Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

March 25, 2007

Takeaways, Part 1:"Something New Under the Sun"

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:38 am

As I noted in a recent post below I’ve been overwhelmed with various speaking commitments and it’s interfered with regular blogging so I’m going to begin to try to catch up with brief reports on some of those encounters, trying to limit myself to a single emblematic moment that has stayed with me.

Let me begin with my talk at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, an ongoing weekly seminar organized by the energetic Professor Charles Small, designed to approach the ancient subject from as many modern perspectives as possible.

As I mentioned before the official title of my talk was “Thinking the Unthinkable: Rhetorical Strategies of the Holocaust Deniers and the Prospect of a Second Holocaust”. But what I really spoke about, what I really was asking about, seeking input from the mixed audience of professors, students, and Jewish community activists was the question of “The Day After”.

The day After a “second Holocaust’. The Day After the no-longer unimaginable destruction of the Jewish state and the people who live in it by a nuclear armed state or terrorist group.

Assuming as most do that even after such destruction, Israeli retaliatory capacity will survive, as it must for the credibility of deterrence. Who to hit, with how much, for what purpose? What if the nuclear device, the most likely means of carrying out radical Islamist exterminationist aims, has no “home address”. If it can’t be known whether a state smuggled it in or just a small front group whose identity is shrouded in mystery?

Much of the discussion focussed on these terrible, difficult questions.

But one hand was raised and one student asked an almost shocking question. What is the point of retaliation? The damage will have been done. Millions will die from an act that will have only symbolic value, he suggested.

Others argued against that and proposed several practical reasons for retaliation, or for not discussing no-retaliation, arguments that involved maintaining the credibility of deterrence to protect against such an attack before it cold happen, others that involved the protection of the remaining Jews of the world, after it happened. Nut these are strategic, game theory questions however grave the consequences. But that’s another question.

The question the student asked was, wouldn’t the renunciation of retaliation at that point enable Jews to establish a moral standard for ages to come? A moral standard?

My immediate somewhat glib response was to say this is in effect is asking Jews to “turn the other cheek” and that for centuries Christians had preached “turn the other cheek” but Jews and had been the ones to do so and look where it’s gotten us.

I wish I had a better response. I’d like to hear from readers of this blog what they think the response should be. Before my talk I’d asked three faculty members of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary for some citations from past Jewish wisdom, commentary, midrash on questions of retaliation, justice and recompense for suffering in the context of Israeli nuclear deterrence. And that all three had run from the question.

None of them was frank enough to say they were afraid of it, afraid of thinking about it having their names attached to any such speculation (even though I offered them anonymity). One at least admitted that “the question you’ve asked is one that truly could be called ‘something new under the sun'”.

But isn’t this why the Jewish community supports institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary. To consider that which is “new under the sun” in the light of what has gone before and been thought before? The Israeli Security Cabinet has surely discussed such questions as the proportionality of retaliation.

What is the value of supporting Theological Seminaries full of Jewish sages who fear to bring their intellect and knowledge to bear on such questions? I don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the student’s question but admire his courage in asking it, and deplore the cowardice of the tenured “sages” who don’t turn the other cheek, but turn away and run from facing that which is “new under the sun”.

The response of those at the Yale Seminar was quiite the opposite, unafraid to discuss such questions. Let’s hear from some more untenured sages on a question we all have a stake in.



  1. I just last night was talking to a couple of sisters from Haifa who are Palestinian Christians and this topic came up (what a coincidence). The one who spoke about the topic to me expressed deep concern about Mahmoud A, but wasn’t sure that violence to stop him was the answer. She did not offer an alternative and I did not press as I was not interested in getting into a deep political discussion in a bar with someone I just met (especially if we were probably on different political wavelengths).

    Anyway, my response to your questioner would be as such: No, Israel should not renounce the use of a nuke and should indeed use it if first attacked by Iran as such.

    The reasons: First, what the Muslim world respects most of all is power – much more than we in West. A non-retaliation by Israel would cement in their minds the weakness of an infidel Israel. This would only embolden Iran and other jihadist types to press their hand and pursue the continued extermination of Jews wherever they may still be. Playing the moral card might work if Israel was nuked by a Western liberal democracy, but we all know that would never happen.

    Second, Israel would want to retaliate so as to incapacitate the Iranian theocracy to the largest extent possible. These are the people who are the biggest danger to Jews as they have the power of the state behind them (as opposed to al-Qaeda for exmpl). If they’re still around, Jews can expect to face even more extermination.

    Third, simply for the sake of the West. Iran hates the West and Israel is a part of it. A non-retaliation by Israel would be seen as weakness by the West in general which would invite an Iran to attack Europe or maybe even America as it is astoundingly emboldened by the lack of retaliation for the eradication of a Western Israel. Presumably the surviving Isralis would be moving to Europe and America to keep from glowing in the dark in a flattened Israel.

    Fourth, for the basest of all reasons – revenge. How enfeebled would Jews feel if they just got their ancient homeland nuked and then did nothing about it (or retaliated pathetically with a couple of Clintonesque cruise missles)? As an American, I would be ashamed and demoralized beyond description if America got nuked by, for example, Iran or the DPRK and did little or nothing about it on the grounds of “moral superiority.” I think I’d rather be living at ground zero than see America not stand up for itself after such an attack. Honestly.

    A retaliation by Israel may be a moot point as America might beat them to the punch. The continued dangers of a Iran too great and the opportunity too juicy not to knock the mullahs off along with their military capabilities. However, it would be better for Israel to do it to show strength rather than have America come to do their bidding for them. To the extent that there will be a future Jewish state, the long minded Muslims will always remember that Israel struck back with a full dose of angry.

    Naturally, a response should probably try to limit civilian deaths if possible, but the more important short term goal would need to be the destruction of Iran’s nuclear program and the elimination of Mahmoud A and the cadre of mullahs. If it takes severe civilian casualties to bring this goal about, so be it. That is preferable in the long term to letting those in power in Iran to remain there. Speaking of the long run, it would better serve Israel’s interests to have future enemies know that when hit, they will hit back.

    In short, I think your questioner sees the world through his Western mind as he wishes to see it. In such a scenario, he needs to see the world through a Muslim mind – and as the world really is.

    Comment by Ritchie Emmons — March 25, 2007 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  2. I admire your appreciation of the ‘shocking question.’ Retaliation is appropriate if it achieves justice and also to prevent further innocent death. If it fits within those parameters it is justified. The Laws of War also allow for what would otherwise be illegal, really unethical, conduct as a counterexample to show that the original illegal conduct will/ should not be condoned. The bombing of Dresden as a counterexample for the German bombing of Coventry and Amsterdam etc. exemplifies this. I am more uncomfortable with that however than I am with our A-bombing 2 Japanese cities as the latter allowed the Japanese to have moral respect for themselves surrendering, though bound by a Samurai ethic, thus bringing an end and, really, a diminishment to death in a lost war.

    Comment by Michael — March 28, 2007 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

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