War is worse than hell

War is worse than hell

To the editor: 

I visited Israel numerous times during my military career and still treasure my “Never Again Masada” shirt. A small island of security within a hostile environment in 1977, I took transfer leave from my first ship to comb through this ancestral land for two weeks. I returned over the years to oversee the first military exercise between an Islamic nation and Israel; to tie an Aegis missile defense cruiser into Israel’s air defense network before taking the rest of my aircraft carrier battle group to the Afghanistan war and our initial strikes against Iraq and to purchase my future wife’s diamond engagement ring. 

When in Congress, Israel’s ambassador, Salai Meridor, asked my wife and me to join him with his spouse on the first night of Hanukkah – with the Commander of Israel’s Navy. They discussed our Navy’s denial of Israel’s procurement of the new Littoral Combat Ship, which changed after I met with the U.S. chief of naval operations. I was gratified to help ensure Israel’s best defense. 

But I signed congressional letters urging the president to press for easing the restriction of raw material and civilian goods in and out of Gaza, including for re-building homes. I stood alone among Pennsylvania’s federal and statewide officials when I answered “yes” after all were asked, “Should a proposed mosque be built next to 9/11’s ground zero?” 

Despite strong criticism, I spoke to the Council on American-Islamic Relations to commend its work on civil rights and racial profiling that were difficult challenges for Muslims following 9/11. But I also quoted the Qur’an words that “Whoever unjustly kills a person” must be condemned by name even if “kin,” and why the Qur’an’s principle of “adl,” or justice, demanded CAIR denounce Hamas and Hezbollah by name for its terror against Israel. 

After leaving Congress, I continued to believe that Israel may be safe, but will never be secure without a two-state solution. As a result, I recruited a Palestinian team to join the 158 nations gathering in Washington, D.C., for the first ever high school-age robotic Olympics held by a nonprofit I established – whose opening parade of nations was led by an all-girls’ Muslim Afghan team. 

Today, I resolutely support Israel’s rightful response to seek and take out Hamas after its horrific and inhuman terrorist attack, including appalling sexual and physical abuse of young Israeli girls and women. The savagery of this barbaric attack alone demands it. 

But I also know that war is worse than hell because – as someone said – there are no innocent bystanders in hell, but war is chock full of them. I remember what I saw when on the ground in Afghanistan at that war’s beginning, when rules of engagement permitted laser-guided munition strikes against any white Toyota truck because our intelligence said the Taliban had purchased hundreds of them, ignoring that innocent families might be riding in those trucks. This policy was eventually changed. Likewise, I believe that President Biden should take action to pressure Israel to change its rules of engagement in Gaza to protect innocent civilians while also permitting more humanitarian aid. 

I carried a Midrash book – essentially Jewish epistles within epistles that explain better than any other religion how one best lives a secular life worthy of one’s God – in my car while serving as a U.S. Congressman. Not one of these Midrash stories condone the slaying of innocent bystanders. 

-Joe Sestak, 

former U.S. Congressman,