Monday, October 18, 2010

In International Affairs, Naivete Is A Fatal Disease

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By Barry Rubin

What is more inspiring than good intentions? War, well it’s just bad and everyone should be against it. We should all love everyone from all countries and groups equally, with no special pride for our own nation (hasn’t it done a lot of bad things?). Nothing is worth fighting for. Other countries and societies are precisely the same as ours and their people just want happy lives. All problems can be solved by dialogue and efforts to understand others.

It would be wonderful if the world and human beings were like this. But they aren’t. What could be more brilliant than the way the basic problem keeping all humanity from being good was expressed by Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, who spoke to the Creator in the following terms:

“Master of the universe, what do you want from your children? You have, after all, placed them in a benighted world. A world where Satan himself prances amongst them, fanning their evil inclination; where all the things that provoke fleshly desires are ranged before their very eyes, while the warnings of retribution lie hidden between the covers of some moralistic tome. You can be certain that if you had arranged things the other way around–with the place of retribution right in front of their eyes, and all the fleshly desires hidden away in some learned old book, not a single person would ever do anything wrong!”

Alas, that is not so. The rabbi explains that all humans are endowed with both an "animalistic" side and a higher spirit that wage a struggle within each individual. Life, then, is a struggle in which this balance of power is critical to determining an individual's virtue and a nation's success.

Those who fail to comprehend the difference between idealism and the real world pay the price, or others pay that price for their errors.

In this context is a sermon given by Rabbi Harold Saperstein. His activist son, Rabbi David Saperstein, has lovingly and with filial devotion, assembled his father's writings. This particular sermon is entitled “Must There Be War?” His answer: Of course not.  He explains: “We read with horror of a single human sacrifice to ancient idols,” he noted, “What shall we say of this modern offering to the pagan god of war?

Those who do not fight for pacifism, "may be the murderers of your own sons,” sacrificed in needless, easily avoidable fighting. Thus, he continued, “We are pledged to destroy war.”

Of course, the rabbi gives some lip service to realists who scoff at such notions. “There are some who say, `But sometimes war is inevitable. Sometimes there arises the occasion when we must fight.’ I answer, `War is never inevitable unless you make it so.’”

But what of the argument that:

"There are causes for which it is honorable to sacrifice one's life." I answer, "Yes, there are such causes: liberty, justice, truth, peace. But war is not one of them. Give your lives for these causes, as I am willing to give mine, but do not use war as a means, for by now we should know that the issue in war is not democracy or world peace or any of those ideals for which men are willing to die. The issues are colonies and foreign investments and the profits of armament manufacturers. Are these worth the sacrifice of your life?”

And, “Others say, `There are evils worse than war.' I answer, `There are no evils worse than war.'"

War can be avoided, Saperstein claims, because of a “fundamental truth. That is that the people of no nation want war. No people wants its young men killed, its children starved, its country destroyed. If a nation is ready to fight, it is only that they are the dupes of lying propaganda, just as we are, that they feel that they are being attacked and must fight a war of defense.”

Yes, but what if the people are successfully “duped” into being willing and even eager participants in war because they believe their religion mandates it, their national interest requires it, their manhood demands it,
and victory will bring them massive benefits?

Are there such people?

Oh, I almost forgot the date of the sermon: November 11, 1936.

In his book The 'Hitler Myth': Image and Reality in the Third Reich, discussing events going on when Rabbi Saperstein gave his sermon, Ian Kershaw explained:

“Hitler enjoyed more personal popularity in Germany than perhaps any other world leader in history. Many scholars have sought to understand why he was so popular and thus why so many people in a modern, industrialized nation were willing to follow him into madness, barbarism, and self-destruction. Was there something special about Hitler that allowed him to control and manipulate the German people?”

Yes, a lot of things have been used to achieve that goal. These include: extremist nationalism; a thirst for revenge, ideology inculcated by systematic indoctrination; the belief that enemies are weak and easily defeated (because they believe the kind of thing Saperstein says while tearing themselves down in an orgy of self-criticism); the charismatic leader; lies and disinformation; the mobilization of religion to make war seem holy; rewards for adherents coupled with punishments for critics; state control over institutions, the belief that aggression will bring booty as rewards for the victor; and much more.

Is any of this familiar in today’s world, both in the contemporary equivalent of Saperstein and-- with many differences, but some critical essentials in common—those who laugh at their naiveté while scheming to snuff out their lives.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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