Lebanon and Limits, Politics & Spirit

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Lebanon and Limits, Politics & Spirit

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

The precipitate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon brought the Barak government greater support numbers in Israeli polls for fulfilling an election promise and preventing future soldier deaths in the "security zone."

At the same time, it -- and its acompanying sudden appearance in Israel of many thousands of panicky Southern Lebanese seeking asylum, and the swoop of Hezbollah into control of South Lebanon -- was an agonizingly sad demonstration of the importance of having a spiritually rooted politics, and of how destructive it is to think that sheer power -- i.e. "politics" -- can be divorced from spiritual truths.

On the contrary, one of the primary teachings of spirituality -- as Pirkei Avot says, "The greatest hero is the one who can master HIMSELF" -- applies with special force to politics, advising that we always limit the use of the fullest power and control we have.

Hubris in politics is the fullest use of one's own power to control others -- and the result is usually self-destruction. What is spiritually unwise is politically self-destructive.

What were the origins of the events of the last several days?

In 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, beginning with a PLO-controlled strip in the South. For at least a year before the 1982 invasion, there had been very few cross-border raids by the PLO, and rather a de facto cross-border cease-fire had been observed. At the time, the casus belli alleged by the Begin-Sharon govt was not cross-border attacks but an assassination attempt on an Israeli diplomat in London.

At the time, claiming this as reason to attack the PLO enclave in South Lebanon seemed a transparent falsehood, since everyone knew that the assassination had been carried out by a rogue Palestinian group that hated the PLO as well as Israel and had murdered or tried to murder Palestinians from the PLO who were pioneering in efforts to make peace with Israel (e.g. Dr. Issam Sartawi, zichrono l'vracha).

It seemed much more likely that the attack was a response to a growing wave of demonstrations and deepening resistance to the occupation from Palestinians on the West Bank & Gaza, which Begin & Sharon thought could be undermined by smashing the PLO enclave in Lebanaon.

Plus -- perhaps only Sharon's secret intention, perhaps Begin's as well -- an effort by Israel to take control of all of Lebanon thru supporting a Maronite government, naming as the next president of Lebanon a friend (puppet?) of Israel, and besieging Beirut.

The Maronite whom Israel named was however assassinated within a week, and it became clear that while the Lebanese public might reluctantly stomach suzerainty by Syria they would not stomach suzerainty by Israel.

Instead of the whole 1982 invasion, what would have made most sense to do, from the standpoint of a "practical politics with a spiritual root"? -- Perhaps, calming the West Bank by beginning serious negotiations with the West Bank Palestinians toward a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

The invasion -- this vaunted use of unilateral power -- led to debacle. -- Under pressure from both Lebanese resistance and Israeli and world public opinion, especially after the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila (carried out by Maronites while Israeli troops watched and did nothing) -- Israel withdrew to the southern enclave.

And THEN what might have made most sense? From the standpoint of a practical politics rooted in spiritual wisdom, perhaps an attempt to protect Israel by seeking a broad shield in which Israel's own power would be limited while the power of others to attack Israel would also be limited.

-- Specifically, perhaps a strong multinational peacekeeping force on the Lebanese-Israeli border, able to prevent cross-border attacks in either direction.

But Israel chose instead to assert its own power in a unilateral way -- occupy the southern enclave, while presumably trying to strengthen the "South Lebanese Army" -- the Maronites in a new guise.

But Hezbollah was able to root itself in the South-Lebanese population as guerrillas , to attack Israeli soldiers -- more and more effectively and bloodily -- and occasionally (to little effect) bombard Israelis acrosss the border. And retaliatory attacks by Israel tended to antagonize the Lebanese even more, so that Hezbollah's support grew.

Finally, Israeli society said "Genug -- Dayenu" and insisted on bringing the troops home.

The continuing thread, up to the withdrawal itself, seems to be a constant mis-estimate by Israeli officials of the "guerrilla as a fish swimming in the midst of the sea of the people" -- their over-estimate of the effectiveness, moral, and popular support possible for the "South Lebanese Army" -- and therefore their under-estimate of the time it would take for the SLA to collapse once the Israelis withdrew -- a collapse that came because the SLA knew they had little support among the population.

The news stories of ululating, celebrating Lebanese returning to their towns in the south would seem to bear this out.

It is profoundly sad to see that Israel -- whose own history should teach the lesson of both how strong a deeply rooted popular movement is and how weak a seemingly invincible imperial govt is when it faces such a popular movement -- as when the British Empire faced the Zionist yishuv -- should so misinterpret the lesson of its own success.

That is why it seems to me that one of the primary teachings of spirituality -- "The greatest hero is the one who can master HIMSELF" -- applies to politics.

From 1982 on, Israeli policy in Lebanon has ignored this -- and has instead been filled with the hubris of depending totally on Israel's untrammeled use of its own power to control others. The result has been self-destructive. What is spiritually unwise is politically self-destructive.


* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, an international network with offices in Philadelphia http://www.theshalomcenter.org , the author of Godwrestling -- Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and many other works; and a noted speaker and teacher.