An Imperfect World
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
Rosh Hashanah 5774/2013
Moishe was a perfectly righteous man, a Jew who observed every one of the 613 commandments of Judaism. He lived a life without the slightest blemish, completely free from sin. When he died, he presented himself at Heaven’s gates, expecting to be admitted without delay. To his consternation, the angel in charge refused him entry. His name was not on the celestial admission list. “How can that be?!” Moishe demanded. “I lived a blameless life. I observed all the mitzvot and others God didn’t even command! If I don’t qualify for Heaven, who does?!” “Please understand,” the angel replied. “There are many famous people here: Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Oscar Schindler, Golde Meir, Mother Teresa, even the Lubavitcher Rebbe. None of them was perfect like you. All of them sinned. They’d be very uncomfortable having you around.”
We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. I don’t know whom I’ll meet in Heaven, or if I’ll go to Heaven, or even if there is a Heaven, which I seriously doubt, since that’s not really a Jewish concept, though I would love to be pleasantly surprised. What I do know is that my life is filled with good, regular but flawed human beings like me and you, and with a few well known persons, too, whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting since I became president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. One of them, Pope Francis, I will be telling you about on Yom Kippur. Tonight, in light of recent and impending events in the Middle East and the momentous decisions our nation faces, I begin with another: King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Abdullah succeeded to the throne after the death of his father, King Hussein, in 1999, becoming the fourth king in the Hashemite family line. Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1994, but were de facto security and intelligence allies for some years before that milestone event. Subsequently, they have drawn even closer as the Middle East disintegrated. Jordan’s stability is a matter of vital strategic significance to Israel. The two nations literally have each other’s back.
Abdullah heads a state whose population is more than half Palestinian, but the power behind the throne rests with the heads of a number of large tribes residing east of the Jordan River, tribes arguably more powerful than the king himself and whose support for the royal court comes at a steep price in patronage. Jordan has a prime minister and a parliament, but the king can fire the first and dissolve the second as he chooses. The most formidable political organization in Jordan, and the party holding the most seats in parliament, is the Islamic Action Front, an entity controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. We need look no farther than Egypt to understand the danger that represents. If King Abdullah were to fall and Islamist forces seized control of Jordan, it would pose a lethal danger to Israel, the already destabilized region, and America’s vital interests.
I was among a dozen American Jewish leaders who met with Abdullah in late March in Washington. Fifty-one years old, a graduate of England’s elite Sandhurst Military Academy, a veteran commander in the Royal Jordanian special forces and a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Abdullah is a short man, but vigorous and fit, exhibiting features common to heads of state: gravitas, grey hair, a touch of weariness and wariness, and a wrinkled brow.
The primary focus of the March meeting was Abdullah’s concern about the situation in Syria. Even before the recent chemical weapons atrocity, half a million Syrian refugees, fleeing the chaos in their own country, had flooded Jordan, and six months later no end is in sight to the conflict or the exodus. Jordan lacks the infrastructure, funds, food and water needed to shelter so many unfortunate and uninvited visitors. In a meeting two weeks ago at the Israeli Embassy with Israel’s national security advisory, Major General Yaakov Amidror, and Ambassador Michael Oren, we learned that Israel is quietly supporting Jordan with water and other resources and urging other countries to do likewise. Already, Jordan’s second largest city is a Syrian refugee camp. The continued flow of émigrés could overwhelm Jordan, jeopardizing its very viability as a state.
Of all the calamities produced by the so-called “Arab Spring,” which would more aptly be called “the Arab winter” or “the long, hot Arab summer,” Syria may be the worst. According to the UN, the Syrian conflict has claimed over 100,000 lives, a majority of them civilians. Tens of thousands more are unaccounted for or have been thrown into Syrian prisons, where the use of torture and terrorism is widespread. More than six million Syrians, including those in Jordan, have been displaced.
