Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor: Seventy Years Later

Earlier this week, our country marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The anniversary provides us with the chance to reflect on our national and Jewish values...particularly as they apply to the question of war.

(For a broad introduction to Jewish law and what constitutes a "just" or permitted war, click here.  And click here for the landmark Reform responsum on the specific question of whether the war in Iraq meets the threshold of a Jewishly permitted war.  That document is all the more pertinent as our country marks the formal conclusion of an American military presence in Iraq over the next few weeks.)

To frame this conversation, I want to refer you to this article, which made the rounds this past week on a number of Jewish websites, written by JJ Goldberg, a prominent writer in the Jewish press.

Goldberg starts the article by insisting that we should not be afraid to use our military strength.  He does this by articulating the two fundamental lessons (that he thinks we need to learn) from Pearl Harbor (and about the related subject of America's pre-Pearl Harbor hesitation to get involved in WWII):

1) "There are times when you can't run away from a fight, when you have to stand and face evil, when nothing will do but to struggle and win."
2) "America is the essential nation.  It is not enough to be a beacon of democracy and freedom: We must be their defender as well.  There is no greatness in solitude, nor honor in indifference."

In other parts of the article, he seems to be implying that he takes this position because of the Jewish loss of six million during the Holocaust.  If the US had gotten involved in the War in Europe earlier...more lives could have been saved.  (Fascinatingly, see Rabbi Daniel Gordis' piece this week from Israel, in which he observes the opposite: while mourning the losses of Pearl Harbor, Gordis also expresses gratitude for it...because it ultimately got the US into the War and prevented the total annihilation of the Jewish people.  Which perspective speaks to you?)

Okay.  Back to J.J. Goldberg.

Remember, as I quoted above, Goldberg begins by seeming to suggest that the ultimate lesson of Pearl Harbor is that the US was too slow in using its force to police the Axis Powers.

But, at the end of the article, Goldberg seems to switch gears!  Writing about the aftermath of WWII, and our long Cold War with the Soviets, Goldberg acknowledges that: "not every foe is pure evil and not every compromise is 1938.  We used to understand that."

To me, that's a statement which argues for much more restraint regarding the use of force.

This question of what constitutes a "kosher" use of force could not be more important or relevant today.  Even as we are withdrawing our troops from Iraq, they remain in Afghanistan.  We remain unsure of a possible future war with Iran, or North Korea.  And even further down the line: China?

We hope and pray for a future filled only with peace.

But sadly, it seems to me that there will still be more wars to be fought, before the era of peace dawns.  And if that is the case, then we American Jews should take this moment to reconsider: Which of Goldberg's approaches resonates more with you, and the Jewish values you hold dear?  The former, which urges us to be fearless when it comes to exercising our military might?  Or the latter, which urges restraint?

What are the conditions that seem "just" to us in using force?  Saving more than X number of lives?  The lives of a certain race?  Or religion?  (Are we more sympathetic to the saving of Jewish lives?)  And how are our thoughts about Israel connected to all of this?  In what cases should America's military be used to protect Israel?  And when not?  And when should Israel use force?  And when not?

There are no easy answers here...only hard questions.  I welcome your thoughts either publicly here on the blog (commenting works best when you are browsing with Internet Explorer) or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi,
    this is an interesting topic. My intended reply is not to deviate from your highlights, as I will read JJ Goldberg's article as well as Rabbi Gordis article very soon.
    But hasn't the U.S. mainly stepped up to the war-room, mostly when our economic interests were/are at stake?
    Both Wall St. and our economy has generally prospered from major wars. Perhaps the exception is now, or the last few years of our economic downturn in particular. Historical stock charts reflect this. Are we the more moral nation as advertised to the world?
    Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. War Dept. rejected ship-loads of European Jews from entering the U.S. only to be returned to their despotic homes of origin, some to their deaths, others to neighboring countries who agreed to absorb them, and were then annihilated in the nazi gas chambers. Were these potential war refugees refused due to their low quotient for generating the U.S. revenue? What about the Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees circa 1980? Why did we reluctantly accept them? More potential revenue from Cuban store owners and the Cuban hard work ethic? Possibly.
    Did the U.S. enter WWI solely because the Germans sunk the British ship Lusitania which happened to have 128 Americans on-board? Or were there other economic interests at stake?
    Switching gears here once again- what the hell are our schools teaching our children regarding U.S. history, and major events such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? While driving my son to school this past Wednesday morning Dec. 7th, Pearl Harbor Day; I reminded him of the significance of the day, and how the U.S. ultimately decided to get involved into WWII. I asked my son to listen closely to discussions regarding Pearl Harbor during his day at school and involve himself in discussion where he is comfortable doing so. When I picked him up from school at day's-end, I asked him what additional tidbits he had picked up from discussions about Pearl Harbor Day with his teacher(s). He replied that there were no discussions whatsoever, and that Pearl Harbor Day wasn't mentioned even once throughout the day.
    Wow. Is this really America? Do we not want our children to be taught World history, American history, or any history whatsoever?
    I was truly in shock when my son told me how his day transpired. A U.S. public school (albeit charter school- big deal)that does not even make mention of Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7th? Unbelievable! I am still in shock.
    When I went through primary school, my teachers would not only mention it from about third grade on up, but would take time out of the day to include a lesson that was grade appropriate for the commemoration.
    Do I expect the public school system (and charter schools) to provide all the education that my son needs? Absolutely not.
    But completely erasing what is one of the nation's most historic memories is now what I would expect either. Many of the teachers and the school director are in their twenties-thirties. Maybe they were not taught history in their schooling? What a pathetic scenario. It's getting deep. We need even bigger boots than we had thought we needed.