Sunday, August 20, 2006


Jewish Law and War

Many in the Jewish community note regarding Israel's conduct and the world's reaction to it: "Israel is the only country from which the world demands the strictest adherence to [liberal] Christian ethics". While it is certainly fair for liberal Christians to criticize Israel from a Christian point of view and such criticisms are often more constructive than many Jews, who are, rightly given our history, paranoid about advice from non-Jews (although that paranoia is often misplaced -- sometimes the same person who thinks the Goyim who criticize Israel mean no good to the Jewish people manages to conflate the agenda of fundie Christians, who really do mean no good for us Jews as they mean for us to die at Har Meggido, with the Zionist agenda), the real question is not whether Israel defends itself according to Christian principles that have never in the course of history been observed by any Christian country actually under attack, but whether Israel defends itself according to Jewish principles.

So does Israel do this?

Much has been made of Israel's warning of civilian populations before bombing in civilian areas. Such warnings are indeed required by Jewish law. But is one warning sufficient? Joshua warned Jericho thrice. Also, Jewish law requires you allow fleeing civilians egress. Israel has, to the detriment of its mission, often done so. But not uniformly. And there is something disingenuous about warning civilians of an impending attack and then attacking them as they flee. I know many in Israel discount the PR aspect of Israel's wars and figure everyone hates Israel anyway (and then they wonder why Israel has such bad PR and why everyone hates Israel?), but it is not only immoral to attack fleeing civilians a la Amelek, but it also is horrible PR, which is important when you are fighting a war against an enemy whose purpose in fighting is largely PR.

And what of targeted assassinations? Israel does follow Jewish laws against secret killings by publishing its target lists. But is it acceptable to assassinate people, even if the target lists are publicized?

Those who argue it is acceptable argue such on the basis of self-defense: in Jewish law, proportional self-defense is, depending on the nature of the situation, either acceptable or mandatory. It is also mandatory to kill someone who is pursuing another when that someone is pursuing his target for the sake of murdering or raping the other person. On the other hand, outside of lethal responses to an immanent, dangerous threat, extra-judicial killings are abhorrent in Jewish law. Vengeance is not ours and summary executions of capital offenders prevent their cases from being adjudicated in courts, which lack of adjudication of capital crimes renders Israel vulnerable to God's wrath.

So are these targeted assassinations punishments or responses to a future threat? For those who say intent is not important in Jewish law, while any legal system worth its salt considers actions more primarily than intent, contra what those who argue against anti-hate-crime legislation say, we punish intent all the time and any reasonable legal system must: otherwise how would you distinguish an accidental killing with a vehicle, something even our first lady has done, from murder? If the targeted assassinations are intended as punishments, they are against Jewish law and invite God's wrath. If the assassinations are preventative, the question becomes whether the rubric of self/national-defense is operative. My inclination is that it is not as the assassination would not stop a specific, immanent attack (which is the purpose of self-defense) nor, considering reprisal killings, do targeted assassinations really save any lives. And if the so-called act of self-defense is not designed to thwart a specific attack but rather provokes an attack, how is it self-defense?

So does Israel follow Jewish law? This is a very important question. My opinion on Israel is the same as a 1940s era frum Jew, but for reasons of pragmatism rather than pure fundamentalism. Since Israel does exist, it ought to follow Jewish law as, for better or for worse, it represents us Jews as the Jewish State. But I am not so concerned about Israel enforcing "blue laws": if anything, the religious establishment in Israel, as religious establishments often are, is harmful to Jewish religiosity as it forces those not comfortable with a certain strain of Orthodoxy toward secularism by restricting the alternatives within Judaism. But while Israel needs to loosen its religious establishment, it also needs to heed Jewish law where such heeding really counts: in matters of ethics and statecraft. And it needs to consider what really constitutes Jewish teachings (e.g. "turn the other cheek" is Jewish, so asking Israel to do so is not asking Israel to follow a Christian ethic Christian nations don't even follow) rather than following a Christian or Muslim's idea of what constitutes the teachings of the "vengeful" "Old Testament".

If the whole point of Zionism is for us Jews to live in our homeland where we can be un-afraid, but rather come into our own, it's failed miserably. If our homeland is so dependent on US largess that we feel we need organizations like AIPAC to survive, how is the Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty fulfilled? If Israel is always under threat, how is Israel a place where Jews can live without feeling threatened by the Goyim? If so many Jews continue to act, and consider it normative to act, according to stereotypes of Jewish tribalism (which, in the anti-Semitic world view is not distinguished from cosmopolitanism), and that Jewish rules of conduct ought to reflect the way others have constructed the Hebrew Bible rather than the way we have constructed this book, how have we Jews come into our own?

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