What foreign policy is most consistent with Jewish values?

This is Chapter 7 of the 2nd edition of my book, “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values t Help Heal Our Imperilled Planet.”


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

“And the work of righteousness shall be peace; And the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever.” — Isaiah 32:17

“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” — John F. Kennedy

With the United States spending almost as much money on the military as all the other major powers combined, still feeling negative effects from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, struggling against terrorism, and reducing vital social services while expanding the military’s budget, it seems appropriate to consider an alternate U.S. foreign policy, one consistent with basic Jewish values.
As Lester Brown, President of Earth Policy Institute, points out in the preface to his book, World On The Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, there is a pressing need to “redefine security for the twenty-first century:“The [primary] threats to our future now are not armed aggression, but rather climate change, population growth, water shortages, poverty, rising food prices, and failing states.”

Are religious Jews more hawkish than other Jews?

Although there are Orthodox Jewish peace activists, such as the members of Oz v”Shalom/Netivot Shalom discussed in chapter 6, I have found many religious Jews to be especially antagonistic toward Muslims and also very hawkish. I have heard some say that Israel should just destroy the Palestinians or drive them out of Israel and the territories altogether. Several Orthodox Jews have told me that the United States should just bomb Muslim countries back to the Stone Age one by one, since “the only thing Muslims understand is force.”
In addition to the moral callousness of such positions, these Jews ignore the effects that unprovoked and massive violence committed by the United States and Israel would have on world opinion. We would become pariah states. Furthermore, such actions might trigger a severe recession or a depression due to threats to oil supplies, and would greatly increase prospects for antisemitism, anti-Americanism, instability, terrorism, and war.
A 2006 study found that Jews who attend synagogue services at least once a week were twice as likely to support the war in Iraq and to define themselves as politically conservative as Jews who seldom or never go to synagogue. Of course I am not advocating that Jews go to synagogue less often. Rather, I am suggesting that they consider and apply the rich Jewish teachings on peace and justice, some of which were discussed in chapter 2.
Some of the reasons for this hawkishness are quite understandable. Because the Soviet Union brutally oppressed Jews for decades, many Jews supported tough U.S. policies toward the USSR and escalation of the arms race, even after we and the Soviet Union had the nuclear capacities to destroy each other (and, indeed, the entire world) hundreds of times over. Also, because implacable enemies have surrounded Israel since the moment of her birth in 1948, Jews have supported major arms expenditures by Israel and by the United States, Israel’s main and sometimes only ally.  But are these policies still viable today?

A critique of present United States foreign policy

Stalemates and quagmires that developed during the United States’ wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, suggest that overwhelming conventional forces cannot effectively combat terrorism and guerilla wars. Other approaches must be found. The United States’ invasion of Iraq and the chaotic and ill-planned efforts at “nation-building” that followed have been frustrating and ineffective, at the expense of America’s influence, security, and economy.
It was a great thing for the people of Iraq, and for democracy in the Arab world in general, that the mass-murderer and tyrant Saddam Hussein was overthrown. But in many ways, the cure has been worse than the disease. The American public was misled into thinking that Saddam had or was building weapons of mass destruction, although UN inspectors on the ground were not finding any evidence of this – making the Iraq war very unpopular and, many believe, unnecessary. By taking our attention away from the war in Afghanistan where the 9/11 terrorist attacks originated, we minimized the chances of quickly finding Osama Bin Laden, winning the war there, and greatly weakening the Taliban. Now the instability in the area, largely due to US intervention, arguably led to the formation of the brutal terror group ISIS.
Thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have been wounded and traumatized. Many soldiers served four or more tours of duty, and the ability of the United States to meet other military threats has been greatly damaged. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan Muslims have been killed, with many more wounded and/or made homeless. This has increased hostility toward the U.S. and has given propaganda victories to terrorists.
And all the above has been at a staggering financial cost. Imagine what could have been done with the estimated $3 trillion that the Iraq war will end up costing when all the expenses, including expensive medical and rehabilitative care for many thousands of wounded and traumatized soldiers, are taken into account. That money could have been far better spent to make the United States more secure, to rebuild our infrastructure, to reduce unemployment and poverty, and to respond to many other pressing societal needs. Instead, many teachers, police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, and others, were laid off, and important programs were cut back.

