Ethically, Is it Good to Die For Your Country?


Q – Every Israeli schoolchild learns the famous quote of a dying hero Joseph Trumpledor, "it is good to die for one’s country." The line has always troubled me. Ethically speaking, is it really good to die for your country?

A- You pick the month of the Israeli and American Memorial Day to ask that question, a time when we pay tribute to 22,867 Israelis and over 1.3 million Americans who died in battle? Throw in the vivid memories of 9/11 recently stoked by the killing of bin-Laden. And you want me to suggest that their sacrifice was something less that supreme? Thanks a lot!

But I’ll take the bait, because your question is a valid one, and Trumpeldor’s legendary death bed utterance following his 1920 defense of the northern outpost of Tel Hai has become problematic to a new generation of Israelis. He’s still regarded as a hero by both the left and the right (some see him as a settler, others as a socialist) and the country is filled with memorials to him and the seven who died with him. The neighboring city of Qiryat Shmonah’s very name means," The City of Eight."

What he said parallels closely the words of the ancient Roman poet Horace , "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," "It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country." It reflects the intense nationalism of the late 19th century along with the deep love early Zionists had for their land and their cause. The line exudes Sabra bravado and Russian romanticism, with a touch of James Bond.

But Trumpledor didn’t just say "It is good to die for one’s country." The quote that is ascribed to him begins with "Ein davar," which translates to "No big deal." And there’s the rub. We want our heroes to be willing, not wanting, to die. We don’t want them to be implying, "This is what I’ve desired all along. This is the best ending that can possibly happen for me. No, I didn’t really want to live to see my grandkids, or a new nation born. No, I’d rather have a street in Tel Aviv named after me. It is good to die for one’s country.

"I shall not die but live," said the battle hardened Psalmist 3,000 years ago, and Jews have continued to affirm life ever since. None of that "Aw Shucks, I’d prefer to die" bluster here. The Torah even allows soldiers to desert their buddies under certain circumstances; if they are newlyweds, for example. The pendulum almost always swings toward life in Jewish sources. In comparison, Trumpeldor comes off as more Tolstoy than Talmud.

Israelis now react to Trumpeldor’s words with a skepticism nurtured on more classic Jewish values. Some mock his words – one hit song’s title twists his stoic nationalism into something out of a Lifetime movie, "It is good to die for love." Others reinterpret Trumpeldor, claiming, in essence, that the land of Israel is so beautiful that it is "to die for."

Nationalism has become passé in this globalized culture, and martyr wannabees frankly scare us. There is no doubt that Israel would not exist today but for the 23,000 who, as Ben Gurion and poet Natan Alterman stated famously, delivered nationhood on a silver platter , or that the world would not know freedom today but for those of the Greatest Generation who gave their lives in World War Two. But no one would claim that that these deaths were "no big deal."

General Patton said, "No one ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

Sometimes it is necessary to die for one’s country. But it is rarely – maybe never – good.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here. Read his blog here