The nuclear threat is growing; What should American Jews do?


NEW YORK — The threat of nuclear weapons is once again a part of the American consciousness. Terrorist groups are seeking to acquire unsecured weapons, and mercurial nations like Iran and North Korea want to join the nuclear club. Military experts warn of the possibility of a nuclear strike on an American target within the next 10 years.

What are we to do? How should the American Jewish community respond to these developments?

Earlier this spring, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin — one of the great religious activists of the 20th century — died. From his deathbed, Coffin convened a group of national religious leaders to help revitalize the nuclear disarmament movement.

I joined Faithful Security because I believe that it is sinful to live in a world in which human beings can destroy God’s creation in a matter of minutes. In the Book of Genesis, God places Adam in the garden of Eden in order that he should “till and tend” (2:15) the land. Responsible stewardship of the earth is an obligation that applies to all human beings. While I am not so naive as to think that we will achieve nuclear abolition any time soon, to strive for it is, I believe, a religious duty.

There are several steps that can be taken to reduce the threat of a nuclear catastrophe and to move toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons:

Lockdown: World leaders must work more diligently at locking down the many loose nuclear weapons and materials scattered across the world. At present, only 40 percent to 50 percent of the weapons in the former Soviet Union have been secured.

Russia, with assistance from the United States, must complete this task as soon as possible. I shudder at the thought of Al-Qaida or some other rogue group obtaining an unsecured weapon or nuclear materials. As former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said in 2004, “We are in a race between catastrophe and cooperation.”

A related security concern is the fact that today the presidents of the United States and Russia have only a few minutes to decide whether to launch a nuclear attack based on early-warning signals. A false warning could lead to a global calamity. This is particularly frightening because the Russian signal system has eroded since the end of the Cold War. To defuse this situation, all nuclear powers should remove their weapons from hair-trigger alerts.

Reduce: Instead of keeping thousands of weapons in service or storage, the United States and Russia should dismantle them. When these stocks reach a few hundred each, other countries like Britain, France and China should follow suit.

In this context, we must also consider at what point Israel might join this initiative. The time has come for Israeli and American Jewish leaders to discuss this issue in an open and honest manner. Even if we believe that Israel has no choice but to maintain its nuclear weapons program for years to come, doing so is clearly a necessary evil — one that as Jews, we cannot live with forever.

Freeze: World leaders must place a permanent ban on the development of new nuclear weapons. Again, the United States and Russia must lead by example. How can we possibly dissuade countries like Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons if we continue to expand our arsenals? Such hypocrisy only serves to further motivate non-nuclear states to develop their arms. To quote Coffin, “Mahatma Gandhi once said that a fat person cannot speak persuasively to a skinny person about the virtues of not overeating.”

For those who have grown cynical and do not believe that we can have an impact on the nuclear weapons debate, consider the fact that in 2005, various secular and religious groups lobbied successfully to eliminate funding from the federal budget for the “bunker buster” — a weapon 70 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

During this moment of renewed danger, let us recommit ourselves to the core Jewish values of peace and justice by working to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).

Rabbi Or N. Rose, director of informal education at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is a founding member of Faithful Security,