March 2, 2003

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders meet openly in Jerusalem.The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation recently hosted a very special and timely symposium on the topic When is War Justified? The Case of Iraq.

Before a full audience at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, responsible reflections were offered by H.E. Msgr. Pietro Sambi, Papal Nuncio in Israel; Rabbi Mordechai Piron, former Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces; and Prof. Mustafa Abu Sway, of Al Quds University.

The very fact that this trialogue could happen at all in Israeli society today is quite amazing. In the heart of Jerusalem, an orthodox rabbi, a Muslim scholar and a representative of the Holy See sat side by side and engaged in a serious and sensitive dialogue on the most important issue affecting our world and our country – the impending was in Iraq.

The evening was opened by Dr. Johannes Gerster, Director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Israel who said that in his view, speaking as a German, the World War that was fought by the United States and the Allies against Nazism was certainly a justified war. This cannot be said about many other wars in the world since the end of World War II.

Moreover, according to Dr.Gerster, “it is important for democracy in Israel to be able to discuss this question.”

Representing the Pope, H.E. Msgr.Sambi, Papal Nuncio to Israel, said that when some of his diplomatic colleagues suggested to him not to speak at this symposium because he would be “burnt”, he responded by saying that “I am ready to be burned for peace, not for war.”

Msgr Sambi quoted from Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclical in 1965 entitled Pacem in Terris, (Peace on Earth) and said that “the Pope presented himself to the UN at that time as an expert on humanity, not on war.”

In an interesting twist, the Pope quoted President John F. Kennedy who said “Humanity must put an end to war or war will put an end to humanity.” Bringing things up to date, Msgr. Sambi explained that the view of the Holy See today can be summed up in three points: 1) War is not unavoidable. 2) War must be the last resort, and 3) War is a defeat for humanity.

A Jewish point of view was expressed vividly in Hebrew – with simultaneous translation – by Rabbi Piron. War in Judaism is a catastrophe, according to Jewish sources, from the Bible and in rabbinic sources. It is a failure of humanity. Judaism opposes war. Any killing of a man in war is murder and diminishes God’s presence in the world. Judaism is a universalistic religion, believing that all human beings are created in the Image of God. But – and there was a big but – there are two exceptions:

1) A war of defense, i.e. when an enemy launches an attack to destroy the Jewish People and the Jewish state, we have a right to defend ourselves.

2) A preventive war, when an enemy conspires to wipe you out – and has clearly stated plans to destroy your people and state through violent means – you have a right not only to self-defense but a right to pre-emptive war.

The Talmud teaches, “when someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” One can argue whether the moment has been reached to launch a preventive war. This is a decision for the professionals. In any event, Israel is not part of this war against Iraq, according to Rabbi Piron.

A very different point of view was expressed by Prof. Abu Sway of Al Quds University, a Palestinian university in Jerusalem. He began by preaching peace, by saying that Islam means peace and that therefore the possibilities of peace exist in principle.

But then he launched into stinging critiques of U.S. and Israeli policies. Why only criticize Iraq for ignoring U.N. resolutions, when Israel has done so for decades? If countries which have weapons of mass destruction should be rid of these weapons, why does this not apply to Israel?

And doesn’t the United States already have its hands stained by the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima which killed and maimed thousands of innocent people and left wounds and scars for generations? In Professor Abu Sway’s view, changing an evil should not lead to a greater evil. This would be the case if the U.S. were to attack Iraq at this time.

The question and answer period brought the discussion back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Interestingly, more of the questions focused on the conflict in Israel and the Middle East than on the upcoming war against Iraq. Even global events like the War Against Terrorism and the War Against Iraq always bring the subject back to our conflict here.

In Israel, the Iraq situation is inevitably looked at through our own particular lenses – how will the war (or the absence of war in this case) affect the possibilities of Israelis and Palestinians to renew the peace process and learn to live in peace? It seems that this issue is very much on the minds of the peoples of Israel and the Palestinian Authority today, as much as the war in Iraq itself.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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