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In accepting his Nobel Prize for Peace on Thursday, December 10, 2010, US President Barack Obama defended (text of speech here from Nobel website) the morality of a military seeking to bring peace to a conflict-torn land and the theory that some wars are just:

Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

He went on to talk of terrorism, the changing nature of war in the 21st century, and the implacable warmongering of al-Qaeda. Yet he returned to the nature of how to conduct war:

To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason….

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.

It is in the approach even to participation in a just war that separates the moral from the immoral, as Donniel Hartman wrote in early 2009 during Israel’s short war in Gaza:

In a war against a terrorist regime such as Hamas, there is great moral clarity…. Having initiated years of ongoing missile attacks against the citizens of southern Israel, killing and injuring, both physically and mentally, hundreds of individuals, and making the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens untenable, it was a clear moral responsibility to defend our citizens and to attempt to create a new situation under which attacks would no longer occur. It was also necessary to act today to preempt further attacks that would only be more deadly, as Hamas continues to smuggle longer-range and more powerful missiles into Gaza. While no one is certain that the war will achieve the desired outcome, this debate has no effect on the morality of the attempt.

Yet Donniel also recognized that steps must be taken – even in the heat of battle – to prosecute that war in a moral fashion:

Asking these questions and engaging in moral self-evaluation, even in the middle of war, is not a sign of weakness. Rather, what we in Israel have learned is that our strength as a country and the fortitude of our army and soldiers are grounded in a significant way on our moral fiber and our soldiers’ recognition that they are part of a just cause and a just army.

Donniel Hartman also addressed the “proportional” force argument:

The measure of moral ambiguity that may exist in the eyes of some is grounded on the disparity of military capability between Israel and Hamas, a disparity which may question the legitimacy of the premise of self-defense. Hamas as a terrorist organization aims to terrorize, and as such has a limited ability to endanger Israel’s basic existence. While it may harm individual citizens, Hamas does not endanger the state as a whole.

It is under the cloud of this moral ambiguity that much of the criticism against Israel finds shelter. The justification of self defense dissipates when one compares Kassam rockets and mortar shells and their casualty toll with the might of the Israeli army and the consequences of its actions. Furthermore, it is also this reality which fuels the calls for proportionality in which the use of force on Israel’s side, it is claimed, must match that of the enemy it attacks. A “disproportionate” response is classified as unjust, for it is no longer contained or justified under the rubric of self-defense.

The moral difficulty, if not corruption, entailed within the above argument lies in the fact that it essentially allows terrorist organizations to terrorize with impunity, and morally handcuffs a society’s legitimate right to defend itself not merely when its existence is threatened, but when the lives of some of its citizens are in danger and many more are subjected to the effects of terror.

President Obama did not go into the nuances of “proportional response” theory in his speech, yet it is just that issue of proportionality which is haunting Israel in international forums today.

I would recommend that the President not only read Donniel Hartman’s article, but also take the time to review the lengthy piece on “Just War Theory” on the fascinating website, “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” which says (in part): “The second principle of just conduct is that any offensive action should remain strictly proportional to the objective desired.”

This would not seem to limit the actors in a just war to a “tit for tat” response, that is, you shot one bullet at me, so I am limited to one bullet. It does suggest that using nuclear weapons for a limited goal, such as ending border interdictions and kidnappings, for example, would not be moral. But it does not seem to limit a responding party:

Proportionality…requires tempering the extent and violence of warfare to minimize destruction and casualties. It is broadly utilitarian in that it seeks to minimize overall suffering….

There’s a great deal more that can be said about this. Hillel’s famous dictum, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you, that’s the whole Torah,” is followed by a second part: “Now go and study.”

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President Obama to appear at Jewish Communities General Assembly, Washington, DC, Nov. 9, 2009

President Obama to appear at Jewish Communities General Assembly, Washington, DC, Nov. 9, 2009

Shalom Hartman Institute will be at the United Jewish Communities (soon to be Jewish Federations of North America) annual General Assembly from November 8-10, 2009, in Washington, D.C. (Booth 311). First, and foremost, I invite you to stop by for a chat. I plan to have some goodies from Israel with me to entice people – if the marketing materials and flyers, and books, and magazines, and videos featuring Hartman Institute scholars aren’t enough!

As I said on Twitter (@alanabbey) I will give an extra piece of whatever I end up bringing if you tell me you heard about it on this blog or my Twitter page.

But seriously, I will be there to present the amazing programs of the Hartman Institute and to offer our new DVD Series of lectures on “Crisis and Leadership,” which is a special program now available for purchase by synagogues, community centers, adult education programs, Hillels, and private individuals tailored for adult education courses,  private study, leadership development and more.

By the way, Hartman Institute is not the ONLY draw at the GA. President Obama is scheduled to make his first speech to a Jewish group since becoming POTUS 44, as is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sensitive to the times, Netanyahu – who, unlike Obama, does not have his own airplane, is flying “economy” to the U.S. Obama will take the short drive from the White House to the conference hotel in NW Washington.

