Lyndon Johnson meets with Presidential candidate Richard Nixon at the White House, July 26, 1968
The Political Problem:
An individual takes actions which are treacherous to you or your interests. What are the options for dealing with this enemy? Should you strike back immediately, bide your time, or seek swift justice?
The Political Approach
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” is often attributed to Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. Funny, but neither attribution is correct; its origin is a quote from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Regardless of origin, however, this maxim is the most common political approach to someone who is an enemy, or who acts in opposition to one’s interests. The concept’s general articulation in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (and thus the mistaken reference above) is stated as follows: “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. Again, this strategic approach encourages a close proximity to one’s enemy.
In more recent times, we find this concept was put into practice by two U.S. presidents: both Richard Nixon and Quincy Adams kept enemy lists. Nixon’s counsel famously wrote about the enemy list – “This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies”. Enemy lists effectively utilize the famous political maxim; by listing those targeted for retribution, one must be cognizant of their whereabouts in order to properly mete justice befitting entry on the list.
The problem with this political approach is that both Nixon and Adams were known to be paranoid men who only grew in paranoia as they grew in power. Nixon’s paranoia is well documented. Early in Quincy Adams’ career, he quibbled with peers during the Treaty of Ghent, which ultimately brought resolution to the War of 1812, but never brought peace to Quincy Adam’s internal demons. One of the men at that treaty, Henry Clay, would end up on a Quincy Adams enemy list. Did such an action relieve that paranoia? Unlikely. Due to political circumstances, Clay later served as Quincy Adam’s Secretary of State, likely exaggerating his stress and bringing no resolution to someone he perceived as treacherous.
The Torah Approach
Pirkei Avot offers the opposite approach. It advises the distancing of a bad neighbor and the disassociation from a wicked person. Those who take consistently evil actions don’t merit your attention. If someone is proven to be a bad or wicked individual, then you must take steps to remove them from your circle of interaction. Keeping enemies close (or on an enemies list) maintains a proximity in your life that will only result in some form of negative impact. Those with evil or bad intentions offer dangerous and destructive associations which our Rabbis advised multiple means to avoid.
This becomes clear when examining Yaakov’s interactions with Lavan. Toward the end of their long relationship, Yaakov initially distances his sheep from those of his uncle/father-in-law, and eventually chooses to flee altogether from this evil man’s destructive grip. But did it really take Yaakov so long before he took the Torah approach of distancing himself from someone so obviously destructive to his interests? Actually, Yaakov utilized this method almost immediately with Lavan. We learn this from Yaakov’s message to Esav, where he pointedly states that he has “lived with Lavan”. Rashi notices this seemingly extraneous point and reveals that Yaakov was conveying a message to his brother: that he was still a pious man and uninfluenced by the ways of Lavan, a feat only possible through a very early distancing from Lavan’s treachery.
Maury Litwack is deputy director of federal affairs for the OU’s IPA | Institute for Public Affairs. A recognized advocacy expert, he has worked with elected officials and municipalities on major aspects of their federal and state agenda. Author of The Capitol Plan, a comprehensive Washington advocacy strategy, he was also published in Business Insider, Fox News, The Hill among others and his commentary has been featured in Forbes and Politico.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.