The Politics of Menschlichkeit

April 1, 2008
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David A. Teutsch

I still remember my puzzlement when, as a college student opposed to the Vietnam war, I heard arguments from American Jews in favor of throwing ever more American resources into the war. Why were Jews — expressing concern about threats to liberty and the dangerous spread of Communism — advocating that American troops be sent to Southeast Asia to fight a war that was ravaging a country so far from our own, a war that trampled on human rights and resulted in the deaths and maiming of untold Vietnamese and Americans? As time has shown, the Vietnam War was fundamentally a national conflict dressed up as a war against communism. And the dominos that neoconservatives had so somberly predicted would fall did not; U.S. withdrawal did not result in Thailand becoming communist. That withdrawal should have taught Americans a critical lesson about the limits of our ability to successfully impose our will on nations and ethnic groups far different from those who support American democracy.

The neoconservatives emerged out of that political conflict with a militant stance — with roots in the earlier important opposition to totalitarianism in general and to Stalinism in particular — against the spread of communism. The new militancy, however, brought an isolating tendency to unilateralism, and it was accompanied by a deep concern about the moral and political backbone of opponents to the war. Protesting against the war was seen as a lack of patriotism and loyalty to the U.S. But when liberals demonstrated against the war, it was not out of a lack of patriotism; we thought that being loyal entailed an obligation to offer moral criticism when warranted. As Jews we think that offering tokheha, caring critique, is an obligation. We believe that our country should be a model of rectitude. Though the fear of the military draft was also a motivating factor, the percentage of Jews serving in Vietnam was remarkably low.

The neoconservative view on Vietnam stemmed from a particular political and economic analysis as well as a set of moral values that are largely shared by today’s neoconservatives. One aspect of that view is the belief that America’s system of democracy is so superior to all other forms of governance that America has a moral obligation to spread it across the world — even if that means imposing it on people who do not seek it. That belief was central to the neoconservative commitment to overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The fact that Iraq was a functional nation with a substantial middle class and an army that supported its leader did not deter the neoconservatives from assuming that invasion of Iraq was justified by the evil nature of Hussein’s rule. Ostensibly in support of democracy, neoconservatives have supported tactics such as imprisonment without trial and forcible interrogation by the CIA. As a Jew, I see these tactics as violations of our country’s democratic principles as well as my own. Jewish tradition asks that we cultivate humility. Interfering in the sovereign affairs of another nation that has committed no act of aggression toward us is anything but an act of modesty.

Neoconservatives supported the U.S.’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, which has led us to an intractable military situation without the international support needed to end the conflict. The loss of life, the shattering of a country’s economy, the creation of a breeding ground for terrorists that Saddam Hussein would never have tolerated, and the disruption of untold lives are part of the horrendous cost of this war. And the loss of American moral capital across the world is disastrous. Nor has this war — with a cost already in the trillion-dollar range — done anything for American economic interests.

Jews and others who believe that we ought to be relying on negotiation and multilateralism whenever possible hold that belief partly because of our values — including the worth we attach to human lives — and partly because we believe that unilateralism is bound to weaken us militarily, economically, and morally. More important, no nation ought to claim that it has special rights in the world because of its might.

Neoconservative positions too often conflate spreading democracy with defeating America’s enemies. This undermines American moral resolve. Recent losses of civil rights, such as those embodied in the Patriot Act, are inimical to the cause of democracy, yet neoconservatives often defend these losses as part of the sacrifice Americans must pay for self-defense. It would be foolish to believe that sacrificing our values and rights would result in increasing our safety. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to defend ourselves. We had the right, and indeed the obligation, for example, to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan through an international force in light of their explicit commitment to furthering terrorism — a form of war — against us.

The factual basis for the neoconservative claim — that if we solve economic and educational problems in foreign lands, we can rid ourselves of the breeding grounds that give rise to terrorism, violence, and military upheaval —is questionable. Terrorist activity usually requires considerable discipline and organization, which is why it is driven for the most part by people with considerable education and sophistication, as the biographies of the 9/11 terrorists demonstrate. The claim that the issues are fundamentally economic makes sense if the model we use for understanding other countries and peoples is the U.S., but that model is insufficient. In some parts of the world, complex ideologies and religious beliefs interact with ethnic and nationalist commitments in ways that do not lend themselves to financially driven solutions. The fall of Saddam Hussein came at the cost of loosing ethnic and religious conflicts far more long-lasting and potentially destructive in their virulence than Saddam’s reign of terror.

Another aspect of the neoconservative approach is the belief that tax cuts are the path to economic growth. While it would be hard to argue that tax policy is unimportant as a tool for economic stabilization, the cost of cutting taxes while simultaneously fighting distant wars has been an astounding and frightening increase in the size of America’s national debt. One result of that increased debt is our weaker ability to respond effectively to an array of domestic problems, many of which could easily have been attended to for less than the cost of the war in Iraq.

Neoconservatives are right in pointing out the power and diversity of Israel’s enemies, and the state’s right to defend itself. But military methods of defense can only be an interim measure. Sooner or later all military powers lose wars. For Israel to exist and thrive in the long run, it must find ways — presumably with the help of other countries and of international bodies — to come to terms with its neighbors. Peacemaking is a venture undertaken with one’s enemies. Regardless of how efforts at peacemaking play out, Israel should exercise profound concern for the civil rights of everyone within its borders and the territories it controls. If Israel lives up to the commitment to universal human rights embodied in its Basic Laws, it will stand entirely on the moral high ground, and it will have strengthened its moral core. People who simultaneously work to support Israel’s right to exist, offer a loving critique through organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights, and support the development of an Israeli infrastructure of concern with human welfare through organizations like the New Israel Fund, help Israel live up to its moral legacy. Human beings will never be perfect. But it is a deeply held Jewish belief that we ought to do the best we can.

Regarding all these issues, what is at stake for Jews who believe that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and who also believe that we have an obligation to preserve the kavod, the honor and dignity, of every human being? I believe that neoconservative policies severely undermine the capacity of the U.S. to meet those obligations, and that they have the same impact in Israel. Their policies are flawed economically, politically, and morally. Many neoconservatives distrust Jews like me, who believe in multilateralism, unabridged civil rights, compromise with those with whom we have conflicts, and the avoidance of triumphalism in all it guises. They think our naïveté is dangerous. But the one thing we cannot afford to sell is our soul. The only responsible way to act is like a mensch, which is as true for a group or nation as it is for individuals. I admit I am still astonished when Jews disagree with me about that.

Maybe there are some things about which we should continue to be shocked.

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Rabbi David A. Teutsch is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization and director of the Levin-Lieber Program in Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he previously served as president for nearly a decade. The RRC Press has just published A Guide to Jewish Practice: Organizational Ethics and Economic Justice, his fifth book in that series.

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