On Judging our Leaders

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“Do not judge your friend until you reach his place,” (Avos 2:5 ).

Presumably that rule also applies to national leaders. True, every democratically elected leader knows that criticism goes with the job. But that does not free the rest of us from the obligation to acknowledge that the view from “there” – i.e., where decisions are actually made — is very different than from “here” – i.e., where advice is free and responsibility nil.

It is easy to sit in our armchairs yelling that Israel should send 50,000 reservists into Lebanon for a massive ground action or stand outside shul demanding that the IAF level every Lebanese village from which Hizbullah rocket fire emanates. Far more difficult is taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

The toughest decisions are those that offer no good solution, just a choice between two bad outcomes. And they usually depend on numerous guesses about the future and unquantifiable factors.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will soon face such a decision with regard to a prisoner exchange for reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were captured by Hizbullah on July 12. The logic of prisoner exchanges at the end of hostilities would suggest that the two Israeli captives should be exchanged for Hizbullah fighters captured in the recent fighting.

Unfortunately, however, previous prisoner exchanges both with Hizbullah and the Palestinians have established the principle that every Israeli captive – and even the bodies of dead Israelis – is worth hundreds, if not thousands, of our enemies.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah will almost certainly demand the release of Samir Kuntar, who led a Palestinian terror attack on Nahariya Beach in 1979. Kuntar shot a father in front of his four-year-old daughter before crushing her skull with a rifle butt, and caused the mother of the family to accidentally suffocate her other child, a two-year-old girl, as she hid in terror in a crawl space in their apartment.

Kuntar should have been tried, with all due process, and executed. Instead he has been allowed to marry an Israeli Arab woman, who now receives a monthly government stipend, as the wife of a prisoner. Abu Abbas’s 1985 capture of the Achilles Lauro, in which wheel-chair bound American tourist Leon Klinghoffer was killed, was carried out primarily to secure Kuntar’s release.

Not only would Kuntar’s release result in a beast going free, it would constitute a coup for Nasrallah and increase his prestige in Lebanon (from which Kuntar launched his deadly attack) and throughout the Arab world.

Let us say that a deal with Hizbullah over the release of the two captive reservists comes down to the release of Kuntar. If the prime minister opts to release him, he will have to face a woman whose entire family was wiped out by Kuntar. Yet if he decides not to release him, he has to face the families of the two captured reservists and explain to them why he has passed up the best chance likely to arise to secure the release of their husband or sons.

And this decision facing the prime minister is relatively easy compared to that which may soon face him or his successor over Iranian nuclear weapons. Once it becomes clear that international sanctions against Iran will not be implemented or are ineffective and/or that the United States lacks the will to unilaterally strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel faces a life and death decision.

On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map, even at the cost of millions of Iranian lives lost in a nuclear exchange with Israel. He is not the first Iranian leader, going back to Ayatollah Khomeini himself, to publicly state that Iran is ready, willing, and able to absorb casualties of that magnitude in order to destroy Israel. In short, a nuclear Iran poses a clear threat to Israel’s existence.

Nevertheless the threat is only speculative. We can never know for certain whether Iran’s leaders will follow their own religious logic of turning the entire country into a suicide bomber. And that is far from the only thing we do not and cannot know. For instance, there is no assurance that Israel has the capacity to cripple, much less destroy, Iran’s nuclear capacities, which are spread out over dozens of facilities and many of which are deep underground. (Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s assurances that the IAF could do the job do not carry much weight today.)

The decision to attack Iran thus makes the decision to attack the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1982 look like child’s play. The Iraqis lacked the capacity to strike back at Israel. By contrast, any Israeli attack against Iran, whether successful or not, would almost certainly trigger a barrage of Iranian long-range missiles, at a cost of thousands of Israeli lives. (An American attack would likely do the same.)

If we assume that Iran is willing to sacrifice millions of its citizens to destroy Israel, they certainly won’t hesitate to launch missiles at Israel just because hundreds, or thousands of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs might be killed as well. The latter would simply become new martyrs, joining the hundreds of thousands of unarmed child soldiers the Iranians sent into battle against Iraqi tanks.

