This Is Why There Is War in the Mideast

The Jewish magazine Moment ran an article in its latest issue asking rabbis from a variety of Jewish sects how Israel can promote peace with its Arab neighbors (HT: Pharyngula). Most of the rabbis express fairly bland, liberal views about the importance of peace and tolerance, which are fine in themselves, although few of them offer any concrete suggestions as to what Israel might do differently.

However, one rabbi, Manis Friedman of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was eager to make some specific proposals. Here are some of them:

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East.

The rabbi didn’t elaborate on which verses from the Old Testament he had in mind, but the context of his statement suggests he was thinking of ones like these:

“When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”

—Deuteronomy 7:1-2

“So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.”

—Joshua 10:40

“And Amaziah strengthened himself, and led forth his people, and went to the valley of salt, and smote of the children of Seir ten thousand. And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces.”

—2 Chronicles 25:11-12

In case Rabbi Friedman or anyone else is confused, I’ll say it clearly: The behavior that these verses describe is called genocide. It is a war crime; it is the greatest evil known to humankind. I would think that the Jews, of all people, would understand this.

This attitude is why terrorism and bloodshed are ongoing in the Middle East, and why they will continue as long as people allow religion to guide their actions. Brutal, violent books like the Old Testament are, as Sam Harris put it, “a perpetual engine of extremism”. Although many liberal Jewish believers have reinterpreted and allegorized these stories until they’re scarcely recognizable, the violent texts are always there to be rediscovered by zealots who interpret them with the frightening simplicity that their context suggests. The Bible teaches clearly that it is God’s will that the Jews should control all the land promised to their ancestors, and that genocide is the appropriate way to rid that land of anyone else who makes a claim on it.

Of course, Friedman’s views are the mirror image of those on the other side who’ve waged war and committed acts of terrorism against Israel. His scorn for the principle “don’t kill civilians or children” mirrors the suicide bomber zealots who set off their explosives on buses, in nightclubs, or wherever else will cause the most deaths. His rejection of the idea “don’t destroy holy sites” accords with the fanatics who deliberately target buildings and places held sacred by other sects. What he calls the “Jewish way” of fighting a war is really the principle held by every fanatic who believes that outsiders are subhuman and that the righteous must bloodily cleanse them from the earth.

These competing fundamentalisms are why there is war in the Mideast and why there will continue to be war in the Mideast. Compromise and diplomacy are not to be thought of by those who firmly believe that they are carrying out God’s will. So long as both sides are anchored in the immovable certainty of faith, there’s little hope of ending the bloodshed and destruction.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Leum

    Yes. Although to be fair, the conflict is deliberately exacerbated by both sides to keep their populations supporting the government (much more true for the Arab governments than the Israeli government, but not untrue for them either). Clerics are encouraged to preach intolerance and hate, and to claim that there can never be peace or prosperity in the Middle East until Islam has control of all three holy cities (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem) in order to keep people from actually demanding peace and equality.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    And the IDF has been (unsuccessfully) trying NOT to fight a war the Old Testament way for the last 60 years. What choices do they have? Roll over and die, fight semi-effectively (ie, in a way that is not good for public relations), or commit genocide. Classic rock-and-hard-place. The US in Vietnam had the same choices, but we had the option to up and leave. The Holocaust, I think, has ingrained in Jews (especially the Israelis) the options, “Fight or die.” Flight is no longer an option, physically or mentally.

    This is also a fine example of how liberal religion can “enable” fundamentalism. As an atheist Jew, I believe those verses you suggested are reprehensible. They compromise the book’s moral authority, and are strong evidence for dismissing it (and God for that matter) altogether. A liberal Jew, however, is likely to say, “You read it your way, and I’ll read it mine.” Which is what is happening. I don’t know what, if any, political clout the liberals in Israel have left, but I’m not sure that Israel could afford a liberal government at all in its situation. Unfortunately, it can’t afford a hardliner government either.

    Guess I’m going to bed depressed tonight.

  • Juan Felipe

    Apparently he is now claiming that he didn’t ment to say what he said: “The sub-question I chose to address instead is: how should we act in time of war, when our neighbors attack us, using their women, children and religious holy places as shields.” (source is linked in Adam’s post)

  • Samuel Skinner

    “And the IDF has been (unsuccessfully) trying NOT to fight a war the Old Testament way for the last 60 years. ”

    The IDF has worse public relations than the Russian Army. It doesn’t help that some of its troopers wear the “one shot two kills” shirts… or mean it.

