When You Go Out to War

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – August 19, 2010

“When you will go out to war against your enemies…” (Devarim 21:10).  So begins the Torah section of Ki Tetze, the reading from the Torah, the five books of Moses, that is read one week of every year by observant Jews the world over who adhere to principles and tradition laid before our ancestors by our greatest prophet and the transmitter of our laws and legacy as presented to him by our G-d, the G-d of truth, the Creator of this world.  This is read by our brethren who have the Jewish pride and strength to believe in a legacy transmitted to 600,000 of their adult male ancestors and which the descendents of those original witnesses sacrificed life and limb for generations and centuries to uphold.

This verse in the fifth book of Moses sets forth an assumption, namely that Jews will have enemies.  In fact, for several thousand years, Jews, wherever they have resided and however they have behaved, have been attacked and maimed and raped and murdered by neighboring Gentiles.

Only a few generations ago, six million Jews were systematically tortured and brutally murdered by German hate-mongers who could not stand the sight of the Jews around them, Jews who were described by many a German immigrant to the U.S. as more German than Germans.

And for as long as Jews have been a significant presence in the Land of Israel, even before Jewish statehood and before any Jewish army, their Arab neighbors have attempted to do away with that presence.  43 Jews slaughtered and 134 wounded in Jaffa, the torching and plundering of Kfar Saba and Ein Chai, destruction and 4 Jews dead in Petach Tikva and mayhem and 5 Jews dead in Jerusalem during the pogroms of 1921.  17 Jews murdered and countless knifed and beaten in Jerusalem,  Ramat Rahel on the southern border of Jerusalem burnt to the ground, Jews murdered and raped in Moza,  Hartuv razed, Migdal Eder, Kfar Uriah and Beer Tuvya destroyed, 18 Jews killed and 80 wounded during days of looting, stabbing, beating and raping in Tsfat, several killed in neighboring Ein Zeitim in the pogroms of 1929.  Of course, the pogroms of 1929 were topped by Jews in Hebron whose intestines were ripped out, whose skulls were viciously chopped up until their brains poured out,  the elderly Hebron Jew who was castrated before being killed, the young Hebron Jew whose body was found with a piece of flesh ripped from this throat, the Jewish barber of Hebron whose head was stuffed into a toilet, the Jewish Hebron woman who was hanged by her legs and whose hair was ripped from her head, the Jewish baker whose head was thrust into a lit oven, the Jewish rabbi whose left eye was ripped out and his skull smashed, the young woman teacher who was raped by thirteen Arabs before her parents’ eyes and the young Jewish Hebron girl who was stripped naked and saved from rape only when she pleaded to be killed, upon which the “merciful” Arabs proceeded to rip open her belly before the eyes of her little sister, who hid under the bed.  Later, our neighboring Arabs, who we did business with on a regular basis and whose sick our doctors treated, continued.  During massacres in Jaffa, Jerusalem and other towns in the years 1936 to 1938, 517 Jewish men, women and children were killed, countless Jews wounded and tens of millions in property damage perpetrated in a wave of Arab violence.

Of course, all know of the Arab goal to drive the Jews into the sea since the Jews committed the grave “crime” of establishing sovereignty over a little piece of land no larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.  Cold-blooded attacks, maiming and killing of Jews since Jewish statehood has been commonplace.  And when innocent Jews, men, women and children, are blown up while eating pizza or riding a school bus, Arabs are seen celebrating in the streets of their towns.  To this very day, any Jew, be he native Israeli, be he of Russian origin, be he from the U.S. visiting, religious or not, who takes a wrong turn and ends up in a Arab village rarely leaves in one piece – literally.  His bloodied body parts are usually found a day or a week later – sometimes months later.

All this was foreseen by the Torah, the Jewish heritage, our gift from our G-d handed over by our prophet Moses.  “And if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, those whom you leave shall be as pins in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will harass you upon the land in which you dwell (Bamidbar 33:55)”.  Only forced separation from our neighbors will bring peace for us and for them – no different from other peoples.  No different from the almost 50,000 Muslims sent out from western Thrace occupied by Bulgaria to go to Turkey and the almost 50,000 Bulgarians sent out from eastern Thrace occupied by Turkey to go to western Thrace, agreed upon under the 1913 Treaty of Constantinople.  No different from the reciprocal emigration of the Greek minority in Bulgaria and the Bulgarian minority in Greece, agreed upon by the 1919 Convention of Neuilly.  No different from the forced “compulsory population exchange” between Greeks and Turks, agreed upon at the 1923 Lausanee Convention and accepted by the League of Nations.  No different from the separation of those of German origin from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference of August 1945.  No different from the separation after World War II of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India or the further movement of 6 million Muslims from India for West Pakistan and 4.5 million Hindu refugees from West Pakistan in addition to another 8 million Hindus and Muslims who moved between India and East Pakistan.  All this served to save years of bloodshed and millions of lives.

In some cases, even separation does not suffice.  At the end of the same Torah reading quoted above, Jews are warned to “wipe out the remembrance of Amalek” (Devarim 25:19).  And Amalek is not just some long extinct people and therefore irrelevant.  One of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 19th century, the world-renown rabbi of Brisk, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, is reported to have commented that the precept to annihilate Amalek does not extend only to genealogical descendants of that ancient people but includes all who embrace the ideology of Amalek and seek to destroy the people of Israel (Torah she-Baal Peh annual of 5731 and Or Ha-Mizrah, Tevet 5731).  When dealing with such opponents, we must not let up – for our own survival.  The most famous Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud, Rashi quotes the Sages’ statement in Tanchuma (15): “Do not have mercy on them for they will not have mercy on you”.  The Chazon Ish unequivocally states this to be a milchemet mitzvah – a war that we are commanded by the Torah to engage in (Orach Chayyim-Moed 114:2).  When we are faced with an intolerable adversary, we must confront him with overpowering force – no different from other peoples.  No different from the Allies when confronted with Hitler and Mussolini.  No different from the U.S. when confronted with Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein.

The sources of our own Jewish religion, given to us by G-d Himself, are sufficiently informative, the prophets of our own Jewish religion are sufficiently eminent, and the famed scholars of our own Jewish religion, inspired by those sources and prophets, are sufficiently great in intelligence and character, that we need not come on to other religions and their representatives nor need we come on to alleged representatives of own religion who demonstrate abject ignorance of its sources or the views of famed scholars who make them pale in comparison.

It might be all rosy and nice if everyone would be wonderful and understanding and a little dialog and repartee will solve all disagreements and discomfort.  It would also be all rosy and nice if everyone could lie on the beach indefinitely and not get sunburned.  But such is not the case.  The nature of the human being does not always abide by our desires, no more than the nature of the sun’s rays abides by our desires.  And if one chooses to be an ostrich, dig his head into the ground and ignore the laws of nature, whether psychological or physical, he or she should not be surprised upon a sudden shortness of breath as the hunter slices his throat.