"The Lesser Evil"

The Torah demands from us “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (Justice justice you shall pursue). Our Rabbis interpreted the repetition of the word tzedek as if the text read: ”Justice with justice you shall pursue.” Often, in the pursuit of practical solutions to complex problems we try to cut corners and not insist on the purity of our methods. This is the basis for the expression “the end justifies the means.” Sadly, this refrain is read too often in political circles as well as our personal lives. We often assuage our conscience by saying “I had to do it because the end was right.” This contamination of even the best of intentions with unethical parts leads to a decay of our moral fiber that can be lethal in the end.

In the realm of political affairs and especially in the decisions of leaders of nations there exists an open and unabashed justification for this attitude that “the end justifies the means.” There is a particular twist of this phenomenon when alliances are forged with unsavory individuals when they serve our temporary goals. This is the choice of the lesser evil, a practice that is not only unethical but inefficacious as well.

America has been dancing to this tune for a long time and each time we have been rebuffed by our erstwhile allies. Just to cite a few examples from the last twenty years: the U.S. supported Iraq in its war with Iran because we thought that Iraq was the lesser evil. How ironic is to hear that Iran now may be a lesser evil than Iraq! When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US sought to support the Afghan Moslems, with the CIA training and arming people like Bin Laden because we thought Bin laden was the lesser evil. Now we seek the Russians’ support in getting rid of Bin Laden. These terrible choices were made because of the thesis of “the lesser evil” that never worked and never will work.

Israel too is guilty of this and it is paying heavily for its mistake. In the 70’s and 80’s in an attempt to curb the influence of the PLO, Israel supported and trained none other than Hamas. A few years later Israel made a pact with the PLO to get rid of Hamas. This comedy of errors has fatal consequences yet nobody admits the fundamental truth that you cannot make a pact with the devil and win.

The most evident refutation of the argument that we can work with the lesser evil is the case of Yasir Arafat. The illusion that he was a good partner was short-lived. Tragically he made Israel pay a high price for its mistake. We should not forget how the Israeli government and many Jewish leaders rallied to support the candidacy of Arafat for the “good guy” prize and the support of the New York Times for awarding this mass murderer the Nobel Peace prize. Now the same people declare the man a “monster” that not long ago had heralded him as the messenger of peace. The Israeli government and its leaders will be held forever accountable for their errors in judgment concerning the “Arafat gamble.” The victims’ blood –especially those murdered in the latest intifada--cries out from the earth!

What is most disturbing—and incredible-- is that the same mistake is being made again. With the discrediting of Arafat, a new candidate for the “good guy” position has emerged. His name is Abu Mazen and he is being feted as the “new great hope.” This is a man who supported mass murder, justified terror and claimed that the Holocaust was a hoax. The IDF website had carried an interview with him that revealed these ugly ideas. But the Israeli government has now decided to clean up the man’s image and withdrew the interview from the site. There is also a rumor that Abu Mazen’s book with the clear revelations of his true thoughts was in the process of being translated into English when the Israeli government put pressure to stop its publication. Bush’s National Security advisor declared recently that it was in the best interest of Israel to work with Abu Mazen. Here we go again. He is not as bad…he is the “lesser evil.” How long will this illusion live until we meet the harsh reality?

After the war with Iraq ends, the world will put pressure on Israel to give in to the demands of whatever group or leader is the lesser evil. Even admitting that the future “partner” is evil, we keep pushing because he is, you guessed it, the “lesser evil.” Is anybody reading history and learning from these foolish mistakes? How long will we continue to engage in this egregious blunder? There is no such thing as the “lesser” evil. Evil is evil, in whatever size they come. Just as a cancer is dangerous whatever its size, so is evil when it is combined in anything. A small amount of bad friends is just as pernicious as a large group; one murder is just as bad as multiple murders. There are things that vary in value according to size; evil is not one of them.

The Torah repeats this phrase in several places: “And you shall extirpate evil from your midst.” The commandment is not only to avoid working with evil but also to remove it entirely from our system. To forge alliances with evil never works. So as Bin Laden and Arafat proved untrustworthy, so will all alliances with evil, even when it is called “lesser.” One hopes that governments that want to see the development of good throughout the world will finally understand that supporting any evil is evil too.


Rabbi David Algaze
          Rabbi David Algaze