GOOD MORNING! Some forty years ago, on June 7, 1981, the State of Israel launched Operation Opera (aka Operation Babylon) – a surprise attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor located about 11 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. The strike was executed to protect the long-term security of the State of Israel with the hope of preventing Iraq from developing nuclear weapons.

The nuclear reactor was purchased from France in 1976, and the French dubbed it Osiraq (cleverly combining the “Osiris” class reactor with “Iraq”). Iraq named the main reactor Tammuz 1 because Tammuz was the Babylonian month when the Ba’ath party came to power in 1968. (Yes, the names of the Hebrew months are actually Babylonian in origin – a discussion for another time.)

The Israeli attack was characteristically brilliant. To execute the strike Israel would have to violate both Jordanian and Saudi airspace. To avoid detection, the Israeli pilots conversed in Saudi-accented Arabic while in Jordanian airspace and told Jordanian air controllers that they were a Saudi patrol that had gone off course. While flying over Saudi Arabia, they pretended to be Jordanians, using Jordanian radio signals and formations.

(Supposedly, King Hussein of Jordan, vacationing in the gulf of Aqaba, witnessed the planes overfly his yacht, and noticed their Israeli markings. Taking into account the location, heading, and armament of the jets, Hussein quickly deduced the Iraqi reactor to be the most probable target. Hussein immediately contacted his government and ordered a warning to be sent to the Iraqis. However, due to a “communication failure” the message was never received and the Israeli planes entered Iraqi airspace undetected.)

The attack consisted of eight F-16A’s each armed with two Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs and six F-15 fighter jets to provide air support. They left Israel about 3:55 pm and arrived at the reactor at 6:35 pm. Upon arrival, they dove to 3,000 feet and began releasing the bombs in 5 second intervals. The attack lasted less than two minutes. It is estimated that at least eight of the sixteen bombs struck the containment dome of the reactor – effectively obliterating the threat.

(Of course, they also had help from the Almighty; it was later revealed that half an hour before the Israeli planes arrived a group of Iraqi soldiers manning anti-aircraft defenses had left their posts for an evening meal and turned off their radars!)

True to form, international reaction to the Israeli strike was uniformly negative. The Security Council passed a unanimous resolution condemning it as a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct” and called on Israel to refrain from such attacks in the future. The UN General Assembly followed the Security Council with Resolution No. 36/27 on November 13, 1981, expressing deep alarm and condemning Israel over the “premeditated and unprecedented act of aggression.”

Of course, the American and international media issued blistering criticisms. The New York Times wrote, “Israel’s sneak attack [...] was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression” and the LA Times called it “State sponsored terrorism.”

But one of the fascinating aspects of history is how future events define how we perceive the past. In 1990 Iraq suddenly attacked Kuwait on a pretext that Kuwait was stealing petroleum from them using cross border slant drilling techniques. The real reason for the attack was that Kuwait had loaned them $14 billion during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq could not afford to pay it and Kuwait refused to pardon the debt.

At that point it became evident what kind of man Saddam Hussein really was, and in hindsight what a debt of gratitude the world owed Israel. Thirty-five nations joined the conflict against Iraq, which became the first Gulf War, known as Operation Desert Storm.

Following Desert Storm, Dick Cheney thanked the Israeli mission commander for the “outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981.” In an interview in 2005, former president Bill Clinton expressed support for the attack: “everybody talks about what the Israelis did at Osiraq, in 1981, which, I think, in retrospect, was a really good thing. You know, it kept Saddam from developing nuclear power.”

The reason I’m give you all this history is to gain insight into the remarkable consideration of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Yehuda Zvi Blum, Israel’s delegate to the UN, in a speech to the UN Security Council following the attack, explained that the operation was launched on a Sunday afternoon under the assumption that workers present on the site, including foreign experts employed at the reactor, would have left (though there were still casualties: ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian perished in the attack).

