Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story exploring the policies of the three presidential candidates vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear threat. They all agreed that a rush to war would be imprudent, but that's where the consensus ended. Here's how I read their positions: One candidate favors negotiating with Iran without any preconditions. Another isn't really sure what to do—but absolutely will not negotiate with a terrorist state. The third candidate would love to take military action, but senses that in the current political climate that isn't the wisest thing to say.
Which got me thinking: What is a Jewish approach with respect to evil regimes?
Then I realized: One second, how do I define evil altogether? So here goes:
I believe that there is a difference between evil and hurtful. Two people can be equally damaging, but one is evil and one isn't. By the same token, two people can be equally evil, but only one is hurtful and damaging.
a) Two people set out to commit murder. Both pull the trigger. One of them succeeds in executing his heinous plan, while the other's gun jams. One has been infinitely more hurtful, destroying a life and wreaking havoc on many others. The other is equally evil, but has not managed to be (as) damaging.
b) Two people rob a bank. One does so because he has bills to pay, and feels incredible guilt. The other simply gets a kick out of it. They have both committed equally criminal acts, but one exhibits an evil trait while the other has succumbed to weakness.
We all make mistakes, often hurting others in the process. But usually these offenses are triggered by weakness or an honest mistake. The parent who spoils his child is simply misguided, definitely not evil. An evil person, to my mind, is one who hurts others in cold malice or sadism, or because of a warped personal philosophy—with no compunctions about it.
Now, I think that the same principles holds true on the global scene. There are good regimes and evil ones. I'm not sure there can be a "gray area" in this area. Good regimes make mistakes all the time. Catastrophic mistakes at times (Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza strip is one such example—already painfully exposed as such by the barrage of rockets and the recent deaths). Sometimes the leaders of good regimes are greedy and corrupt and need to be prosecuted, but the motivations and governing principles of these nations are not evil.
And then there are "evil empires," as President Reagan once fittingly called the former USSR. Nations whose dictators – yes, as a rule these nations are led by dictators, because the masses are rarely innately evil – are on a pathological ego trip. Their goal is to dominate others. They have successfully forced their own populations into submission, and now they are drunk for more.
This past Saturday night we ushered in the holiday of Passover. More than 3,300 years ago, our nation was extricated from the death-grip of an evil nation.
"And the Egyptians were evil to us and tormented us, and they imposed hard labor upon us" – Deuteronomy 26:6; part of the Haggadah liturgy.
If they tormented us and forced us into slavery, is it necessary to add that they were evil? Torah is written concisely and is not known for adding superfluous adjectives.
It seems, however, that the Torah is discussing their intent.
We had never harmed the Egyptians—to the contrary, Joseph, the one who single-handedly saved the land from a catastrophic famine, was from our ranks. But the entire slavery was designed to hold us hostage in the land—we were to be a token of Egyptian supremacy. It wasn't merely a national weakness of character, it was a Nazi Germany-esque desire for domination.
What was G‑d's "approach" with regard to this evil regime? Well, He certainly didn't negotiate. His message to Pharaoh was blunt and to the point: "Let my people go or I will devastate you and your land. There will be nothing left by the time I'm finished with you..."
It seems then, that the Torah's account teaches us that you don't negotiate with evil. Idealistically speaking, this is because negotiating with evil lends legitimacy to an illegitimate entity. Practically speaking, the evil party won't negotiate in good faith. If he's evil, if he's rotten to the core, then he'll always be looking to undermine you and will pounce at you when the moment is opportune.
Instead G‑d unleashed on Egypt a torrent of plagues. The stated goal of these plagues was to bring Egypt to submission: "And Egypt will know that I am G‑d." An individual or entity that thinks that power is the answer to all will only be vanquished through a stronger demonstration of power.
I recognize that this is a sensitive and polarizing issue. This is only my humble little opinion on that matter. I'd love for you to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Have a happy and kosher Passover!