Patrick Buchanan and other likeminded commentators have repeatedly tried to direct the public’s attention to the fact that, in the Iraq conflict, some of the leading pro-war advocates in the conservative movement have Jewish surnames. There’s Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith, not to mention Kristol, Frum and Weinstein. The presumption is that President Bush was led to invade Iraq by “neo-conservative” advisers with an interest mainly in seeing America defeat one of Israel’s enemies.
Once you consider that the actual decision makers and other key war planners aren’t Jewish at all — Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney and the president himself — the Buchananite conspiracy theory is easily revealed as the canard that it is. And yet the Jewishness of the aforementioned pro-war intellectuals isn’t entirely without interest.
These Jewish conservatives support the war for their own reasons, and not simply because they are Jewish. Likely without realizing it in most cases, though, they are being true to the spiritual heritage of their ancestors in rejecting the squeamishness of the anti-war crowd.
If the word “Judaism” means anything definite — as opposed to anything you want it to mean — then the content of the word needs to be sought in the textual tradition from which our heritage arises. To know what’s authentically Jewish, you have to open the classical works of Jewish faith, starting with the Bible.
When it comes to military conflict, the Hebrew Scriptures couldn’t be less squeamish. Begin with the way the Bible defines the role of government — basically, to make war and execute justice.
As told in the books of 1 & 2 Samuel, after centuries of being governed by judges, the Jewish people demand a sovereign ruler, and God gives them one in the person of Saul, anointed by the prophet Samuel.
The people cry, “Our king will judge us, and go forth before us, and fight our wars!” (1 Sam. 8:19). To be sure, God is displeased with their further demand that, in being ruled by a king, the Children of Israel should then be “like all the other nations.” Jews are not supposed to be like other peoples in every way. But the nature of kingship, and the centrality of war-making to it, is taken for granted by Samuel, Saul and the Lord Himself.
Later, Jewish law would make this even clearer. Maimonides concludes his greatest work, the “Mishneh Torah,” with a section called “Laws of Kings and their Wars.” The Jewish leader he anticipates isn’t the prime minister of Israel, but the Messiah, so not everything the sage says can be applied practically to the actions of our present-day rulers, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. But the values implicit in the laws are what matters, and they are straight out of the Bible.
“The purpose of appointing a king,” writes Maimonides, “is only to execute justice and wage wars.” Some of the laws of war, Jewish-style, may alarm modern readers.
In fighting a defensive war, the king is granted enormous leniency. He must first offer peace to the enemy, defined as total surrender. But once this has been rejected, the king needs nobody’s permission, not even the United Nations’, to enter into ferocious combat.
When the war is not, strictly speaking, defensive, he consults the legislative branch of government, the Sanhedrin. With their agreement, however, he is again free to act with few restraints, provided that all his deeds are for the sake of Heaven. Basing himself on Deuteronomy (20:13), Maimonides has no patience for quibbles about the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In the Jewish understanding, enemy males may be in or out of uniform: “All males past the age of majority should be killed.”
Offense is understood as smart defense. As Maimonides writes, the king may even wage war “to expand the borders of Israel or magnify [his] greatness and reputation.” What’s the defensive value of that?
Protecting your own people may require striking awe into the hearts of those who threaten you. President Bush understands this. It explains a lot about why we made war on Iraq, when that country was not directly responsible for the atrocity that started it all, that of September 11.
Sometimes, a campaign to intimidate enemies — that is, defense achieved through offense — may work by terrifying dangerous bad guys on whom you aren’t even making war. That is, attack Saddam Hussein and you thereby throw a scare into Osama bin Laden.
When, under Samuel’s leadership, the Jews waged a successful campaign against the Philistines, the Bible immediately notes: “and there was peace between Israel and the Amorites” (1 Sam. 7:14) — a totally different foreign aggressor nation, whom the text hasn’t even seen fit to mention till this point. The Amorites saw what Israel did to the Philistines, and decided to make themselves inconspicuous.
Does this mean the Jewish neoconservatives are right to advocate the continuing pursuit of warfare in Iraq, till that nation is rebuilt as a democracy? Not necessarily. I could be reading these Biblical and other sources all wrong, but I doubt it. Or the Bible, which Christians like the president — no less than Jews — have found to be a repository of ancient and tested wisdom, could be wrong. But I doubt that too.
David Klinghoffer is the author of “Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” and the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus” (Doubleday).