War Is a Very Ugly Thing but Not the Ugliest

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Dov Lerner

Six decades ago—in a highly secretive, logistically complex, and profoundly important mission—four undercover Israeli operatives seized one of the world’s most wanted criminals in the dead of night on a quiet street in Argentina. The year was 1960. Their captive was Adolf Eichmann.

Responsible for orchestrating the transportation of Europe’s Jews to the ghettos and the camps and one of the highest-ranking members of the Third Reich, he was charged with crimes against humanity and put on trial in Jerusalem for the world to see.

The press coverage was comprehensive and unprecedented, and it gripped the global imagination for months on end. Day after day, pages and pages were dedicated to disseminating the hours of harrowing testimony. But of all the extraordinary reporting that emerged from that court, journalism’s most lasting contribution was a single four-word phrase, coined by a renowned philosopher who reported on the case for The New Yorker. Her name was Hannah Arendt, and her phrase was “the banality of evil.”

Sitting amid the countless rows of correspondents, diplomats, and observers, she covered the Eichmann trial from start to finish, and she confessed that the thing which perplexed her most about the entire episode was Eichmann’s absolute mediocrity. Knowing that he had directed deportations, led liquidations, and advanced the extermination of an entire population, she had expected the man at the defense bench to seem like a demonic, diabolical, monstrous creature. She had expected to see a savage villain to match the evil reputation that preceded him.

But sitting quietly behind bulletproof glass, he appeared simply as an inconspicuous bureaucrat—unexceptional and unremarkable in every way. And it was this nondescript presence that led her to invent the expression “the banality of evil”—along with the idea that while we may expect brutal atrocities to be carried out by malformed fiends, crimes against humanity can be committed, almost casually, by otherwise ordinary people.


As the horrors perpetrated by Hamas have come to light, many questions have come to fore. But perhaps the one question that has occupied the minds of every civilized person on Earth has been not theological—“how God could let this happen?”—but anthropological. How could human beings be so inhumane? How could human beings be so depraved and perpetrate such outrageous barbarity?



And, from my perspective, the answer to that question is—regrettably—rather simple. There is nothing in human nature that makes us humane. There is nothing in our DNA that teaches us that every single person on Earth deserves care and attention and sympathy and dignity. As creatures, we are all moral blank slates, motivated at our core by a sequence of what one notorious biologist has called ‘selfish genes.’ Driven by the impulse to survive, our primal instincts are egocentric and self-absorbed, narcissistic and oblivious to any call for sacrifice or philanthropy.

It may well be true, as some anthropologists have suggested, that evolution favors not the fittest but the friendliest—and that we, as a species, have survived over time by expanding our horizons, deepening our sympathies, and investing in friends. But even this theory does not see human beings driven by a sense of moral obligation but, fundamentally, by a bid for self-preservation—where our friends are not an end in themselves but the best bet for our own survival.

Though I was born and raised in Great Britain, I am—despite their flaws—in near-constant awe of the founders and framers of the United States and its laws. But there are two words in the American Declaration of Independence to which I take exception. Speaking of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” They are not self-evident.

The idea that every single human being has a right to life is not self-evident to our selfish genes; it needs to be taught. The idea that every single human being has a right to liberty is not self-evident to our selfish genes; it needs to be taught. And the idea that every single human being has a right to seek meaning and pursue happiness is not self-evident to our selfish genes; it too needs to be taught.

And that is where the Torah’s story begins—with the opening pages of Genesis.


Standing at the summit of Mount Sinai, a single prophet and leader of slaves inscribed a groundbreaking phrase as the culmination of the very first chapter of the Jewish constitution: “God created humanity in His image.” (Genesis 1:27).

Standing at the foot of Sinai the Israelites were told that, at the dawn of time, God pierced the darkness with light and filled the void with life. And then we were taught a vital truth that was anything but self-evident: that every single human being is a vessel of divinity.

When we were born as a nation, we were taught a moral truth that had evaded civilization for millennia—a moral truth that had escaped the potentates and populations of Egypt and Greece and Mesopotamia, smothered beneath the weight of selfish genes and egomania—the moral truth that every single human being, no matter their rank or stature, is worthy of respect and compassion and dignity and care.