    ” What choices do they have? Roll over and die, fight semi-effectively (ie, in a way that is not good for public relations), or commit genocide. Classic rock-and-hard-place. The US in Vietnam had the same choices, but we had the option to up and leave.”

    You could end the existance of Isreal as a Jewish state and make all its citizens equal. You know, like every other country on Earth.

    As for winning the war, the US could have won the war in Vietnam. The problem was that their supply lines were Russia and China and since we couldn’t touch them… the result would be similar to Korea except that the North Vietnamese forces could come around using Cambodia and Laos. For the US to win we would have had to control those supply lines.

    Israel’s situation is completely different. It is surrounded by hostile neighbors and uses that as a justificiation to be an asshole to the Palestinean population. In the process it has managed the impossible- it made people who should be their natural allies dedicated enemies of Israel. Israel does not deserve blame for the fact that it is surrounded by countries that hate its guts- Palestine is another matter and they have gone so far down the road I don’t see any method of fixing it. How do you get people who have every reason to hate you and have grown a massive victim complex to work with you?

  • Hassan

    “Although many liberal Jewish believers have reinterpreted and allegorized these stories until they’re scarcely recognizable, the violent texts are always there to be rediscovered by zealots who interpret them with the frightening simplicity that their context suggests.”

    I really hope people apply the same logic to Islam.

    Anyway, I am afraid I am not sure if religious zealots are the factor which keeps this region away from achieving political stability. The religious uprise in the 1970′s was preceded by more than twenty years of conflict that included three major wars (1948,1956,1967). For most of this time, Jerusalem (atleast its eastern, religiously significant part) was in the hands of Muslim Arabs.

    The problem in the ME transcends religion. Its main cause lies in whether or not you could convince Arabs that Jews have a historical right to return. And would jews give the same right to Arab refugees. The injustice on the human level is the real issue.

  • Alex Weaver

    Maybe he just means that the Israelis should devote the power of their military to destroying pillows and kerchiefs?

  • benjamin

    I think it is important to note that there is a difference between Israeli society and Palestinian society in that the fundamentalists do not dominate in Israel, as they do, for instance, in Gaza. It is true that there are religious fundamentalists and extremists in Israel but there is also a decisive majority which is non-fundamentalist and rejects extremism. Most Israelis are unapologetically secular, many to the point of outright atheism, and regard Jewish religious extremists as an embarrassment at best and a threat to themselves and their democracy at worst. In short, religious extremism is not the reason there is war in the Middle East. There is war for two reasons: 1) two peoples see their rightful birthright and source of their independence as based on the same small piece of real estate, and 2) the Palestinians and the Arab world in general have thus far proven unwilling to accept that Israelis feel the same way they do about this small piece of real estate and that this feeling is as legitimate as theirs. As an Israeli, I have my biases, of course, but I think history bears me out on this point.

  • Chris

    In short, religious extremism is not the reason there is war in the Middle East. There is war for two reasons: 1) two peoples see their rightful birthright and source of their independence as based on the same small piece of real estate, and 2) the Palestinians and the Arab world in general have thus far proven unwilling to accept that Israelis feel the same way they do about this small piece of real estate and that this feeling is as legitimate as theirs.

    Since religion is the direct source of beliefs (1) and (2) you have identified (as well as the mirror opposite of (2), which you don’t mention; even if it’s not a majority position, Rabbi Friedman and those like him believe it, which has an important influence), I don’t think this supports your position that religion is not the reason there is war in the Middle East.

    Or do you not count “God gave this land to our people and everyone else should get out or die” as “religious extremism”? Is that a religious moderate position in your book?

    Also, I wonder what is your source for the idea that the fundamentalists “dominate” Palestinian society? It doesn’t take very many suicide bombers for them to make a large public impression – suicide bombing is highly salient – but that doesn’t make them a majority. Of course, as an Israeli, the most violent elements are likely to dominate *your perception* of Palestinian society, but that doesn’t mean the average Palestinian in the street is actually likely to take up arms.

  • mikespeir

    The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East.