The horrendous carnage reached a new level when Syrian military forces unleashed a chemical weapons attack near Damascus two weeks ago that killed more than 1400, including some 400 children. With the Assad regime’s responsibility for the event convincingly verified, a strong, but measured response is imperative. First, the indiscriminate, mass use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity and a violation of international law. As Jews, we are well acquainted with a tyrant’s use of poison gas to commit mass murder of defenseless children, women, and men, and the failure of democratic governments to intervene. As the world ought to have learned from the Holocaust, if using morally obscene weapons is tolerated, and nations with the power to act stand idly by, those who wielded those weapons, and those who aspire to obtain them, receive a clear message, “Anything goes. There are no boundaries or restraints. The law of the jungle prevails. You may use such weapons to murder people without conscience or consequence.”
We would rue the day that feckless, reckless message is given. Such crimes must not go unpunished. Having warned the Syrian regime that its use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” we must enforce that declaration. To fail to follow through would damage America’s credibility, irreparably. This is not just about Syria. An empty threat about using weapons of mass destruction in Syria would torpedo emphatic American warnings that we will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. The Iranians would understandably conclude from our inaction that they are free to develop them with impunity. Israel could infer that American assurances are unreliable and that they must act alone. And our other allies in the region and throughout the world – South Korea, for example, would conclude that they must face the threat of weapons of mass destruction on their own. That message invites disaster.
We need to understand the fundamentals of what is happening in Syria, which is the venue of a bitter conflict between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, one that dates back to the 7th century. The Assad regime, which had seemed doomed, has survived, due, in part, to Assad’s unconscionable willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of his own people to preserve his power and the readiness of his armed forces to do so, something that Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian Army were not prepared to do. But Assad has not survived by the morally depraved use of force alone. Three external actors are propping him up: Russia, and two radical Shi’ite Muslim entities: Hezbollah and Iran. Russia’s primary reason for supporting Assad is strategic. Syria hosts its only Mediterranean naval base. Commerce and undermining America’s interests are secondary aims. For Hezbollah, the fall of Assad would cut off its flow of arms from Iran. Iran, in turn, would lose the conduit by which, as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, it enables Hezbollah to serve as its front line proxy to confront Israel.
Arrayed against the Assad regime and its allies are an assortment of Sunni Muslim groups, the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and a stronger, better organized, and dominant faction of extremist jihadists supported by Turkey, the regional Moslem Brotherhood, and Qatar. Though American Jewish organizations quickly condemned the chemical attack, they waited to endorse a US decision to act, rather than publically advocate one. Now that the President has announced his decision, most mainstream Jewish organizations have or will soon express support. A US military response must be, and be seen to be, in service of America’s strategic objectives, not at Israel’s behest. As General Amidror emphasized, it is not for Israel to tell the US what it ought to do in pursuit of its vital interests in Syria, Iran or elsewhere. The reverse is also true, which is why Israel always reserves the right to act in its national self-defense, whatever other nations do or don’t do.
In Israel, concern about the Syrian situation has increased dramatically since the chemical weapons attack. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have threatened to retaliate against Israel for an American attack, which could conceivably involve both conventional and chemical weapons. While these threats may well amount to bluster, Hezbollah’s arsenal has quadrupled to over 100,000 rockets and missiles since its 2006 war with Israel,. The most advanced can reach any city in Israel. Even if Hezbollah restrains itself for now, its capability will remain, and if the Assad regime survives, it will continue to grow.
We face a range of bad outcomes in Syria: a failed state descending into violence, lawlessness, and chaos, its chemical weapons up for grabs; a mass murderer aligned with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah retaining power; or a state on Israel’s border controlled by Islamist terrorist groups. Nothing we do is likely advance our preferred outcome: a stable, unified Syrian government that is not hostile to the US or Israel. We know how well such wishful thinking worked out in Iraq and Egypt.