Should the U.S. or Israel Attack Iran?

When it comes to Iran and its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, a common response from my fellow congregants and others in the Jewish community is that we should long since have bombed them or be preparing to do so soon. Although I agree with the strong consensus that it is very important that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, I also believe we should consider the many negative consequences an attack on Iran would likely have.
A comprehensive case against such an attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities is in a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They observe that:

  • There is no guarantee of success. Limited aerial resources would permit Israel to target only three sites among Iran’s many nuclear development centers. Pinpoint accuracy would be needed to penetrate deeply buried, thick reinforced concrete and impact underground facilities. Even if the known sites were destroyed, it is suspected that Iran has one or more other secret facilities for enriching uranium, and the Iranians would certainly increase such efforts after an attack. Therefore, there is no guarantee that a strike against Iran would finish off its nuclear program or even slow it down for more than a few years.
  • An Israeli attack would likely spur Iran to continue and possibly accelerate their nuclear program, in an effort to obtain a reliable deterrence against future Israeli attacks
  • Israel could lose large numbers of planes and lives during an attack. Since Iran has built an extensive aerial-defense system, it would be difficult for Israeli planes to reach their targets safely.
  • Israeli aircraft would need to be refueled both en route to and when returning from Iran. The IAF (Israeli Air Force) would have difficulty finding an area above which the tankers could cruise without being detected and possibly attacked.


*An ecological disaster and many deaths from released radiation could occur, affecting surrounding nations besides Iran, thereby further increasing hatred of Israel and provoking military and terrorist responses.

  • Iran would likely launch retaliatory attacks against Israel, American military forces in Iraq, and Western interests in the region. These attacks would likely include ballistic missiles — some with biological, chemical, and radiological warheads— targeting Israel’s civilian and military centers. Iran possesses missiles whose range covers all of Israel.
  • Iran would likely use Hamas and Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks and suicide bombers against Israel. Recent events have demonstrated Hezbollah’s vastly expanded rocket capability and Hamas’ ability to fire Qassams from the Gaza Strip. During the second Lebanon War, Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets from South Lebanon, which nearly paralyzed northern Israel for a month. Their supply has since been replenished and enhanced; they and Israel’s other enemies had an estimated 200,000 rockets and missile targeted at Israel in 2013.
  • An Israeli strike on Iran would further increase instability in the Middle East. The Iranians would likely use proxies to stir up trouble in many areas.
  • The Iranians would also likely try to disrupt the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to the West by blocking the Gulf of Hormuz. Oil prices would soar due to the unstable conditions and possible disruptions. Steps to get our economy back on track would be set back, with even worse economic conditions resulting.


The above points are applicable to a US strike on Iran as well.

In summary: There is far from a guarantee that an Israeli (or United States) strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be successful and there are many possible harmful effects of such an attack. It is crucial that Iran not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons and thereby precipitate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but military methods can’t accomplish that, and even if it could, the side effects would be extremely negative as indicated above. It is more effective to deploy serious economic sanctions along with diplomatic isolation and punishment.
Iran must be convinced that any nuclear attack on Israel or any other country will result in immediate devastation of Iranian cities, while cooperating with the west and the international community could lead to many economic and diplomatic benefits for them.
Along with most people, I hope and pray that Iran does not acquire a nuclear capacity, and I support strong sanctions and other approaches that may get Iran to change its strategy. But we also should remember that for many years the US and the former Soviet Union built many thousands of nuclear weapons and kept them on trigger alert with a strategy of “mutually assured destruction” that threatened the entire world. Fortunately, neither side was crazy enough to use these weapons, but we came close when the Soviet Union brought nuclear weapons into Cuba, and we threatened attacking Soviet ships that were trying to end a blockade of Cuba. While the present Iranian regime is certainly evil, even denying that the Holocaust occurred, it would be suicidal for them to attack Israel with nuclear weapons. Hopefully the current negotiations will succeed in preventing Iran from producing one or more nuclear weapons.
The world would, of course, be far better of without a nuclear-armed Iran. But we should remember the deep-seated Iranian resentment of the 1953 coup, which installed the Shah, ejected an elected Iranian government, and the subsequent U.S. aid, which provided the Shah with the weapons to suppress and torture his opponents. Iran also recognizes that if Iraq had actually possessed nuclear weapons, the U.S. would likely never have invaded that country – hence their desire to have such weapons today, in the belief that it will deter a U.S. attack. Threatening military action will likely increase Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons.