    I seem to recall Moses, et al, tried it that way, without the hope-for result.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    Although many liberal Jewish believers have reinterpreted and allegorized these stories until they’re scarcely recognizable, the violent texts are always there to be rediscovered by zealots who interpret them with the frightening simplicity that their context suggests.

    Exactly. This is why I don’t think any reasonable person should hold up the Bible as a guide to morality, waving away the atrocities as though they weren’t there. It’s an incredibly dangerous game of bait-and-switch. If the nice (yet fanciful) interpretations get the majority to agree that the Bible teaches right, moral behavior, then there’s a danger that some will read what the book actually says, and believe that message (instead of what the liberals want to pretend it says).

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Sure, he mentions “Torah values” later on, but why would a Hasidic Rabbi refer to the Tanakh as the Old Testament?

  • Solaris

    Thankyou Benjamin. Your contribution means absoloutely nothing – to anyone. Why even bother to type all that out, if you’re going to admit to bias at the end of it, completely nullifying all of your input. Perhaps you should read the book “Overcoming Bias”, and work on becoming a better person.

    The real issue for me is that people identify themselves as “Jews” at all. What does it mean to be a Jew, if you don’t believe in YHWH? My father was a second-generation immigrant to Australia from the ME. Guess what: I don’t identify myself as a Moslem. You might think that this may have something to do with the fact that my parents didn’t raise me to believe in deities. Or even that my grandfather was a Marionite Christian from Lebanon. But hear me out.

    I am not a Marionite. I am not a Moslem. I am not a Jew. I am a Human. Now, the fact that I was born in Australia means that I identify with Australian ideas and worldviews – as those are the ideas around me, how could I be influenced by anything except for those? Australia is “on the books” as a Christian nation. But that doesn’t have any effect on most people living here.

    The conflict in the Middle East will only end when people who aren’t really jewish or moslem or christian stop claiming that they are, and accept that they are european, israeli, jordanian, wtf ever. And beyond that, when they get over the nationality thing and realise that deep down, we are all human.

    I do not admit to bias. I don’t care if palestinians and/or israelis live, die, win, or lose. Makes no difference to me, as such a far-off land with so few natural resources could never have an impact militarily on my home (Australia), or my people (Australians). It disgusts me a little bit that there are people born here who identify as jews without believing in judaism, or palestinians without having been born there.

  • Staceyjw

    The Old Testament way of war would bring peace- IF what you mean by peace is the annhilation of humanity and elimination of people in an area. This is what those tactics would bring.

    Fighting ancient wars in the modern age is a tragic disgrace.

  • Alex Weaver

    2) the Palestinians and the Arab world in general have thus far proven unwilling to accept that Israelis feel the same way they do about this small piece of real estate and that this feeling is as legitimate as theirs.

    Perhaps I’m misinformed, but I thought the Palestinians were pushing for a two-state solution at this point and the Israelis, or at least their extremists and militants, wanted to keep it all?

    As for winning the war, the US could have won the war in Vietnam.

    What state of affairs would “winning in Vietnam” have comprised?

  • Samuel Skinner

    “What state of affairs would “winning in Vietnam” have comprised?”

    Occupying Laos and Cambodia. And then it would be a victory in the same vein as the Korean war, with the country still divided.

    You can win when fighting counter insurgencies- it just takes time, manpower, money and effort. However, adding in an outside power supplying the insurgents means that they become nearly uncrushable. Of course, this is distinct from the political costs of fighting which we probably would not be willing to pay.

  • Pingback: Carnival of the vacationing blogger #2 : The Uncredible Hallq

  • Erika

    Solaris, you have no right to say that benjamin’s opinion has no value to the discussion; I found it quite useful. First hand accounts of situations like this are always going to be biased, but they still give us insights that outsiders do not have. We all have bias, and we should all be willing to admit when our bias influences our opinion without fearing that it will make people consider our opinion worthless.

  • Brian Green

    Why people still believe in “Jesus” and “God”, both created in the violent Middle East, is beyond me, but as long as they still have oil, they’ll still influence world events, zealots and cowards that they are.

  • Pingback: Daylight Atheism > Theocrats on the March in Israel

  • Pingback: Οι θεοκράτες προελαύνουν στο Ισραήλ « On the way to Ithaca