It is not “natural” to treat every human being with deference and esteem; it is not “natural” for our appetites to surrender before the call of moral responsibility, which is why—for a whole variety of scholars including Joshua Berman,[1] Kyle Harper,[2] Tom Holland,[3] Eric Nelson,[4] Tomer Persico,[5] and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[6]—the moral law revealed at Sinai erupted as a revolution in the affairs of humankind.

As Rabbi Sacks put it: “Hitler was not wrong when he called conscience a Jewish invention.”[7] It is not human nature to be humane but the foundation of our faith—a creed that needs to be taught and reinforced repeatedly.

It is not accidental that, in an ordinary year, after we read the first pages of Genesis, our sages direct us to a passage in Isaiah when he says: “So says God… I have summoned you… to be a light unto the nations” (42:6).

God filled the world with light, but He summons us to spread and defend it. The reason that we are willing to pay such a high price for private tuition is not simply so that our kid’s friends have kosher homes, but because we know that the moral code invoked at Sinai is not innate and needs to be taught.

That is why the attempts at impartiality or neutrality on the part of some elite universities is not only tragic but dangerous. It is not human nature to be humane—ethics are not innate. If institutions of higher learning aspire to be more than merely way-stations of information, they ought to train their students not only to process data or articulate different views but to choose a moral frame.

The idea that free speech will inexorably lead to moral clarity and the unwavering devotion to the sanctity of humanity is completely misconceived—so while they ought to permit free speech, they ought to brand not only Hamas but any defense of Hamas for what it has been revealed to be: evil, depraved, and inhumane.

There are competing ideologies out there—where the weak are to be culled, and the old are to be killed, and the other is to be exterminated—and silence or neutrality gives them the space to grow. At the end of his tenure, as a final reminder to our ancestors, Moses said: “Life and death I place before you… choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

We are now in a defensive war against human beings who promote an inhumane ideology—whose barbarity threatens our brothers and sisters, the civilians of the region, and the rest of humanity. This war is to secure Israel’s borders, but more than that it is to combat a cult that incites violence, creates carnage, and celebrates death—it is to liberate those held hostage by those who forsake their humanity.

We can no longer turn the other cheek, because we have a duty to protect the weak and counter the malignant creed which teems in the tunnels beneath the streets of Gaza, where it breeds moral depravity. Tragically this war—as all wars—will entail the loss of human life on all sides, and our minds will no doubt be swimming in images that inspire agony. And at times like this we are reminded of words written by John Stuart Mill:

War is an ugly thing—but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse… [And] as long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of [hu]mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.[8]


Evil can be banal because goodness needs to be taught. Cruelty can be casual, inhumanity can become natural, and what we see as unfathomable and incomprehensible can come to pass if we do not do our part to instill human hearts with compassion. Ronald Reagan once said:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it, and then hand it to them with the well taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.

The idea, first taught on the summit of Sinai to a single prophet and a small band of slaves, has been disseminated by multiple faiths across the ages over the face of the earth so successfully that we take it to be self-evident—but our summons to defend and spread the light of revelation is not yet complete.

As long as other ideologies still compete for believers, as long as evil or moral ambiguity still breeds unabated, we have an obligation to stand up and speak out and give voice to heaven’s vision for humanity, where everyone—including the weak and the old and the other—has a divine spark and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of purpose.

May the coming weeks bring us all a little closer to true peace as we try, with all our hearts, to contest inhumanity and sow the seeds of our collective redemption.

[1] Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Kyle Harper, “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity,” in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1: Historical Perspectives. eds. Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[3] Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2019).

[4] Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[5] Tomer Persico, Adam Be-Tzelem Elohim: Ha-Raʻayon She-Shinah Et Ha-Olam Ṿe-et Ha-Yahadut [In God’s Image: The Making of the Modern World] (Rishon le-Tziyon: Yediʻot Aḥaronot, 2021).

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: Free Press, 2001).

[7] Ibid., 190.

[8] John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” first published in Fraser’s Magazine (February 1862).

Dov Lerner is a member of the inaugural cohort of Sacks Scholars, an international fellowship of educators and communal professionals dedicated to perpetuating the legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. He serves as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York, and on the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought in New York.