But this incredible morality of planning an attack – on what is perceived to be a mortal and existential threat – with the overarching goal of minimizing loss of life is a remarkable example of Judaism’s intense regard for the value of human life. As I have indicated in prior columns, this extraordinary concern for human life – all human life – is a hallmark of the Jewish people and prominently displayed by the Israeli army to this very day.

To understand the difference between the Jewish people and the Arabs, consider for a moment the celebration and dancing in the streets displayed by many Palestinians (and captured on CNN) on 9/11 when civilian targets were chosen by Osama Bin Laden to maximize loss of life. This abhorrent behavior is often repeated after terror attacks – murders of Israeli civilians are celebrated by handing out sweets on the streets in Gaza and the West Bank.

Unsurprisingly, the source for our code of moral conduct is the Torah, and we find a similar example in this week’s Torah portion.

Our forefather Jacob is informed that his brother Eisav is marching toward him with a troop of 400 armed men and murderous intent:

Jacob was very frightened and distressed. He divided the people accompanying him into two camps […] If Eisav comes to attack at least the other camp will escape (Genesis 32:8-9).

The great Biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) explains that Jacob was frightened because he worried that he may be killed, and it distressed him that he may come to kill others.

This seems difficult to understand. The Talmud (Brachos 58b) obligates one to launch a preemptive strike when one’s life is in danger; “If someone is coming to kill you, anticipate him and kill him first.” In other words, Jacob was obligated to kill those who were coming to murder him and his family. So why would he be bothered that he may have to kill his potential assassins?

Toward the end of his life Jacob gathered his sons around him to give each one a final message. Some of his sons he blessed and some he criticized. He reserved some of his harshest criticism for Shimon and Levi. This rebuke resulted from an incident also found in this week’s Torah reading.

Jacob’s daughter Dinah was abducted and subsequently raped by Shechem, the son of the chief of the region – Chamor. With some subterfuge, Dinah’s brothers formulated a plan to attack the city and release their sister. Two of the brothers, Shimon and Levi who were fierce warriors, went to the city and murdered the inhabitants and freed their sister. Maimonides goes to great lengths to explain why the people deserved to be put to death and that it was in accordance with Jewish law.

Still, Jacob severely rebuked Shimon and Levi. If they did the right thing, then why did Jacob criticize them so harshly? If we read the verse carefully we see what spurred Jacob to condemn their actions: “In their rage they killed [...]” (Genesis 49:5).

Thus, Jacob is criticizing the fact that they murdered the entire city out of anger. While it is true that Shimon and Levi acted properly in attacking the city of Shechem, their attitude was all wrong. A Jew has to understand that even though sometimes one has to take drastic measures, for example putting someone to death, one still has to feel remorse for his actions. Murder – even justifiable homicide – cannot be enforced through anger.

This is why Jacob was distressed at the prospect of killing Eisav or those in his army. One is never supposed to be comfortable with murder, even if the situation warrants it and there is no other option. This has been the Jewish legacy for thousands of years; to this day the Israeli army’s policy is to be hyper-vigilant about protecting Arab civilian lives. They maintain this policy even when it creates an elevated risk to their own soldiers. That is because Jews understand that life – all life – is precious.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

On a trip back to Canaan, Jacob meets his brother Eisav; Jacob wrestles with the angel. Then they arrive in Shechem. Shechem, the son of Chamor the Hivite, (heir to the town of Shechem) rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dina. Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levy, massacre the men of Shechem. Rebecca (Rivka) dies; God gives Jacob an additional name, “Israel,” and reaffirms the blessing to Avraham that the land of Canaan (Israel) will be given to his descendants. Rachel dies after giving birth to Benjamin (Binyomin). Jacob’s 12 sons are listed. Isaac dies. Eisav’s lineage is recorded as is that of Seir the Horite. Finally, the succession of the Kings of Edom is chronicled.

Candle Lighting Times

“When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
— Attributed to Golda Meir

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Alvin Adler


In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig