Prisoners of Hope

“Some day the demand for disarmament by hundreds of millions will, I hope, be so universal and so insistent that no man, no nation can withstand it.”

-President Dwight D. Eisenhower

A CONTROVERSY which often pervades discussion both here and abroad is the relationship between issues which defend Jewish group interests and those which espouse and promote extra-communal ones from a specifically Jewish vantage point.

There is, of course, an entire range of views reaching from the zealous particularist at one end to the utopian universalist at the other. What, then, of the supreme issue of our time— the Bomb? Is there a Jewish view on the issue of nuclear disarmament?

Correspondence in this newspaper and discussion of this topic in communal organisations suggests that nuclear disarmament has been receiving, and deserves, attention. Moreover, a specific organisation, JONAH — Jews Organised for a Nuclear Arms Halt — attracted nearly two hundred people to its inaugural meeting. The acronym means “dove” in Hebrew, as well as connoting warning and conservation.

JONAH’s supporters turned out to be not trendy duffle-coated intellectuals, but people from all of life of all ages, and belonging to different religious and other groups within the community. There were some people present who had been drawn back to Jewish life for the first time in years. From Chasidim in Stamford Hill to members of the British Communist Party, Jews of every kind are becoming involved in this cause.

The recent realisation that reactionary, primitive States are acquiring nuclear power, and thereby allowing potential access to terrorist groups, must without a shadow of doubt be a cause for great concern. It is clear that the prospect of a nuclear arms race — both vertically by the nuclear powers, including Britain, and horizontally through proliferation — accelerating rapidly to its inevitable destination has caused many Jews to look to their ethical teachings in the hope of some rationalisation of an irrational and terminally dangerous situation.

One spiritual inspiration comes from Deuteronomy 20: 19-20, the text which over the centuries has been the basis for the extended principle of bal tashhit — do not destroy: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you may not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?”

The historical experience of our people throughout the centuries of persecution has made many of us keenly aware of man’s inhumanity to man. This has undoubtedly led Jews to involve themselves in issues of social justice in many spheres. It has fuelled the spark of passion in Anglo-Jewry’s struggle for its brothers in the USSR and its fortitude in upholding the inviolability of the State of Israel.

Our people crawled away from the crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka to build a new Jewish commonwealth — to be a light unto the nations. How, then, can we utilise our terrible experience in the cold mechanics of holocaust to prevent a new and final destruction of all mankind?

There are numerous precedents in the Bible in which Jewish ethics are designed to affect the conduct of all men, such as the story of Sodom or the reproach of Amos against the tyrannies of Moab and Edom. Moreover, Judaism, unlike some religions, does not encourage a retreat into the ascetic life, but proposes coming to terms with the reality of society.

The reality of our time, unfortunately, is the legacy of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. If World War Three does break out in the near future, our planet will be transformed into a radioactive world in which countries are governed as penal colonies, a nuclear gulag archipelago surrounded by a sea of plague and fear.

In other words, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the symbols of the ultimate in destruction, will merge into one — a testament to the degradation of human life and the civilisation which it created.

In Britain alone, according to official estimates, there will be between thirty and forty-five million dead. The survivors, half crazed by grief and themselves terminally ill, would be quite incapable of caring for their loved ones.

The overkill capacity is now so, great — if present trends continue, there will be a shalom bomb for everyone — that any nuclear power could halt its own nuclear rearmament right now, and thereby increase its security. Any country not deterred by Polaris will not be deterred by Trident.

Cruise, Pershing and the Neutron warhead will decrease our security. If Pershing Two missiles are accepted in Britain, the Russians will be obliged to, adopt the hair-trigger launch-on-warning system. Experts believe that the relatively backward Soviet computer technology will not function properly in this perilous area.

The advent of a nuclear disaster by accident was made only too clear recently when a Soviet submarine, apparently equipped with nuclear warheads, marooned itself on a Swedish mudbank. Systems malfunctions seem to be an almost weekly occurrence in the USA.

President Reagan’s Administration has in recent weeks been sowing the seeds of confusion in the area of nuclear strategy. Are we under the nuclear umbrella or are we the umbrella?

Nato’s doctrine of “first-use” of nuclear weapons as part of the strategy of “flexible response” has been criticised by many influential people, not least Lord Zuckerman, former chief scientific adviser to the Government and to the Ministry of Defence.

Lord Zuckerman is but one Jew in public life to voice misgivings. Many Jewish scientists involved in the US atomic programme were aghast at the military exploitation of nuclear power after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They tried to put the genie back into the bottle and failed.

Albert Einstein, the friend of Chaim Weizmann, who was invited by Ben-Gurion to become the second President of Israel, was firmly opposed to the use of the bomb and urged that it be outlawed. Einstein headed an emergency committee of atomic scientists aril advised colleagues not to testify before the Committee of Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era. Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish head of the Los Alamos project, quoting from Bhagavad-Gita when he witnessed the first atomic explosion, said “I am become death, shatterer of worlds.”

In the Soviet Union, public opinion is private. President Brezhnev has made it clear that the Soviet Union will not unilaterally disarm. The Kremlin, however, has clearly indicated both in the past and the present through the Salt and other treaties a desire for co-existence free from the nuclear menace.

But Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet H-bomb, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of the rights of Soviet Jews, wrote in 1975: “It is especially important to emphasise that the problems of disarmament cannot be separated from the other basic aspects of detente: overcoming the secretiveness of Soviet society, strengthening international trust and weakening the totalitarian character of the USSR.”

The truth is that the interests of hundreds of millions of ordinary people throughout the world who cannot speak out are held in trust by those who exercise their birthright in the democracies. The situation the world finds itself in is as much a spiritual problem as it is a military one.

It could be argued that a civilisation which permits Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan the power of life and death over all mankind has in effect usurped the prerogative of God. Do not the Psalms tell us not to put our trust in princes?

It is gratifying to note that the Begin Government, like previous Israeli governments, has called upon its Arab neighbours to join Israel in signing a treaty, which will ensure that the Middle East becomes a nuclear-free zone, along the lines of the recently ratified Tlatelolco Treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean.

To support a nuclear arms race which is anathema to the Jewish conscience and ethical teaching (“Choose life so that you may live”) must be impossible for the thinking Jew. Therefore all Jews must begin thinking.

It is not by chance that most of the leadership of JONAH are young parents who fear for the future of their children. They want to alert the community to the dangers and madness of the arms race. To quote Sakharov once more: “A thermonuclear war cannot be considered a continuation of politics by other means. It would be a means of universal suicide.”

Underlying the programme of the wider peace movement is, quite clearly, a grass-roots demand that political leaders heed the legitimate fears and anxieties of ordinary people. In some ways it is as much a demand for sovereignty as for disarmament.

Yesterday, December 10, was International Human Rights Day, which brings to public attention violations of man’s inherent democratic rights. This day commemorates the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It has become, however, a sad commentary on the intolerance and cruelty of many world leaders.

Concepts of plurality are denied or ignored. In this context, the desire and hope of millions must be respected and acted upon. The simple demand is to live in peace and freedom without the vision of Armageddon looming ahead of them.

This coming Monday, JONAH will conduct a Jewish vigil for peace under the auspices of the World Disarmament Campaign, from Ito 2 pm outside St. Margaret’s, Westminster, in Parliament Square. This gesture continues the tradition set by many other denominational groups throughout the year. It is hoped and expected that MPs of all parties, rabbis, doctors, writers, housewives and as many Jews as possible from all backgrounds will attend. It is a small beginning to a great task.

Both inside and outside our own community, it is important that we as Jews speak out in one more attempt to introduce some rationality and ethics into a desperately unstable situation. To sit on the fence is to applaud indifference at the prospect of a universal nuclear holocaust.

Unity as a synonym for the lowest common denominator is a choice to be avoided. If with the lessons of history hanging over us, our own spiritual and lay leaders remain silent, if we fail to work for a secure peace, if we fail to warn against the dangers of the arms race and of proliferation, then truly our religious heritage will have become empty. But serious and urgent as the situation is, members of JONAH remain, in the words of the prophet Zechariah, asirei hatikva, prisoners of hope.

(with Tony Rudolf)

Jewish Chronicle

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