Worse things could happen than having terrorists, thugs, and jihadists who detest Jews, Israel, the US, and the West kill each other instead. But our tradition forbids us to rejoice at the death of our enemies, and schadenfreude, while natural and understandable, is neither an ethical stance nor a coherent policy.
A military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not risk-free. We should always exhaust all realistic and reasonable alternatives, as we have done here, before resorting to force, both to avoid needless bloodshed and because the law of unintended consequences remains in effect. It is possible, as some argue, that we will make matters worse, rather than better. Yet despite the risks of acting against Syria, and recognizing that reasonable people can differ, I believe the risks of acting are greatly exceeded by the risks of failing to act.
I regret the President’s decision to submit the issue to Congress. I worry that, to adversaries and friends alike, it connotes weakness and indecisiveness, and that it will set a precedent hampering the president’s ability to take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, should other efforts to stop it fail. I recognize that strong congressional support for a president’s decisions as Commander-in-Chief can lend them strength and legitimacy. But I wonder whether a Congress paralyzed by hyper-partisanship, lurching from one pointless and unnecessary breakdown to the next can rise above political calculation for the sake of our national security, short and long term. We’ll know soon, perhaps by Yom Kippur. The support of House Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor, and Senators McCain and Graham, gives reason for hope. While the matter hangs in the balance, I plan to let our senators and congressional representatives know what I look for them to do at this critical moment, and I hope you will, too. If Congress fails this fateful test of conscience and statesmanship, I hope the president will exercise his inherent authority nonetheless.
I repeat. This is not just about Syria and it’s not just, or even primarily about Israel. By next Spring, Iran will have the capacity to achieve an undetectable nuclear enrichment breakout within two weeks. Imagine that Iran already had nuclear weapons and was shielding Syria beneath its nuclear umbrella. What would America’s options be then? Iran’s nuclearization would change the entire calculus of US military power in the region and beyond, constituting an intolerable threat to the entire world. That is what’s at stake.
The Syrian conflict demonstrates how profoundly the Middle East has changed, virtually overnight. For 65 years, Israel’s highest strategic priority has been defending itself from attack by hostile Arab states surrounding it, while hoping someday to achieve peace. The stable arrangements it achieved with Egypt and Syria, and its implicit alliance with Jordan, held up for four decades.
Today, the most serious threats along Israel’s borders are not from hostile states, consumed as they are by internal turmoil, but from non-state actors, terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. These are harder to counter because they have little infrastructure to defend and none of the national responsibilities that even authoritarian governments must take seriously. Their extremist ideology makes pragmatic considerations less relevant, and ultimately, they have far less than states to lose. As a consequence, Israel is rethinking its military doctrine, structure, and tactics, to address its radically transformed neighborhood.
The situation in that fluid, flammable region, where conflicts among tribes, clans, factions and families, predominate, means that our capacity to influence developments is severely limited. Even as we prepare to demonstrate that using chemical weapons will not be tolerated, we are implicitly telling Assad and others, “You may slaughter your own people, so long as you do it with conventional weapons.” Sadly, this paradox of moral contradiction is unavoidable. As General Amidror points out, we must not indulge the illusion that we can change the stream of history sweeping over a region that lacks a center of gravity. What is needed on the part of Israel, the US and others, he argues, is humility, recognizing the limits of their power, trying to avoid mistakes and prevent identified threats from being realized, and influencing events when we can.
With so much to worry about and so little ability to make things better, is there anything to appreciate, even celebrate? Absolutely! Consider this. On Rosh Hashanah 5708, September 15, 1947, the State of Israel did not exist. When it came into being on May 14, 1948, its survival was by no means assured. Invaded by five Arab armies, the Jewish State might well have lost its War of Independence, but it prevailed. The cost in lives lost was staggering, but HaTikvah – The Hope of two millennia that Jews would reestablish sovereignty in our ancient homeland was realized! Even then, however, its future was not secured. In the War of Attrition, the Six Day War of 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel emerged victorious. And yet still, invasion by multiple armies of surrounding Arab states was still a real, present, and ongoing danger. No longer. That indisputable fact is worthy of exuberant celebration.
