From Pharoh to Milosevic: Evil and the Use of Force
By Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch
Four days before Passover the Washington Post reported that Yugoslav forces systematically marked the doors of Serbian homes in Pristina, the Kosovo capital in order to identify the occupants as Serbs. Advancing Serbian paramilitary groups later "passed over" the Serbian households while their agents of death burned, looted and destroyed ethnic Albanian families.
For Jews, this moral depravity is unbearable. In the biblical Passover it was the slaves, who in the cause of freedom, marked their door-posts so that the angel of death would pass over the houses of the oppressed during the tenth and final plague on Egypt.
If there is one paramount lesson of Passover, if there is one fundamental Jewish experience, it is this: In every age, every person should regard himself as if he was personally redeemed from Egypt. For Jews, oppression of any kind is personal. We violate our heritage when we stand silent in the face of persecution. "Silence is like agreement," warns the Talmud.
The crimes committed in Kosovo are all the more appalling in their similarity to our own experience in Europe during this century. To even attempt to describe them in words diminishes their horror.
How the Jewish heart weeps to see the images of people herded into cattle cars simply because they are of one ethnic background. How we are repulsed to read of mass killings, parents murdered in front of their children; children murdered in front of their parents, men and women, husbands and wives separated and lost to each other; refugees roaming the hills of Europe, desperate for food and water, warmth and human compassion. It is all too familiar.
One would expect that Jews would be relieved that modern Western powers, in using force to prevent further atrocities, are doing precisely what we Jews begged them to do during the Holocaust. At that time, they refused to intervene until it was too late. They had all kinds of excuses then - ranging from internal politics to geopolitical interests. But they refused to use force when the use of force could have prevented catastrophe. Now, whether due to geopolitics, or perhaps because the West actually learned a lesson from the Holocaust, it is trying to prevent atrocity while it may still be possible.
One would expect strong vocal Jewish support for NATO's current campaign. Sure, there are legitimate concerns about military strategy. Perhaps some critics are correct in pointing out that we could have negotiated more effectively. Who really knows, especially without the benefit of hindsight. Some critics continue to be convinced that economic sanctions on Belgrade would have eventually brought Siobodan Milosevic to his knees.
We must remain skeptical. We know from history that dictators of Milosevic's type rarely succumb to diplomatic niceties or economic sanctions. Cruelty comes naturally to the tyrant, and he will not cease oppressing until compelled to do so by force.
Jews remember that the first tyrant, Pharoh, was initially faced with economic pressure. The plagues limited his food and water. The purpose was to make life difficult for the population in the hopes that Pharoh would be moved by pity for his own people.
But Milosevic-type dictators rarely care about the sufferings of their countrymen, just about control and power. Only when Pharoh's army was destroyed, did he cease his reckless pursuit of murder and slavery.
This is why we as Jews must strongly support NATO's campaign. Moreover, if our political and military leaders were to make a credible argument that the only way to ultimately stop Milosevic would be to send in ground troops, we should support that as well. With NATO's credibility on the line, allowing victory to a dictator committing ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe would endanger millions of people for years to come.
And morally, if Jews have a unique role to play in the world, it is to stand for the proposition that murder, slavery and oppression should be wiped from the face of the earth. "You shall burn out evil from your midst," states the Bible.
Judaism abhors war. Conquests were rarely glorified in our tradition. King David, the progenitor of the messiah himself, was disqualified from building God's Temple because his hands were awash in blood. Even the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea was a cause for mourning. One tradition recalls how God admonished the Israelites for rejoicing at Egypt's destruction. These, too, were God's children.
Judaism's understanding of the new world order is defined not in geopolitical terms but in moral ones. The lion will lie down with the lamb, and none will be afraid.
However, our tradition also emphasizes that we must relate to the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Judaism's response to evil is not turning the other cheek. The lives of the peaceful are no less worthy than those who love war. Therefore the Jewish response is "if one arises to kill you, get up earlier and kill him first."
Recently, a group calling itself, "The Coalition for Peace in the Balkans", recently bought a full-page advertisement in The New York Times with the blaring headline: GOD WILL BLESS YOU, PRESIDENT CLINTON, IF YOU DROP FOOD, NOT BOMBS. Sadly, "peace" in the Balkans cannot be brought about by dropping food on Milosevic.
There are times when confronted with a tyrant who shows no restraint or human remorse, who is unmoved by all other means, that force is the only option. This is the path to peace in the Balkans. The use of force to prevent wide-scale murder, torture, displacement and ethnic cleansing is a blow for peace.
Jewish tradition states: "All that is recorded in the Torah is written for the sake of peace; and although warfare is recorded in the Torah, even warfare is recorded for the sake of peace." It is for the sake of peace that we must fully support the NATO campaign in the former Yugoslavia.
The effort to draw some kind of moral equivalence between NATO's bombing and Serbian ethnic cleansing is also profoundly disturbing. Some have gone so far as to accuse NATO of causing the refugee crisis. What kind of moral cloudiness encourages this approach? Is it not clear to all who have eyes to see that the ethnic cleansing campaign was prepared by Milosevic well in advance of the bombing? Do these critics make no distinction between the arsonist and the fireman? There is a profound difference between the use of force to liberate and wielding the sword of conquest.
The observation that the United States intervenes in some places and not others does not, in and of itself, detract from the moral imperative to save lives. The mere fact that intervention by force is not applied in all cases, does not negate the morality of intervention in some cases.
The civilized world should be proud of American leadership. Even in foreign policy, the United States has shown the rarest of attributes - humanistic and moral concern for the lives and happiness of fellow human beings. Again and again, sometimes effectively and sometimes regrettably not, the United States has stood for freedom, compassion and honor.
It was Abraham Lincoln who urged his fellow citizens: "We cannot escape history…we will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation. The way is plain…a way if which followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."
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