After 9-11, the U.S. went into Afghanistan and killed a lot of people, with the President declaring a “war on terror.” The Bible itself seems to condone going in and wiping out nations that we don’t like. Why does everything need to be so violent?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Sometimes war is necessary. Judaism teaches that while the supreme value is life, we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is also part of justice. Dangerous disputes must be resolved, because if you choose to leave evil alone it will eventually attack you (Rashi, Deut. 20:12).
Today, most Westerners grow up in quiet neighborhoods, and never experience war, persecution and racism. So they don't easily relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Questioning someone’s sense of justice and morality is not really fair if you haven't dealt with the harsh reality of their experience.
It is ironic that the Jewish people and Israel, which introduced to the world the concept of the sanctity of life, are now criticized as being "cruel" by today's Western civilizations which are built on that Jewish moral foundation! People today can only criticize the State of Israel because those very Jews taught the world that murder, conquest and abuse are wrong.
Though the Torah speaks of the Jewish wars against the Canaanites, people mistakenly think that the directive was to wipe out the Canaanites cruelly and indiscriminately. In truth, the Torah prefers that the Canaanites would avoid punishment; they were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they'd change and adopt the basic pillars of human civilization which distinguish a community of humans from a jungle of wild animals.
Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy, as the Torah states, "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." (Deut. 20:10)
Before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." If they refused, a second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." If they again refused, a final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to fight." Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations, the Girgashites, heeded the call and settled peacefully.
In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jewish people were still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape. (see Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4-5 with Kesef Mishna)
It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature. At various stages throughout the 40-year trek in the desert, Moses was forced to reprimand the Jews for having a fear of war. He inspired them with various pep talks, and assurances of victory. (see Exodus 14:3 with Ibn Ezra; Numbers 21:34 with Nachmanides; Deut. 31:6) King Saul lost his kingdom by showing misplaced mercy and allowing the Amalekite king to live.
And in modern times, Israel has often shown tremendous restraint in dealing with its enemies, and regret at any loss of life. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, "It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers."
So let’s put things into perspective before criticizing those who are fighting on the side of liberty and justice.