Terrorist groups can inflict great damage, but they cannot destroy the Jewish State, and hostile nations on Israel’s border lack the will or capacity to try. Iran cannot do so either, at least not yet. Its steadily progressing nuclear program constitutes a threat to Israel’s existence, notwithstanding the alleged “moderation” of its new prime, foreign, and defense ministers. The last of these was implicated in the 1983 bombing that killed 241 American servicemen in Lebanon. Still, Iran has not crossed the red line of enrichment that Israel drew, and the threat it poses can yet be dealt with, by force if all else fails.
Egypt remains a tremendous concern, and the excesses of force the Egyptian military has inflicted on civilians are morally reprehensible. For citizens of a democracy, it is disturbing and unsettling to see an elected government overthrown. But it was clear, most importantly to the citizens of Egypt, that the Morsi administration was exploiting the forms of democracy to create an undemocratic, authoritarian Islamist regime. It was also actively providing support to Hamas in Gaza and sought to form an axis with the Moslem Brotherhood dominated government in Turkey. That nation, a security partner of Israel under its former, secular government, is now a bitter, anti-Semitic adversary. We may hope that antagonism will abate somewhat, since Turkey and Israel share an interest in thwarting Iran. It is unclear whether Morsi’s fall will lead to eventual Egyptian democracy, but the isolation of Hamas and the setback to Turkey’s regional aspirations are good news indeed.
There is even a modest glimmer of hope of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After three years of steadfastly refusing to negotiate, the Palestinians agreed to meet. The fact that the contents of the talks have not been leaked suggests that the negotiations might be serious. Israeli diplomats I trust insist that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to make a deal that would involve two states – a Palestinian State and Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish People – living side by side with mutual recognition, full security, and genuine peace. Personally, I am skeptical that this can be achieved at present, given the Palestinian Authority’s weakness and the strength of Hamas, which controls Gaza and is committed to Israel’s destruction. More plausible hopes have been dashed before. But talking is better than not talking, and who knows? Once in a rare while, miracles happen. In the meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as greatly as it needs to be solved for the sake of both sides, resembles a chronic disease. It can be painful and debilitating, and it can’t yet be cured, but isn’t fatal.
The story is told of an itinerant Jewish peddler named Avrum, who travelled the back roads of eastern Europe with a horse and wagon, selling schmates. Whenever he passed a certain village, he noticed a man sitting on a nearby hilltop. One day, after passing many times, Avrum climbed the hill and asked the man what he’d been doing there all those years. “The town hired me to watch for the Messiah,” the man said. “When he comes, I’ll let everyone know.” “Waiting for the Messiah!?” Avrum exclaimed. “What kind of a job is that?” “Well,” the man replied, “It doesn’t pay much, but it’s good, steady work.”
As it has been for Jews of generations past, as it is for us, and as it will surely be for generations to come, there is much to worry about as the New Year begins. Yet for us, unlike so many of those who came before, there is even more to celebrate. Worries and troubles come uninvited, and those we can do little or nothing to allay weigh heaviest of all, but we are not powerless. As President Lincoln reminded us in timeless fashion, our government is “of the people, for the people and by the people.” God gave us voices, and our Constitution gives us the right and duty to raise them when issues vital to our nation are at stake. Celebrating, too, is a decision and, thus, an obligation that stems from gratitude. As Ezra and Nehemiah told our worried ancestors on Rosh Hashanah some 2500 years ago, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for [this] day is holy to the Eternal One. Do not be sad, for rejoicing in the Eternal is the source of your strength.” Even as we worry and face troubles, known and yet to be known, let us celebrate wholeheartedly this Rosh Hashanah, we, in this place and time, whose burdens, though very real, are so greatly outnumbered by our blessings.