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From our colleague Rabbi Jonah Layman:

So I just hung up and I must say that President Obama is quite impressive. He framed his presentation around the “unetaneh tokef” prayer quoting who shall live and who shall die, etc. and the shofar blast. This season he says prompts serious reflection and debate about matters of life and death and that’s what the health care issue is. Reforming health care is essential especially for the 46 million Americans without health insurance. Everyone knows the system is broken and we need to trust each other to fix the system. We need to take bold steps to do that.

Background: NY Times article that mentions the conference call. NY Times blog on the overall debate.

BETTER: NY Times blog on the call with rabbis.

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President Obama is set to call a group of religious leaders today – that’s Aug. 19, 2009 –  to push his health care reform proposal. At least one rabbi with ties to Shalom Hartman Institute is going to be in on the call. Rabbi Jonah Layman, rabbi of Shaare Tefila Congregation of the Washington, DC, suburb of Silver Spring, MD, and a member of the current cohort of rabbis in the Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, told us he is going to be in on the call.

That’s not surprising, as Rabbi Layman is co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Social Action Committee and Washington Board of Rabbis.

There are several faith-based groups supporting the president’s program, including Faithful America’s faithforhealth.org, and Reform Judaism’s jewsforhealthcarereform.org.

According to the LA Times, the president actually will be speaking with rabbis twice today (Shaharit and Mincha?). The first call is strictly to rabbis, a sort of Rosh Chodesh Elul, pre-Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) health-care pep talk, and then the second call where rabbis are part of the larger group of pro-health-care-reform religious leaders:

First up is a “High Holy Day” call this morning with rabbis from Judaism’s Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. Organizers hope the call will provide fodder for synagogue sermons when the Jewish holidays arrive next month.

To listen in on the call, go to the Faith For Health website.

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President Obama’s speech in Cairo occurred more than a week ago, and Donniel Hartman’s commentary on the speech (“Are Jews Ready for Obama?“) also has been online for more than a week, but the debate – about the speech, and about Donniel’s commentary has yet to die down.

Several dozen comments have been published (and a few better left unpublished) taking all sides in the matter – from fervent support, to wishful commentary, to outright opposition. For example, one critic of Donniel’s wrote:

Donniel Hartman has posed a serious question. However, the answer in his article leads into the wrong direction. To begin with, the headline of the article should be phrased differently. It ought to be ” Is Israel ready for Obama?” – which is not the same.

However, many correspondents praised Donniel’s call for a new vision:

Great article. If embattled Israel can extend the hand of peace perhaps there is hope for all humanity!!! No it won`t be easy and there will be setbacks but it is our duty to keep working…

And then there was this one:

As a Jew and as an American I am ready for Barack Obama to lead not only our nation but the world in achieving peace. We need to look at ourselves not as separate entities but as a global community. I for one love life. It is disturbing to read some of the blog entries which continue to breed hate and disdain for one another.

Go the article, scroll down to the bottom – or, better yet, read it again – and then find all the comments. And add your own!

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UPDATE: Yes, Donniel’s post is already online, and has been so for several days. Sorry it took a while to get back to this post. See Donniel’s post here: “Are Jews Ready for Obama?:

While President Obama’s speech in Cairo was also about settlements, and about the Road Map, in essence it was about neither. It was about putting forth to us all the potential for a new future. President Obama’s speech was not about policy. It was about hope and the need to place a vision of a kinder and a better world, a world in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians – and the United States and the more than 1 billion Muslims of the world – will begin to see each other as partners who inhabit this world and not as enemies engaged in Armageddon. It was about remembering what we want for ourselves and our children and then thinking about what we need to do to fulfill these aspirations.

Here’s what President Obama said on Jews, Israel, Palestinians, two states and peace:

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them – and all of us – to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.

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Did Barack Obama read a letter from Donniel Hartman?

Did Barack Obama read a letter from Donniel Hartman?

Last November, a few days before the 2008 election that brought Barack Obama into the White House as the 44th US President, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman wrote what we called a “Letter to the new American President.” We didn’t know who would be elected, Obama or Sen. John McCain, but Donniel wanted to write the note to whichever of them won the election. In it, however, Donniel placed a sentence that makes me wonder, at least, if the column found its way to Obama’s desk recently.

Donniel wrote:

The job of a friend is not always to support by agreeing; sometimes, it involves support that challenges, pushes, and prods. You are going to have to be that type of friend. At times I might find it painful and disagree with you, but I will never question your motives.

To me, that sounds a lot like the so-called “tough love” Obama was indicating in an interview he gave to National Public Radio in Washington a few days ago, just before his trip to the Arab Middle East, which will include stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but, pointedly, none (scheduled, at least) to Israel. Here’s what President Obama said:

Part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region.

Both NPR and the New York Times, as well as many other news media outlets in the U.S, Europe, and Israel repeated the “tough love” phrase (which the President did not use himself, by the way).

You should know that we sent the column to several people we were assured had access to then President-elect Obama. I’m sure the man was bombarded in the days after the election, and I never heard back from anyone about whether he was shown the column. But it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

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