All really difficult decisions tend to follow a common pattern. They involve a relatively known short-range cost or benefit against a long-range cost of potentially far greater magnitude but whose likelihood is unknowable. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, for instance, the short-range gain was fairly clear: the saving of 24 Jewish lives per year being lost in the security zone.

Against that benefit had to balanced the perception of Israel’s retreat in the Arab world, the impact on its deterrent capacity vis-à-vis both Hizbullah and the Palestinians, how the vacuum in southern Lebanon would be filled, and Israel’s ability to act subsequently if Hizbullah took over the security zone – all highly speculative assessments.

There may be right or wrong answers to these judgments, but often they cannot be known until years later. A leader who focuses only on the number of lives likely to be lost or saved in the immediate future, and ignores the potential long-term consequences of his actions is irresponsible. But one who too easily ignores the immediate and known cost in lives is inhuman.

Each of us should candidly admit that we would not want to make these decisions, and pray to be worthy of leaders whose eyes are opened by Hashem.

Originally published in Mishpacha, September 6.

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13 Responses

  1. dovid says:

    I don’t know what Yehoshua Friedman’s sources are to state that Olmert is a mercenary for forces inimical to Israel, but one cannot help noticing that Olmert’s decisions have been either bizarre or treacherous to Am Israel. It goes way beyond his and his fellow ministers’ lack of daas torah or any interest in it. Even from a pure secular point of view, they are ill-qualified for leadership because they are not Jewish patriots. They lack basic love for Eretz Israel. At least, the early Israeli leaders, despite their shortcomings, had a sincere appreciation of the centrality of Eretz Israel, its importance in the conscience of the Jews al over the world, and education of children in this spirit. It would have been inconceivable that their children would dodge draft or live in Paris (Be sure Olmert’s sons don’t learn Mesilas Yesharim in Paris.) Therefore, the problem is not how complex are the issues they are facing, as Rabbi Rosenblum’s article suggests, but how ill-suited are Olmert and his fellow ministers to tackle them. The complexity of the issues only magnifies further this problem.

    Re. Samir Kuntar, I wonder why Israel didn’t take him out discretely. Jews have been targeted for years to have them exchanged for Kuntar. He is the gold prize that Arab terrorist leaders would like to pull off, even though Kuntar is neither Shia nor Arab. Could anyone enlighten me whether Kuntar has the din of a rodef?

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “Al Taden Chavercha Ad SheYagai Limkomo”

    This (interesting transliteration of the) maxim refers to judging someone who did something indisputably wrong; and exhorts the observer not to imagine that he (the observer) could have done better. Applying that here would be to say that our armchair commentary re: the Israeli leaders is in fact correct, but that it is unfair to assume that we the armchair occupants could have executed more capably than the leaders in power.

    Let’s not make it personal. Let’s grant that we personally could takeh NOT have done better. But lemaaseh is our analysus correct? If not, al tadin does not apply. If yes, let’s shed the personal stuff and learn something from it.

    (I have been learning gemara for 35 years)

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “Chamberlain made all the mistakes”

    – But only because Russell was one heck of a defender

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “…made their decisions on the basis of Halacha, or at least with a very large dose of daas Torah…”

    can you have a large dose of daas torah without the basis of halacha?

  5. mycroft says:

    Great Post!! What I usually expect from Rabbi Rosenblum.

  6. YM says:

    It is for exactly these kind of decisions that I wish the leaders of Israel were Torah Jews who made their decisions on the basis of Halacha, or at least with a very large dose of daas Torah

  7. Eliyahu says:

    I don’t think that each of us should candidly admit that we would not want to make these decisions. Pirkei Avos also says that b’makom she’ein ish, hishtadel l’hios ish. I.e. in a place where the leaders are lacking, be a leader.
    If we honestly think after thorough reflection, that we would do a better job than the current PM, or that at the very least we know people who would do a better job, why should we not want to make these decisions?
    R’ Rosenblum is quite correct when saying that in judging Olmert and co. we should be aware of the high stakes. Nevertheless, even if we understand that the current leaders are human and make mistakes, on a purely practical level if they are repeatedly proven wrong in their promises and assumptions, we are within our rights to find them wanting and decide that we would like to be served by someone with a better track record. In 1940, when the British realized that Chamberlain made all the mistakes and Churchill was right all along, they dumped Chamberlain.
    We should do the same with the current government, for the same reasons. Jameel is right, why should we leave decisions in the hands of people who are lacking in essential and basic knowledge and faith to the Jewish ideals? In his memoirs, Churchill writes that after being appointed Prime Minister (in the middle of a great defeat), he was relieved and slept well. He finally had the ability to do what he thought was right, his track record was good and he therefore had confidence in the future. The right-wing/religious track record on the peace process is much better than that of the left, why should we not have confidence in our judgement?

