With Iran, teshuva may mean acting alone

Last week, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, entered into the conversation about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, stating that “silence is a position” that he is no longer comfortable maintaining. As he entered the fray, he offered the Jewish people excellent reminders for how we should converse with each other about challenging political matters involving Israel.

The phrases “I know” and “I do not know” are interspersed throughout the piece, reminding us of the importance of honesty and the danger of worshiping the false god of certainty. Rabbi Hartman’s approach is a model for us all at this challenging time for the Jewish people. Let us not forget, however, that he is taking a political position, and I believe that offering a critique of that position is imperative. I can say with confidence that from my interactions with Rabbi Hartman, he would welcome a respectful challenge to his position.

The most critical paragraph in Rabbi Hartman’s piece is:

It is not clear that economic sanctions have failed. It is not clear that an attack will do more than merely delay Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It is not clear that Israel has the military capacity to attack Iran alone and succeed. It is not clear that the consequences of such an attack on Israeli lives and life in Israel will not be catastrophic. With so much that is unclear, I do not feel that the criteria of just war have been met.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are vigorously making the case for an attack because of these matters but also others, unmentioned and clear, namely: In the last three months, Iran has placed more centrifuges into a heavily fortified underground facility, and it has increased its amount of enriched uranium.

This fact demonstrates that the position that economic sanctions have not succeeded is stronger than the position that they have not failed. Otherwise, why would Iran’s nuclear program be progressing instead of regressing?

A second and more important reason Netanyahu and Barak are considering an attack is: the window for striking is closing since the Iranian nuclear program is going underground, its fortification is increasing, and Israel does not have the equipment to penetrate it. This is probably the single most significant reason why they are speaking openly about a strike at this time. Any argument for or against a strike must address this factor.

The alternative is to allow the window to pass. That would mean outsourcing Israel’s defense to a friend, a great friend indeed, but one whose interests, while similar, are not exactly the same. Since a key element of Rabbi Hartman’s position is that he is concerned with the welfare of the Israel’s citizens in the event of an Israeli attack, this item is important. Simply put, outsourcing a country’s defense — even to a best friend – could constitute a breach in the covenant between Israel’s political and military leadership and its populace, as Israel will forfeit its ability to make ultimate decisions about its future security.

In addition, Rabbi Hartman states that “Israel has real friends in the world and…if we have to act alone, we probably shouldn’t.” A point that he makes in another context of his piece, however, could reasonably undermine this contention: “I know that blind faith and trust in any human institution is a mistake.”

This is, above all, a religious contention in that it highlights human fallibility. In its original context, Rabbi Hartman is referring to the Israeli military, but one could also apply this teaching to the executive branch of the American government. If Israel allows its opportunity to strike Iran to pass, it will be placing absolute trust in the American president – himself human and therefore fallible.

Indeed, this is the season for teshuva, which means that we must seek not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Jewish history is replete with incidents where we relied on other people to protect us; they failed to do so, and tragedy befell us. Through Zionism, we have attained sovereignty and developed military power enabling us to cut out the unreliable middle man between us and our enemies. Since our own fallibility is no less than that of any other group of people on this earth, we have no responsibility to rely on anyone more than we rely on ourselves. If we must choose between two potential errors – entrusting our security to a third party or attacking before the time is perfectly ripe – we ought not to err by way of the former. Attacking alone, therefore, must remain a viable option.

About the Author
Matt Abelson is a Conservative Rabbi living in Somerville, MA.