hand, we had believed that our war was not against the Iraqi people but only against its leader and armed forces. Now it turns out that, in some ways, it was the other way around. The tyrant is still in power, defying the United Nations, stonewalling its resolutions, negotiating with world leaders, spewing venom against Israel, threatening the Kurdish minority, playing hide-and-seek with his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and maintaining its extended-range missile capacity. At the same time, the impact of the war and the subsequent international sanctions on the Iraqi people, was and is, savage. How many hundreds of thousands were killed? How many children died from hunger and disease?

On the other hand, Iraq’s biological and chemical arsenal, which it obviously had no qualms about using against its neighbors, Arab or Jewish, was at least partially destroyed. And, while Saddam concealed some of his nuclear materials, many of his facilities were damaged. The United Nations was revived as a force for world peace and international law, and the allies intervened to provide some protection, albeit short-lived, for the Kurds in the north against the Iraqi army. Saddam’s position was clearly weakened, particularly in the face of continuing economic restrictions from the international community.

The Jewish Tradition and the Gulf War

Looking back at the Gulf War provides a fascinating case study of how the rules of the Jewish tradition on warfare can be applied to contemporary warfare. Jewish rules and regulations of war fall into two categories: first, the different kinds of war and the justification and authority to wage them; second, the rules of how warfare should be fought. Together, these two categories of rules comprise what in Christian and secular terms is called “just war” theory.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Gulf War was how often the “just war” theory was invoked in discussing the war. Unlike earlier wars in this century, in which international norms were generally discussed only after the war was over, the prosecution of the Gulf War repeatedly involved politicians justifying their actions on the basis of just war theory, including the moral rightness of using force instead of sanctions and the appropriate amount of force necessary to achieve various goals of the war.

In light of widespread opposition of mainstream Protestant and Catholic communities to the war, at the same time that there was decisive Jewish community approval of the war, it is interesting to note both the similarities and contrasts between Christian and Jewish “just war” theory.

As indicated above, “just war” theory involves: (1) moral justification for beginning the war and (2) moral means in fighting the war. As to the question of a moral justification for fighting wars, both the Jewish and Christian traditions say that the underlying cause for the war must be just. Self-defense in general, or defense of an innocent bystander (i.e. Kuwait) would be a valid criterion in both traditions. But one relevant contrast between the two traditions does emerge: the issue of who is qualified to declare war. Christianity presumes that competent authority to declare war can vest in the executive (king, president, prime minister, etc.) of the polity alone. Judaism requires that, in an offensive war, there must be some check on the prerogative of the military or executive authority to wage war. In ancient times, that check came through the approval of the Sanhedrin much as the U.S. Constitution requires the approval of Congress. In this instance, such approval was forthcoming in the “use of force” debate and vote of Congress in December 1990.

There are also several interesting contrasts between the various traditions on when and how to wage war. First, the Christian tradition advocates the use of force only as a last resort. By such a standard, the argument for giving sanctions against Iraq more time to work would have been compelling. Judaism maintains only that a good-faith effort must be made to avoid war. Some strands of the halachah interpret this as requiring an effort for a peaceful resolution of at least three days before an attack; others maintain a requirement to sue for peace on three consecutive days. On this basis, repeated and much publicized American efforts to avoid war in the Gulf clearly would appear to have met the Jewish tradition’s requirements even while they failed the Christian standards.

Second, both traditions have a preeminent concern to protect civilian life. The Jewish tradition says that a city should not be surrounded on all sides so that those who wish to flee might do so. When a city is conquered, the noncombatants, particularly women and children, are given stringent protection. By this standard, the stated concern of the allied troops to protect civilian lives was in vivid moral contrast to brutal and intentional Iraqi scud missile attacks on the civilian center of cities in Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as the conquest of Kuwait itself.

Third, Christianity requires a test of proportionality (i.e., that force necessary to achieve a military objective is permissible). Although some strands of Jewish thought seem congenial to this idea, the Jewish tradition is less concerned about proportion than it is with deciding which categories of targets are subject to attack and which are not. No force could be used against certain targets (such as innocent civilians and fruit-bearing trees) except in specified exceptional circumstances. Conversely, no limitation on force is set for appropriate targets. In this sense, the saturation bombings of military targets that some Christian thinkers described as disproportionately excessive might well be permitted by the halachah.

Fourth, Judaism is unique in its concern for non-human targets. In Deuteronomy 20:19, we are told to spare the enemy city’s fruit trees: “for is the tree of the field human to withdraw into the city before you?” This important law is called bal tashchit, or “do not destroy.” The Talmud extends bal tashchit to a wide range of activities in civilian life, reasoning that if we can’t destroy in war, how much more should we not destroy in peacetime.
In the military context, bal tashchit forbids destroying anything indispensable to renewal of civilian life. In the late 1960s, Jewish peace activists cited this law as they decried “deforestation,” the destruction of Vietnam’s wilderness along with its people. Bal tashchit can also be applied to the Gulf War: Saddam Hussein’s wanton destruction of the environment through oil spills and fires was a gross and flagrant violation of Jewish law. The pulverizing allied bombing of civilian targets aimed at crippling the economic, health, housing, electrical, and water infrastructure of Iraqi society is also inconsistent with Jewish tradition.
From Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice — Tough Moral Choices of Our Time by Al Vorspan and David Saperstein.