Jewish wisdom can help us deal with Afghanistan – the forward



When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, I was the same age as the current cadets at West Point.

After I graduated from college, I assumed I would leave the dangers of Afghanistan to our military and concentrate on studying for the Jewish clergy. Growing up on the Upper East Side, Judaism has always been defined more by comfort and pleasure than by difficult sacrifice. I was inspired by the music of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun ​​and the Central Synagogue, and I enrolled in the cantorial training program at Hebrew Union College with the dream of leading services in a similar environment. But the more I studied Judaism, the more I realized that there were other places where our clergy was needed as well.

Two thousand years ago, Hillel the Elder, one of the most famous rabbis in history, urged Jews to choose the harder good over the easier evil. “In a place where no one is human,” Hillel taught, “strive to be human.

As I was planning my next career change, I had to admit that Hillel probably wasn’t talking about Westchester or Long Island. I was appointed US Army Chaplain in 2011 with one goal in mind – to serve my country and its Jewish personnel in Afghanistan – and the weeks I spent there in 2012 and 2016 were the most meaningful. of my career in the military.

Today, the Taliban’s full recapture of Afghanistan poses difficult questions for American society. How long should we have stayed committed to our goals there, and at what cost? What were our obligations towards our Afghan partners? Has our national sacrifice of 2,500 dead and tens of thousands wounded finally been rendered meaningless by the victory of our enemies?

Reviews | I served in Afghanistan as an army chaplain. Jewish Wisdom Can Help Us Deal With What Comes After Withdrawal

As specific as these questions may appear, the broader issues underlying them are not new to Judaism. And just as Jewish wisdom and experience guided me in Afghanistan, I believe they can guide us all as we leave.


Hillel’s most famous quote provides a useful structure for further exploring Jewish thoughts on our country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“If I’m not for myself, who will be for me,” he asked. “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” And if not now, when?

The US mission in Afghanistan has always been driven by our own national security. Over time, however, it has become more difficult to justify their costs on behalf of our own interests.

Rabbinical thinkers reflected on these same problems 20 years ago, when the State of Israel found itself in a similar situation.

During the 1970s, Lebanon housed Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the Palestinians, which they accomplished in a matter of weeks. But rather than withdraw at that time, Israel tried unsuccessfully to install a friendly government in Beirut and train its fighters as the new army of South Lebanon.

These efforts only created greater security concerns than those they first attempted to solve: The Israelis inadvertently united a Shiite resistance in the creation of the paramilitary force, Hezbollah. And yet, despite continued losses and strategic failures, Israel remained in Lebanon for 18 years – the longest war in Israel’s history. In the years that followed, the Lebanon War was often referred to as Israel’s Vietnam.

In discussing the advisability of withdrawing from Lebanon, Israeli political leaders feared that “flight and panic” would damage national prestige, and that the abandonment of friendly forces of the army of South Lebanon would reward their loyalty with a treason. Israeli military leaders insisted that the withdrawal would limit their deterrence from future attacks.

The rabbinical leaders, however, offered a different point of view.

For them, the loss of Israeli lives in the endless occupation of Lebanon was too high a price to pay in the name of national honor and security. A war that had started for Israel’s self-defense had become more beneficial to Lebanese opponents of Hezbollah than to Israel itself.

Rabbi Yehudah Amital, a very influential leader of the modern Orthodox community, defended this position when Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. “I do not minimize the value of national honor – sometimes critical in deterrence Amital wrote. “Yet I do not accept the assertion that our partnership with the army in South Lebanon was so strong that it prevented our exit from Lebanon. The value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, and in particular the life of IDF soldiers, supplants the weight of national pride. “

During the debate on whether to withdraw from Afghanistan, we heard similar arguments. In an interview with NPR, former national security adviser John Bolton called the decision to withdraw a “national humiliation” and pleaded for a continued US military presence in Afghanistan. “I want to protect America from terrorist attacks,” he argued, “and I think a continued presence there would have been an insurance policy.”

Rabbis warn against sacrificing life on the slippery slope of deterrence and assurance. As the great medieval sage Rashi said: “In the case of certainty over a possibility, we prefer to follow certainty. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But that’s only half the story. While the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was backed by Jewish values, the poorly coordinated and insufficient support from our documented Afghan partners is certainly not.

Jewish law obliges us to save the vulnerable from their oppressors and resettle them among us, and to treat workers fairly by quickly paying what we owe them. We pledged to support our partners stranded in Afghanistan, in exchange for risking their lives to help us make their country and ours a safer place.

But in the end, our rescue efforts were too slow, mired in a fog of bureaucracy, and our failure to uphold these most basic Jewish values ​​meant more than just past due wages. For the thousands of Afghans stranded at the gates of Hamid Karzai Airport, forced to return to their lives under the Taliban, this meant the threat of death.

Nonprofits and NGOs from all religious backgrounds have been working day and night to resettle our Afghan partners with the urgency they deserve. HIAS has mobilized personnel at Fort Bliss, Fort Lee, and other military posts across the country to assist with the resettlement of currently arriving Afghans, and a host of other Jewish organizations are advocating for more responsive action on the part of of the federal government in favor of those still awaiting evacuation. It remains to be seen whether their efforts will be sufficient, but their actions reflect the Jewish value of helping those in need, whether they are Jewish or not. If I am only for myself, what am I?

The third and most painful question remains: was our sacrifice worth it?

Even though we want to see the results we hope for, the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches that God makes everything beautiful in God’s time, not in ours. This lesson is manifested in the encouragement of Judaism to plant trees, not only for the sake of the environment, but also for the optimism and foresight it requires. The Talmud tells of a sage who was once asked why he planted trees if we did not live long enough to enjoy their fruits. “Just as my ancestors planted for me,” he replied, “I also plant for my descendants. “

Afghanistan in 2021 is not what it was 20 years ago, as Thomas Friedman said, “precisely because of the social, educational and technological seeds of change. [we] planted over the past 20 years. If we had waited for the Taliban to transform into democratic devotees, we would never have risked the difficult steps to initiate this process.

Herein lies the urgency of Hillel’s final burden on us: if not now, when? If we always wait for a guarantee of success, we will never take the first difficult steps towards positive change.

It may be time for us to leave Afghanistan, but because of our sacrifice there, America’s values ​​of equal opportunity and civil liberties will continue to inspire future generations of Afghans long after we are gone. .

Reviews | I served in Afghanistan as an army chaplain. Jewish Wisdom Can Help Us Deal With What Comes After Withdrawal

Last year, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed West Point graduates in 2021, he reflected that while the world has changed a lot since he graduated in 1975, he believed that the solutions to its challenges were rooted in timeless lessons.

It is the same with Judaism. In some ways, Hillel’s world of two thousand years ago was very different from ours, but in the most human way it was no different at all.

Hillel may never have seen his country emerge from a 20-year occupation. But if he had, he probably would have turned to the same Jewish values ​​that can guide us now: the value of our lives, the value of our obligations, and the value of our best efforts, regardless of the outcome.

Cantor David Frommer is Jewish chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The views expressed in this article are hers and not those of USMA.



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