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    “Each of us should candidly admit that we would not want to make these decisions, and pray to be worthy of leaders whose eyes are opened by Hashem”

    There is judging and there is judging. If by judging ….. we mean to criticize the leaders and imply that we, who are so much smarter would have done it differently, then I agree with Jonathan. However, if by judging ….. we just mean to express our thinking; as in “acknowledging that I don’t have all the pressures of our leaders, such and such is what my sechel tells me should be done”, then what’s wrong with it? We do this all the time while learninge.g. “If I were Rashi I would have said …” we don’t literally mean to say that we know we are right. In effect, we are just expressing our current understanding.

    Another dynamic at play is that those without the pressures and influences might have a perspective that those who are living it cannot have. That is why people hire (excuse the expression) consultants. As long as the judging is not judgmental, why not benefit from some clear thinking presented positively?

  9. Bob Miller says:

    In countries that hold elections, few voters have ever been in the place of a decision-making elected official, but all are expected to evaluate and judge such officials and their appointees, and to vote accordingly. And to speak their minds to the officials between elections.

    In exactly which political leaders can Israeli voters now place their trust regarding defense issues? Based on what track record?

    We Jews who live outside Israel do not have the above dispensation that applies to Israeli voters, but we are their brothers and sisters concerned for their well-being and often informed enough to render an opinion.

    “When things go wrong,
    Go wrong with you,
    It hurts me, too.”

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The only problem is that Olmert is not my “friend”. He is an operative for forces outside Israel seeking to destroy it. He is in the finest tradition of Peres, who entered into negotiations with Egypt over final borders purposely using maps that were advantageous to the other side. One gets the feeling that Olmert is like a prize-fighter ordered to “take a dive”. He is certainly being paid well for his trouble with the support that he gets from the likes of S. Daniel Abraham.

  11. Chareidi Leumi says:

    It is easy to sit in our armchairs yelling that Israel should send 50,000 reservists into Lebanon for a massive ground action or stand outside shul demanding that the IAF level every Lebanese village from which Hizbullah rocket fire emanates. Far more difficult is taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

    Since many of those who “stand outside shul” had children fighting in Lebanon while the children of the current PM are all draft dodgers who support extreme left anti-Israel policies while living outside of the country – I think the shul goers should get a bit more credit than you give them.

  12. Harry Maryles says:

    As is usually the case, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum has provided us with a thoughtful and thought provoking column. And I entirely agree with his views on this subject.

    Al Taden Chavercha Ad SheYagai Limkomo. And no where should that adage from Avos apply more than to PM Olmert and his government and the recent war against Hezbollah. “Never judge others until you are in their shoes”.

    It is oh… so easy! …to say “throw the rascals out” because the war did not provide the six day war-like victory everyone had hoped for. We were all disappointed about that. But to heap blame on the Israel PM and his government is grossly unfair.

    Thank you Rabbi Rosenblum, for pointing out the words from this Mishna in Avos and applying it so aptly in our day.

  13. Jameel @ The Muqata says:

    Each of us should candidly admit that we would not want to make these decisions, and pray to be worthy of leaders whose eyes are opened by Hashem.

    How about today’s brilliant decision to remove the land, sea and air embargo of Lebanon, in exchange…for nothing. Not even the barest minimum of proof that our IDF soldiers are still alive…or a visit from the Red Cross. Nothing.

    We need to embrace the mantle leadership of Israel, and openly say that we are willing to make these decisions. Why do (most) religious politicians in Israel not consider themselves or their constituents worthy of running and leading Israel?

    Yes, these are difficult decisions, and we need to believe we are worthy of making them correctly, instead of abandoning Israel’s leadership to those lacking in faith.