Toward a more rational foreign policy

Perhaps now is the time to consider another United States foreign policy, one that will be consistent with Jewish values and can also increase the security of the United States, Israel, and all of the world’s people.
We live in a very dangerous world today, one with threats of a different nature and magnitude than those that past generations faced. Major battlefield conflicts are less likely, but there are greater threats of battles with enemies hiding among a large civilian population. The U.S. wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Israeli wars in Gaza and Lebanon, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan show how difficult it is to win guerilla wars. Terrorism is another significant danger, one that is elusive and hard to prevent or fight with conventional methods. Attempts to oppose terrorism can have unexpected effects and blowback.

Reducing terrorism

One problem in developing a thoughtful and balanced foreign policy is that, as indicated previously, most people see the world in terms of black and white, good versus evil, us against them. They prefer to demonize people and groups who are not like them and to score debating points, rather than looking at situations from various perspectives in order to seek greater understanding, common ground, and solutions.
As we discuss in chapter 9, many Americans believe that a significant number of Muslims are evil and are plotting to take over the world. Many also assume that the U.S. is innocent of any blame, that our actions have nothing to do with hatred of the U.S, and that we therefore do not need to rethink anything or change.
Difficult as it may be, if we wish to reduce threats of terrorism, we should consider whether American actions are at least partially responsible for the antagonism toward the United States and the West, and whether or not this contributes in part to the growth of terrorism. The United States does many wonderful things across the globe such as providing much aid when tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other disasters strike other nations. But we have also done many things that lead others to view the U.S. harshly as an imperial power.
In 2004, a task force commissioned by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to study the causes of terrorism concluded that “Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather, they hate our policies,” specifically, “American direct intervention in the Muslim world” and what they regard as our “one-sided support in favor of Israel,” support for Islamic tyrannies in several countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and, most of all, “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Another comprehensive study by Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and former Air Force lecturer, concluded that the prime cause of suicide bombings is not hatred of our freedoms or inherent violence in Islamic culture, nor it is a desire to establish worldwide sharia rule. Rather, it is our “foreign military occupations.” Drawing on data from a six-year study of suicide terrorist attacks around the world that was partially funded by the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Pape and his research team found that the common cause of most suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 is military occupation. Reporting on his findings, Pape stated: “We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns… and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100% of the terrorist campaign.”
These and other reports describe how Muslims are angered when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries, and when Western powers interfere in their internal affairs, sometimes overthrowing or covertly manipulating their governments. Historically, nations have always objected to being invaded, occupied, and bombed by an occupying power. So we should not be surprised that people resent us doing the same. U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were arguably counterproductive to reducing terrorism, because we created additional angry people who may consider turning to terrorism as revenge for what they consider our unjust and harmful actions in their country.
Long before the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a long United States history of interventions abroad to further our interests. Major General Smedley D. Butler described in a 1933 talk how he rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps by “being a high class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers… a racketeer for capitalism.” He was rewarded with honors, medals and promotions because, as he expressed it:

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909… I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”

Ralph McGehee, who served in the CIA from 1952 to 1977, gives a similar analysis in the introduction to his 1983 book, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA. He writes:

