Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Lessons from American WarFair

That’s not a typo. Warfare is neutral whereas warfair raises moral questions: Why are we fighting? Against whom? For what ultimate purpose?

The United States is asking these questions of Israel in its present Gaza War, and most recently the last question, playing hardball to get an answer. However, it behooves not just Israel to answer these questions; America also has to look in its historical mirror before expecting to receive their wished-for answers.

Let’s start with 1865 and 1945 when the two most bloody wars in American history ceased. The destruction that Americans caused near the end was massive – in the first case against itself; in the second, against two mortal enemies (Dresden and Hiroshima as examples from the German and Japanese fronts). While some still debate today whether it was moral to drop the atomic bomb, few lament the ultimate outcome – for two reasons.

First and foremost, because in 1945 America was fighting against two evil regimes: extremely racist Germany and highly militaristic Japan. In both cases, the “why” was simple: they attacked America first. As to the ultimate purpose: to destroy the regime and institute something better in its place. Was this successful? Absolutely! Germany and Japan turned into the most pacifist countries in the world, with no wish whatsoever to become a military power again.

As to 1865, much the same could be said regarding the why: the South attacked the North. As to the purpose: to save slavery. Here too the morality was all on the North’s side. Looking back on the war and its outcome, few today would argue that the American Civil War should not have been fought – and certainly no one would dare state that the outcome wasn’t salutary.

The bottom-line lesson here: when faced with unmitigated evil (or aggression), total victory is not only necessary, but it also can (not necessarily will) lead to a highly positive outcome down the road.

Is Israel in such a situation? Basically yes. It faces an implacable enemy (Hamas) whose foundational charter calls for Israel’s destruction and murdering (or exiling) as many Jews as possible. Nor is this merely blowhard exhortation. Hamas has been firing missiles into Israel for the past decade and a half, putting its (or others’) money where its mouth (and heart) is. In short, Hamas combines the worst of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan: racist to the core and implacably aggressive.

It is worth mentioning the other moral issue: innocent civilians. In truth, that’s an oxymoron: most German citizens supported the country’s war effort to the end; Japanese citizens were fiercely loyal to their Emperor even after the atomic bombs dropped; the latest polls in Gaza show that approximately 70% of the Gazan public still support the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Of course, there’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza today – that’s the nature of war. Perhaps not war“fair” in the vast scheme of things, but certainly an unfortunate part of warfare.

But wait: what of the Palestinian argument that Israel has “stolen” its land? Besides being false on several counts (most of the land was bought pre-1948; there never was a Palestinian “state”; there have always been Jews living in the Holy Land throughout history; the U.N. divided the land between Jews and local Arabs, but the latter refused the deal and attacked the fledgling state; etc.), here too looking at American warfair is instructive.

1846-1847: the Mexican-American War. The U.S. defeated Mexico in this 15-month war that started as a dispute over the Texas boundary – not an earth-shattering issue, and yet the result was huge. Mexico had to give America what eventually became present-day Arizona and New Mexico, as well as parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. In short, Mexico lost about half its territory. Thus, why should the U.S. hold Israel to a completely different standard after being attacked by its Arab neighbors several times over its relatively brief history? And yet Israel actually gave back the fruits of its victory in its peace treaty with Egypt, and administrative autonomy to the West Bank Palestinians in the Oslo Accords. If any country historically has been “expansionist,” it’s the United States (let’s not even mention what happened to the Native Americans who signed treaty after treaty with the United States government, only to have the latter unilaterally abrogate or ignore them).

President Biden has always been – and continues to be – a true friend of Israel, in words and deeds. What he lacks, however, is a clear understanding of how America came to be great (no sarcasm meant here) i.e., historical perspective regarding how to conduct warfair when faced with a relentless and ruthless enemy. The Gazan War is not akin to the conflict with Mexico way back when, but rather an existential battle with a truly evil enemy. Two of America’s greatest presidents – Lincoln and FDR – understood that well. Hopefully, Uncle Joe does too – and will continue to act accordingly.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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