As we look out on the human condition, our consciences cannot be clean. If they are clean, then it is because we do not are them enough. It is not inevitable that we march in hostile and separate hosts into the common abyss. There is another possibility of an ordered world, illuminated by reason, governed bylaw. If we cannot touch it with our hands, let us at least grasp it with our vision. (Abba Eban)
DEVOUT CYNICS MIGHT SUGGEST that such grandiloquence is best left to the rabbonim in their otherworldly sermons on Shabbat mornings. They would point out that the bitter experience of history has effectively buried the universalist tradition within Judaism. The bitter side of human nature should be appreciated, but approached with caution and sometimes disbelief. Within this philosophy, it becomes all too convenient to package and categorize the increasing prospect of universal destruction by nuclear warfare in terms of the legitimate defence of freedom.
For the many Jewish people who watched The Day After much of that black and white imagery was simply swept away by the stark reality of the nuclear horror. While there were obvious points of criticism, The Day After was traumatic in the mechanical predictability of a growing political crisis, the use of nuclear weapons and its exterminating aftereffect. The sudden transition from the banality of normality to inexplicable hopelessness showed the consequences of inordinate madness which politicians from both East and West proclaim in calm and collected terms. Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a survivor of Auschwitz, commented later in a radio broadcast: “After the Holocaust, people said ‘we did not know what was happening’. Now we have seen the future— no one who has watched this film can say ‘we did not know”.
For the eleven million who watched the film, the abolition of ignorance was more than an unedifying educational experience. It was, perhaps, a turning point in our perception of reality. Who are the sane and who the irrational in this ultimate game? The man who naively declares that Golders Green must be a nuclear free suburb or the man who authoritatively decrees that unimaginable millions be spent on newer, more sophisticated weapons to add to our existing stockpile.
The Jewish people are an international people. Even if a limited nuclear war is accepted as a plausible possibility to save the rest of humanity, there will be no rejoicing from even the most particularist and hawkish advocate of Jewish policy. Will the Jews of New York cheer to witness the obliteration of the Jews of Moscow? Will the Jews of Moscow sing the praises of the Kremlin for turning their brethren in New York into radioactive ashes and cinders? Is it not part of the comedy of errors that Cruise and Pershing missiles will incinerate large sections of Soviet Jewry whose fight for freedom is waged with such vigour by Jewish communities in the West. The very international nature of the Jewish people is the most obvious and compelling reason for Jewish activity to prevent rearmament and to catalyse disarmament in both East and West.
In the United States, many Jewish organisations have involved themselves in the debate over nuclear rearmament. In February 1983, the Synagogue Council of America urged Presidents Reagan and Andropov “to implement a bilateral, mutual and verifiable total cessation of the production and deployment of nuclear weapons while both parties reconvene negotiations in an effort to achieve significant cutbacks of nuclear weapons in an effective phased and verifiable arms control treaty”. The World Jewish Congress, whose British section is the Board of Deputies, has debated periodically the question of peace and disarmament over three decades. It called, for example, for a treaty to preserve outer space for peaceful purposes as long ago as 1966. It is, however, JONAH (Jews Organised for a Nuclear Arms Halt) that has developed debate and dialogue within Anglo-Jewry. . Although some would wish to misrepresent JONAH as Jewish CND, it sees its task as an educational one within the Jewish community and does not specify either unilateralism or multilateralism as the path of all-pervading truth. The many people who organise and participate in JONAH believe that the Jews—as Jews—have a unique role in contributing to the disarmament debate. The considerable interest aroused by this issue in Western society is of course remarkable. The Jewish community is no exception to the depths of concern as witnessed by the three hundred-strong crowd that came to hear E. P. Thompson at a recent JONAH meeting.
There have also been stirrings within rabbinical circles. How does Jewish teaching treat the issue when there has been no precedent for the annihilationist totality of nuclear weapons? The Chief Rabbi has received much correspondence on the subject.
He welcomes the public debate and the existence of peace movement. A genuine multilateralist, Dr. Jakobovits adopts a novel approach to the problem. He recently commented that he believed “the conventional arms trade to be even more immoral and a immediate threat to human lives and world peace than the nuclear peril”. While there is respect and indeed admiration for the Chief Rabbi on numerous controversial issues, some orthodox Jews suggest that there is a distinct difference between nuclear warfare which is total and conventional warfare which is limited. Quoting the Torah, they point to the nuclear elimination of the ecological system and the genetic effects of the radiation which would early visit the sins of the fathers upon future generations.
If nuclear deterrence is understood as self-defence terms of the post-biblical interpretation of obligatory war, it is argued, then in today’s world of fifty thousand nuclear warheads, the possibility of one’s own extinction must be considered. Within such parameters, such an interpretation of self-defence trough obligatory war as codified by Maimonides becomes questionable.
The educational process about the danger of nuclear weapons within the spiritual and secular teas of Anglo-Jewry is slower than in the American community. No clear lead has been taken, for example, in calling for a nuclear freeze in this country in both East and West. Instead of using Jewish sources as a means of contributing to a solution of the problem, there is a tendency to utilise Jewish tradition as a psychological umbrella to ward off the unthinkable: In one sense, this is paralleled in society at large. Although many watched The Day After many more were glued to yet another earth shattering episode of Coronation Street later that week.
The argument appears to be moving away from the disarmament versus rearmament one way street. It seems to be settling at a new level—those who simply do not wish to know out of a deep-seated fear of a nuclear holocaust and those who do voice their apprehensions for those very same reasons. Nachman of Bratslav said that “he who is able to halt wickedness and fails to do so is considered as if he performed the evil himself”.
Perhaps it is too harsh to apply such a judgement to those who refuse to confront the deadly treadmill of the nuclear arms race. The threat of total destruction will remain, however, the day after, the month after, the year after—until ordinary people—including the Jewish Community—regard it as their duty to remove it.
Jewish Quarterly Autumn-Winter 1983-1984