“My view, backed by 25 years of experience is, quite simply, that the CIA is the covert action arm of the presidency. Most of its money, manpower and energy go into covert operations that… include backing dictators and overthrowing democratically elected governments… The CIA uses disinformation, much of it aimed at the U.S. people to mold opinion… The U.S. installs foreign leaders, arms their armies, and empowers their police to help those leaders repress an angry, defiant people… The CIA-empowered leaders represent only a small fraction who kill, torture and impoverish their own people to maintain their position of privilege.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also very critical of U.S. foreign policy. He left behind a strong anti-imperialist message that sharply questioned the very nature of the “American Empire.” When still a graduate student, King wrote of threats from the “False God of Nationalism,” which he considered a kind of pseudo-religion. To King, “my country right or wrong” was the watchword of this religion. Its preachers, absolutely convinced of its supremacy, were determined to persecute anyone who questioned its tenets.
In later years, King was sharply critical of the U.S. war in Vietnam, in spite of the great backlash he knew he would receive for that criticism, even from some fellow Civil Rights leaders. He stated that the U.S. was the “largest purveyor of violence in the world.” He recognized the great cost of the war in terms of increased poverty and cuts to basic services and stated that “the bombs that are falling in Vietnam explode at home” in American cities.
A primary force propelling U.S. policy has been and remains the protection of U.S. corporate interests, regardless of the undemocratic nature or negative human rights record of the groups and governments with whom we have allied ourselves. As mentioned previously, the U.S. government in August 1953 helped undermine the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mosadegh and installed the Shah in power. The Shah subsequently used widespread repression and torture in a dictatorship that lasted until the 1979 Islamic revolution, which also has produced tyranny, quashing demonstrations, violating civil liberties, and rigging elections, to stay in power.
The U.S. has also supported dictatorships in the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Spain, Portugal, and many other countries. We have even backed dictators like Saddam Hussein and terrorists like Osama bin Laden when it was in our interest. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have supported repressive Arab regimes, with increasingly counterproductive results. This made the U.S. appear hypocritical and lose credibility with Arab publics and has provided an important recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
Given the above and other examples in U.S. history, it is not surprising that some people do not look on the United States as kindly as most Americans do. I believe that part of the battle against terror has to include changing the way America acts worldwide, which would help reshape how the world views us. Anti-Americanism costs the United States the cooperation of other nations in dealing with such global problems as terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, HIV/AIDS, disease epidemics, and potential security crises, whether in North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, the Taiwan Strait, or elsewhere.

Toward a “Marshall Plan” for the world: to rescue the planet, reconstruct our World, lift up the poor around the globe, and improve relations between nations

Radical new ideas are needed to improve conditions for the world’s many displaced and desperately hungry people and to improve relations between peoples and nations. This would also decrease the dangers of terrorism and war. One possible approach is for the United States, along with all the other developed nations, including Israel, to lead a global campaign to greatly reduce poverty, hunger, illiteracy, illness, pollution, and climate change. This might be done by applying on a worldwide scale the successful model of the Marshall Plan, suggested and led by General George Marshall after World War II. Marshall recognized that if Europe were left in a state of social and economic devastation, the resulting discontent could lead to another war, as it did after World War I. His plan was designed to help prevent this.
Under the Marshall Plan, the United States rebuilt post-World War II Europe, rescuing millions from starvation and reconstructing entire cities and countries, thereby winning friends and allies, reducing strife, revolution, and violence, and even creating customers and markets for US industries.
A similar plan, on a more global scale, has been proposed by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP). Their plan seeks a new strategy for the U.S., one based on “generosity, not domination in its foreign policy.” To help end centuries of war and violence and attempts to dominate others, they are calling for “a fundamentally new approach that emphasizes that generosity and genuine caring for others can be a much more effective and morally coherent approach to human security, peace, and development.” They point out that a new paradigm is needed today, a “Strategy of Generosity,” that aims to “reestablish trust and hope among the peoples of the world” in order to reduce world poverty and save the global environment from climate change and the many additional current environmental threats.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives aims to shift a foreign policy based on self-interest to one that considers “what best serves all the people on this planet and best serves the survival of the planet itself.” They argue that because of the interconnectedness of all people on the planet, “the best interests of America and the best interests of our children and grandchildren are best served by considering the best interests of everyone else, and the best interests of the planet…” rather than to frame things in terms of narrow self-interest. They believe that the plan will only work if it is supported for the right reasons, with the “Strategy of Generosity” at the core, and global common good as the primary goal.
Such a worldwide Marshall Plan would be hard to administer and a tough sell to the wealthier countries that would have to provide the funding.  On the other hand, we are currently spending billions of dollars on defense with the old paradigm, which is no longer working. Our current course is an unsustainable one, which will in all probability lead to greatly increased famines, wars, and chaos.
One or two percent of the GDP of the richer nations could be applied, if focused properly, to help poorer peoples become self-supporting; to combat diseases which ravage poorer populations and ultimately endanger all people; to reverse deforestation and pollution and destructive energy uses which threaten the planet; to provide education to millions of children who do not currently receive it; and to provide dignity, hope, drinkable water, adequate nutrition, and safe living environments in many of the nations where those precious commodities are much too scarce.
Essentials of the Marshall plan developed by the Network of Spiritual Progressives include:

