NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (JTA) In contemplating how the United States should respond to the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield keeps thinking about God’s anger when the angels rejoiced to see Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea.
According to midrash, God silenced the angels, telling them, “How can you sing when my creations are dying?”
“There are times when real action must be taken, but that real action must not be celebrated,” said Hirschfield, a senior director at CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
As the United States prepares for a possible war on terrorism, many Jewish leaders and thinkers believe a dramatic response to the Sept. 11 attacks is necessary. But most hope that such a war harm as few civilians as possible and not become, as Hirschfield put it, a “celebration” of death.
Conversations with American Jewish leaders from across the political and religious spectrum revealed some similarities in how they think the United States should handle the issue.
Several, like Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox feminist leader, spoke of the need to balance the talmudic injunction to kill people before they can kill you with the teaching that “each life is a whole world.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Rise up early and bomb Afghanistan to hell because that’s where the evil is coming from,’ because there’s a lot of innocent life there,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg hopes the United States will follow what she sees as Israel’s policy of restraint with Palestinian violence targeting leaders and strategic sites and avoiding harming civilians whenever possible.
Many of those interviewed for the article also hope that the world recognize that terrorism against Israelis should be condemned and stopped, and that longtime supporters of terrorism such as Iran and Syria be excluded from an anti-terrorism coalition unless they stop all support for terrorists.
But while support for some U.S. military action was virtually unanimous, those on the left were more ambivalent about infringements on the civil liberties of Americans and more eager to explore the root causes of terrorism.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said his group has been “bombarded” in recent days with requests to sign on to statements that staunchly oppose potential civil liberties restrictions.
But Reform Jewish leaders, who generally support such requests, are hesitant to oppose changes in U.S. policy that might help prevent terrorism, Yoffie said.
“In the real world, we’re going to have to make difficult decisions people have to feel safe,” Yoffie said.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis, said he is “not comfortable with some of the voices saying we shouldn’t do anything or who are labeling a military response as state terrorism.”
“There needs to be measured action to prevent this from happening again, and to let the world know that this kind of behavior has consequences,” Artson said.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, explained his views with the biblical injunction, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Some rabbinic commentators have explained that the word ‘justice’ is stated twice, Waskow said, to emphasize that “you should pursue just goals through just means.”
For Waskow, that means pursuing terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden by drawing up evidence against him, using the U.N. Security Council as a grand jury, and asking the United Nations to authorize “whatever levels of limited force” are necessary to arrest bin Laden.
Both terrorism and its root causes which he identifies as poverty and injustice must be addressed, he said.
“Sometimes it seems the right says focus only on terrorists, don’t focus on the cause, while the left says the real event is causes and all that and don’t worry about actual terrorists,” Waskow added. “Both are crazy. There’s no reason you have to do one and not the other.”
Some Jewish thinkers are drawing parallels between current Islamic terrorism and other evil movements that have targeted Jews, from the biblical Amalekites to the Nazis.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, said, “Just as there can be no compromises with Amalek, there can’t be any compromise with terrorists.”
Cynthia Ozick, a novelist and essayist, raised comparisons to the Holocaust.
“No one gave a damn when suicide bombers were blowing up pizza parlors the world shrugged at it,” Ozick said. “The history of ignoring the Jews of Europe is being repeated right now. Because when it was only the Jews, nations shrugged. Then Nazis came and engulfed the world in fire.”
Like Ozick, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, said Jewish history teaches that “evil is real,” and that the global terrorism threat is one that first struck Jews and is now spreading.
“We know this enemy we saw it at Sbarro’s and the Dolphinarium,” Wolpe said, referring to the Jerusalem pizzeria and Tel Aviv nightclub that were attacked by Palestinian suicide bombers earlier this year.
“We’re the ones who ought to be warning the world that this is a really serious struggle,” he said.
While several people interviewed urged Americans to defend the rights and safety of Arab- and Muslim-Americans, some expressed disappointment that Arab- and Muslim-Americans have been unwilling to denounce terrorism targeting Jews in Israel.
Yeshiva University’s Lamm said that, until the Sept. 11 attacks there was no public Muslim voice arguing for moderation and that even in the aftermath of terror, Muslim and Arab groups have not condemned suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.
Muslims “don’t have to support the ‘Israeli occupation,’ but they have to prove themselves in the sense of developing a core of Islamic thinkers, clergymen and academicians who without agreeing to Israel and its policies will condemn terrorism whether in the United States, Israel or elsewhere,” Lamm said.