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Erev Pinchas 5769
Do not be zealous in my name

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
10 July 2009


God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My anger from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My zeal. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he was zealous for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’ (Num. 25:10–13)

May my name not be associated with the zealotry of Pinchas.

I grew-up with pictures of war in a far-off land. The Falklands War or Guerro de las Malvinas. I remember the photographs and film clips of torpedoed warships, the ARA General Belgrano and HMS Sheffield, RFA Sir Galahead, RFA Sir Tristram, and soldiers peering over bunkers dug in otherwise tranquil rural settings. This was the first time I had heard of exocet missiles. I remember the posturing of politicians and the bloodied bandages of the injured on both sides. I remember the jingoistic redtop headlines and the mix of pride and ambivalence to see the Union Jack raised over Stanley. There were charges of treason against the BBC for its early report of victory at Goose Green that led to the deaths of 17 British soldiers including Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones who later won a posthumous Victoria Cross for the action that day. I experienced this war in real time. This was the first war that I was aware of that was being fought in my name. History books will only record that the British won. That generic British is my name.

I have to admit that I identified with the war in Iraq, not because of any fear of weapons of mass destruction but because of the personal attack on a modern day tyrant and his structure of state-sponsored terror against its own citizens. With the formal end of combat operations on 30th April this year in Iraq, I feel a sense of relief that the involvement of my name in another war has drawn to a close. History books will record whether humanity won. I sincerely hope that the foundations that have been laid by our involvement in Iraq are truly sustainable. War today is won amongst the people and the reconstruction of order out of chaos. Not by killing more people than the other side.

Yet if that is true and in a week that has seen a British soldier killed per day, my name is still at war in another far-off land. I feel connected some strange way with those soldiers who were killed this week. I guess my true emotion is one of guilt. I do not really know why they were there. Any connection to the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the search for Osama Bin Laden and the fall of the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, seem a distant memory. We have killed far more were killed on 9/11, we are losing among the people around the world and not only is the operation in chaos, any semblances of reconstruction are in chaos.

As with Iraq, I cry no tears over the downfall of a religious fanatical regime that bastardised Sharia Law to subjugate a nation to the barbarism not seen for centuries. The abhorrent and degrading treatment of women, the enforced uniformity of men, the destruction of the basic systems of a modern society, health and education, the ethnic massacres and the denial of all forms of heritage and culture symbolised in the demolition of two 1500 year-old statues of the Buddha carved into the cliffside of Bamiyan: who could cry at the removal of such a parasite of humanity.

Yet what are we doing in Afghanistan now, the country in which no outside force ever leaves victorious? There is no endgame. Whether we leave now or in ten years time, the people of Afghanistan will have moved no further forwards towards unity. I fear that all we are doing is motivating more young men to flee to the hills and enter the madras’s and training camps of fanatics. And still our soldiers and I am sure many unreported innocents die.

There is no moral reason to be in Afghanistan. If there was morality behind our foreign policy as our Government had promised us, a promise now not uttered, why have they never been concerned with the genocide in Darfur?

Paddy Ashdown has suggested strategic reasons in a defence of the war in Afghanistan. He states that failure would result in, “a hugely increased risk of instability in Pakistan, with dangerous implications for the security of the region - and for the internal security of Britain. One result could be the beginning of a wider conflict that would start with war-lordism but end with a Sunni-Shia civil war on a regional scale. And then there is the effect on Nato. One highly respected UK general has told me that he believes failure in Afghanistan could do the same damage to the Atlantic alliance as the UN's failures in Bosnia did to that organisation. What we could be looking at is not just damage to the Atlantic relationship but perhaps eventually even to the US security guarantee for Europe.”

I am sure that Paddy Ashdown’s analysis is far more accurate than mine but sometimes one has to admit failure, to admit that the world order is not as it once was. To stop, to think and reanalyse. Otherwise, I fear that our actions become like those of Pinchas. The end does not justify the means and our zealous pursuit of insurgents, regardless of the mess it creates, leaves us morally no much better than them.

Pinchas committed murder in his killing of an Israelite man called Zimri and a Midianite woman called Cozbi. One might think that his reasoning was that the act that this couple were performing was an attack against the nature and well-being of Pinchas’ society. This might be the only remotely acceptable explanation for his zealotry. But I reject the conclusions of Torah on this matter that reward Pinchas for his unilateral and destructive actions. I reject the majority of the Rabbis who felt the need to justify his actions. I reject the notion of a God of war that our ancient ancestors may have believed in. Let not any Rabbi justify the actions of a Pinchas in my name as a Jew. Just as I now believe, that I do not want any person in leadership of this country to justify the continuation of war in Afghanistan in my name as British citizen.

We have left the God of war behind with our ancient ancestors. Our God of compassion, tolerance and reconciliation is the God that compels us to seek dialogue not war. These principles have thus far been manifest in President Obama’s foreign policy, with the exception of Afghanistan. May he have the strength of his convictions to seek the end of conflicts with diplomacy, not war. May his and our names be associated only with that of our famous, rather than infamous priest, Aaron rather than Pinchas, and let our zeal be in his example: (MAvot 1:12) “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow human beings and drawing them towards Torah”.


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