  • Providing enough funding to greatly reduce global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, plus restore the global environment…”
  • Creating an unbiased, international nongovernmental mechanism for receiving and properly distributing the funds.
  • Funding the plan in a way that is “ environmentally sensitive, respectful of native cultures, safeguarded against corruption, protected from manipulation to serve corporate profit motives or the interests of elites, and empowering of the people in each region.
  • Governing the funding agency or mechanism “by a board of ethicists, religious leaders, poets, writers, social theorists, philosophers, economists, scientists, and social change activists, all of whom have demonstrated that they give higher priority to the well-being of others than to the well-being of corporations or wealthy elites.”

Creating a Marshall Plan for the world may seem utopian, but in a strange way it may the most practical and reasonable idea to deal with the grave crises we face today.  In the words of the title of a book by Buckminster Fuller, we confront Utopia or Oblivion. We can continue on the present path, based on greed, nationalism, domination, hatred, and bigotry, with increasingly worsening economic, ecological, and social conditions, or we can strive for a more generous, tolerant, just, peaceful, humane, and environmentally sustainable world. The choice between a far better future and a far worse future is in our hands, and the stakes are very great, so we must not fail.
Even if we never accomplish a complete Marshall Plan for the planet, we should explore ways in which the U.S. and other governments, along with millions of individuals joining together in Non-Governmental Organizations, can significantly increase economic and humanitarian aid in specific areas of need, and make it more effective long-term.  Imagine, for example, what the effect might be if the U.S. and Israel were to include, as part of a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an offer to devote a percentage of the money now spent on the military and domestic security toward rebuilding the economy of Gaza. This would bring much more stability, cooperation, and unity than would increasing spending on blockades, weapons and defense.

Preventing “Climate Wars”

Another threat to the security of the U.S. and other nations that is becoming an increasing concern is what some military experts are calling “climate wars.” In 2014, Sixteen former U.S. three- and four-star generals and admirals warned that climate change is a leading national-security threat, calling it a potential “catalyst for conflict.” The military experts argued that, unless properly addressed, climate change will have an impact on ”military readiness, strain base resilience both at home and abroad, and may limit our ability to respond to future demands.” They are concerned about
major heat waves, droughts, severe storms, flooding from rising seas and storm surges, wild fires, and other problems, resulting in waves of climate refugees, failed states, and potential warfare.
There is some evidence that climate change-caused major droughts helped spark civil wars in Darfur and Syria. Much of the Middle East is already a semi-arid area, and military experts believe that predictions that the area will become even hotter and drier make instability, violence and war more likely there.

Denial will not solve these problems

However, largely due to the major disinformation campaigns by the oil, coal, and other industries that are gaining greatly from the status quo (as brilliantly discussed in Climate Cover-Up by James Hoggan), many people do not regard climate change as a threat or accept that human activities are a significant factor.
Many Jews, especially in the Orthodox community, are in denial about climate change. Instead of considering the major scientific consensus as indicated by the many peer-reviewed articles and the consensus of scientific academies worldwide, they are more influenced by the views of Fox News and other conservative media sources. Most Jews and others, as we will discuss in Chapter 12, seldom even consider the major impact of animal-based agriculture on climate change.
When I try to stress the urgency of actions to combat climate change, including the importance of dietary changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in my synagogue, I am often told that I should be more concerned about terrorism, Iran, getting a nuclear weapon, and Israel’s security. Of course, these are critical concerns, and they have been discussed previously in this book. But finding a way to avert the impending unprecedented climate catastrophe that many climate scientists are warning us about, along with its potential consequences of instability, terrorism, and war, must also become a societal imperative, and Jews should be playing a leading role in increasing awareness of these threats.

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