Jewish Peace Fellowship


Our Tradition Teaches
Pacifism: Now More Than Ever

In the face of such an obvious evil as terrorism how could anyone oppose war? Given what happened on September 11, how can the American anti-war movement opposing the bombing of Afghanistan and advocating pacifism be justified?

Pacifism is the most misunderstood word in the entire political lexicon. Often confused with the word 'passive," "pacifism" is too often taken to mean an amoral refusal to confront and oppose evil in the world. But the words have very different roots. While "passive" comes from the Greek word for "suffering", "pacifism" comes from the Latin word for "peace." Pacifism does not mean being passive in the face of evil. On the contrary, pacifism is all about confronting and defeating evil. Ever since Shifra and Puah refused to obey Pharaoh's evil command to kill all male children of Israelite women during childbirth, people of conscience have fought evil without resorting to violence. Moreover they have often succeeded.

Too often, pacifism's successes, such as Gandhi's independence movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement, are dismissed because the pacifists are said to have been working within civilized democratic societies instead of facing "true evil." At the same time, pacifism's critics accuse it of terrible failures, including the rise of Hitler-criticisms that are absurd given the actual history of these events.

For example, pacifism is often blamed for Neville Chamberlain's shameful performance at Munich. It's true that a potent pacifist movement arose after World War l as a reaction to the ghastly carnage of that conflict. However, while the rhetoric of that movement was sometimes cynically adopted by national governments, it did not actually impose its will on any of them. In the case of Chamberlain, despite his infamous assertion that he had brought "peace in our time," peace was hardly his mission. England had a long history of attempting to influence events by creating a "balance of power" through its diplomatic and military policies and actions. Chamberlain, the Conservative prime minister, followed a policy of appeasement because he saw fascism as a force to balance the Communism of Stalin's Soviet Union. Doubtless he also believed that if England and France were supportive of Hitler they would not be attacked by the Third Reich. This was a foolish policy, and it was not pacifism.

The failure of the United States to stand up against Hitler likewise had nothing to do with pacifism. Our nation had refused to be part of the League of Nations because we refused to take part in any international effort we did not control and that was seen as a violation of our national sovereignty. We also took no part in opposing anything Germany, Italy, or Japan did during the 1930s-at least nothing of any significance or effect. Those Americans who did try to do something, notably in the Spanish Civil War, were later condemned as Communist sympathizers, if not Soviet agents. In addition to an isolation of self-interest, America was also influenced by a racism and bigotry that were pervasive not only among the Archie Bunkers of the time, but among the political and cultural elite of our society. None of this was due to pacifism.

The same kind of self-interested political folly is part of American foreign policy down to the present day. Saddam Hussein is still in power because George Bush Sr. wanted Iraq to remain as a bulwark against Iran. In fact, it had been United States foreign policy to support Hussein's regime for several years before the invasion of Kuwait. The peace movement had been calling for an end to this support because of Hussein's record of oppression and violence against his own people for years before our president suddenly realized what a villain he is. Indeed, as late as a few weeks before the invasion, Bush opposed a bill in Congress calling for an arms embargo against Iraq. Likewise it was American policies that gave power to any number of international evildoers, including the Taliban, in pursuit of American interests.

The attitude of these political "peace-makers" can be summed up by a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When some complained about the tyranny of Somoza, who we had put in power in Nicaragua, FDR responded, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." This sentiment is typical of political thinking from Chamberlain on Hitler to Bush Jr. on the Taliban before September 11. Whatever this is, it is not pacifism.

Pacifists are often attacked by people who seem to think the only effective response to evil is military power. In fact military power alone is not effective against anything except, sometimes, another military force. Let's go back again to World War II for some examples. The French ignored Hitler's rise believing that they had the means to stop him with the Maginot Line. When Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, France did nothing, yet historians note that Hitler's orders were for his soldiers to retreat if the French made any opposition to the move. As it turned out, of course, the Maginot Line turned out to be as relevant to World War II as the Polish Calvary. It was nothing more than a fortified, concrete trench with no relevance to the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich. The parallels with today's missile defense program are obvious: a grossly expensive, technically unworkable, and entirely irrelevant defense against an enemy that no longer exists. France went along with Chamberlain's policy because of a belief that she had an adequate defense against Germany. This too was not pacifism.

Since World War II we have bombed over twenty countries and not once have we ended a dictatorship by doing so. We threw everything we had, except nuclear weapons, against the North Vietnamese for a decade and, in the end, we had to retreat. We destroyed the economy and infrastructure of Iraq, but Saddam Hussein is still in power. We devastated Belgrade, but we will be playing whack-a-mole with Balkan ethnic groups far into the foreseeable future. Israel and the Palestinians have both failed to get rights or security through violence. Sari Nusseibeh, a notable Palestinian leader, recently said that his people's greatest mistake has been the idea that Israel would succumb to violence.

The bombing and invasion of Afghanistan should be opposed because it will not work and is very likely to make matters much worse. Every American bullet and missile fired is a gift to Osama bin Laden. We can talk all we want about respect for Islam and Muslims, but those words will not be believed. Al Qaeda and its allies and supporters claim that America has declared war on Islam. The Islamic press and clergy in much of the world speak of the Taliban as the ideal of Islamic national life. For people who do not watch CNN, let alone Fox, an attack on the Taliban is an attack on Islam. Our war on terrorism is likely become the World War III that will employ weapons of mass destruction unless we find another way. Our own government has acknowledged this danger, at least indirectly. Nonetheless they are pursuing a military strategy that ignores the danger.

What is the alternative? First, while it seems pointless at this juncture to argue about what we should have beet doing since the attacks on September 11, we can all agree that those outrages were criminal acts and those who carried them out are criminals. We must do all that can be done, within the constraints set by a democratic society, to break the support for Al Qaeda and its allies around the world. Our aim should be to render them virtually powerless without making martyrs of them.

Second, we must begin to think about how we can influence foreign policy in non-military ways. The United State has become the least generous of economic powers in the area of foreign aid. Most of the money we do allot is for the purchase of military hardware. We need to think back to the success of the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help our former enemies rebuild their economies (a lesson learnt from the aftermath of World War I, when the Allies' attempt to keep their enemies weak, led to the rise of fascism and Nazism). Today, the United States should vigorously pursue a program of economic justice throughout the Islamic world. In order to destroy the credibility of those who paint us as evil, we must do good.

Our government, our press, and our society seem to pay attention only to people with guns. The time has come too recognize that nonviolent methods are powerful and effective. Pacifism works. This has been demonstrated over and over such places as the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Chile, and even the Soviet Union. There are pacifist organizations and movements everywhere including in Muslim countries. These should be supported and strengthened.

Military force defeats evil in comic books and all movies. It usually fails in real life. There is a better way: pacifism-now more than ever.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2002 issue of Tikkun Magazine.

by Philip J. Bentley


We WORK to abolish war and to create a community of concern transcending national boundaries and selfish interests.

We REFRAIN from participation in war or military service.

We RESPECT the common humanity in each person, male or female, affirming the differences in religion, ethnic background, national loyalties ... all these are transcended by belief in the sanctity of life.

We SEEK to avoid bitterness and contention in dealing with controversy and to maintain the spirit of good will while trying to achieve nonviolent solutions.

We STRIVE to build a social order that will utilize the resources of human ingenuity for the benefit of all, in which our concern for the future will be shown by respect for the precious resources of the earth.