Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

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Malcolm Caldwell: Defender of Pol Pot

In Cambodia on November 28, 2012 at 7:00 PM

The 20th Century was a genocidal century. Of all the genocides that took place, one that was particularly horrific was the one in Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979 when the country came under the power of the Khmer Rouge. In less than four years, according to Craig Etcheson, an expert in the documentation of the Cambodian genocide, the best estimate for excess deaths is 2.2 million or about thirty percent of the population. The leader of the Khmer Rouge during this period, “Brother Number One,” was Pol Pot.

Malcolm Caldwell was a left-wing academic at School of Oriental and African Studies, a college of the University of London. During the period of time that the Khmer Rouge were massacring people, Malcolm Caldwell was both denying the accuracy of reports that said this was so and apologising for the regime. He is notorious as the leading academic defender of the Khmer Rouge in the West. At the end of 1978 Caldwell travelled to Cambodia and was murdered while there. In my opinion, the murderers were the very same Khmer Rouge who he had defended.

In 2009, I wrote an essay about Malcolm Caldwell. The title of the essay was “Malcolm Caldwell: Pol Pot’s Apologist,” and it was published in Democratiya, Issue 16, Spring-Summer 2009. I have made a copy of the essay available on line here.


Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann in Jerusalem Controversy

In Holocaust, Israel, Jewish Matters on November 28, 2012 at 6:00 PM

One of the most controversial mainstream books ever written about the Holocaust was one by the German Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, published in 1963. Her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, arose from her reporting of the trial of Adolph Eichmann that took place in Jerusalem in 1961.

The book was controversial for a number of reasons. These included her depiction of Eichmann as someone who was a thoughtless person just doing his job. Despite the fact that his job involved the deportation of  Jews by the million to their death, Arendt argued that Eichmann was not a “monster” and that he had no “insane hatred of Jews.”  It was not just Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann that caused controversy, her argument that without  the Jewish Councils (Judenrat) there would have been far fewer Jews murdered, made many of her critics angry.

While the controversy was also in Europe, the main polemical arguments for and against the book took place in American journals. The so-called “New York Intellectuals,” including those who knew knew Arendt personally, passionately argued their respective positions for and against the book.

In 2007, I wrote an essay about that controversy entitled, “The Eichmann Polemics: Hannah Arendt and Her Critics.” It was published in Democratiya, issue 9, summer 2007. I have made a copy available on line here.

Collective Responsibility, a Biblical Episode, and Rabbinical Thought

In Israel, Jewish Matters, Just War on November 23, 2012 at 10:10 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on November 22nd 2012, 5:30 pm

In the last few days, in the light of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, a question has arisen as to whether the members of the population are responsible for its government.  This question is tied in with the idea of collective punishment.

In the first instance we had Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,  in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, saying:

The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.

The consequences, as far as he would like them, are rather dramatic:

We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.[1]

Against this, from the opposite side, writing in the Huffington Post, we have British Member of Parliament and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman:

Israel is a democracy, undeniably. But a democracy that commits war crimes is still a war criminal. It has an exceptionally right wing government, with an overtly racist foreign minister. That government has taken office on the basis of an election. This means that the Israeli electorate is complicit in its government’s war crimes. [Emphasis added][2]

The question of whether the population can be held responsible for the actions of its government was hotly debated  on Twitter between the Huffington Post UK’s political director, Mehdi Hasan, and Guardian contributor and blogger, Sunny Hundal. Hasan argued that people “have to be held somehow responsible” for the governments they elect.[3] Despite being an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq,[4] under questioning, he agreed “indirectly…as part of UK public in a democracy” that “to an extent” he was “complicit in the deaths of Iraqi babies.”[5] Hundal, on the other hand, was of the opinion: “This ‘all citizens complicit’ argument is a very slippery slope, because extremists will then act on it.”[6]

The question is indeed an interesting one. In this post I aim to look at an analogous biblical episode and commentary to which rabbis might look to in order to answer the question from a Jewish religious perspective. That episode is the one detailed in Genesis 34. The relevant facts are that Dinah, daughter of Jacob, was kidnapped and raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor and the Prince of the land. In response, two of Dinah’s brothers went and killed all the males of the city where Shechem lived and took the women and animals as spoils of war. While they were rebuked by Jacob for their actions, it does not appear that Jacob’s criticism at the time was from a moral standpoint: his concern was that it could lead to reprisals.[7]

Maimonides (the Rambam), Nachmanides, (the Ramban) and Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal) were influential medieval biblical commentators who came to different conclusions on this episode. I will take each of these in turn.

Maimonides’s view was that the inhabitants of the city where Shechem lived could all be killed. They were all guilty of not setting up a court of law to render judgement on Shechem despite being aware of his deeds.[8] This responsibility to prevent crime and punish criminals is the responsibility both of each the individual member of society and society as a whole.[9] It is important to note that Maimonides assumes that the people are in a position to be able to put their leaders on trial. The populace could not be held responsible for not judging their leaders if attempting to do so would mean that that they would be killed.[10]

Nachmanides has a very different approach. His opinion was that  Dinah’s brothers had gone beyond the original plan which was just to deter Shechem from marrying Dinah. According to this view, even if they deserved to die for other reasons, Dinah’s brothers killed the populace “with no reason, for they did not do evil to [Dinah’s brothers] at all.” [11] Nachmanides is explicit: “it was not the responsibility of Jacob and his sons to bring them to justice.” [12]

The Maharal’s view is different again. He sees the kidnapping and rape of Dinah as a casus belli. When a nation is attacked, it is permitted to go to war. In war there is no distinction, as the Maharal interprets Jewish law, between the innocent and the guilty in a nation. Hence when Jacob’s sons responded to the taking of Dinah, they were permitted to kill all citizens in the town irrespective of any guilt: “even though there are many who did not do [anything], this makes no difference. As they belong to the same nation which did them harm, they are allowed to wage war against them.” [13]

The late Mordechai Eliyahu is the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel. In 2007, he cited Maimonides commentary on the Shechem incident in a published letter directed at the then Israeli Prime Minister. In this letter he argued that all citizens in Gaza are collectively responsible for the rockets fired from there into the Israeli town of Sderot. An entire city, he said, could be held collectively responsible in Jewish law for the immoral behaviour of individuals. According to Mordechai Eliyahu’s son, this meant, in practice, he advocated carpet bombing of areas from where missiles were fired.[14]

If one accepts the Maharal’s formulation, then one would believe that in war, as innocence is irrelevant, it is perfectly acceptable to kill a baby in its mother’s arms. This would be the position of, for example, Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of the City of Ramat Gan and a leading rabbi in the religious Zionist movement.[15] While Rabbi Yitzhak Blau argues that “Maharal represents a decidedly minority viewpoint with regard to [the Shechem indicent] and is thus a shaky leg upon which to build a far reaching position,”[16] Rabbi Chaim Jachter is insistent: “Maharal is a most solid source and most definitely does not constitute a ‘shaky leg’  upon which to base a resolution to our question.”[17] He is in no doubt: “the Israeli army may risk the lives of Palestinian civilians living near Palestinian terrorists. The same applies to Hezbollah terrorists embedded among the civilian population of Lebanon.”[18]

Interpretations of the Shechem incident provided by Maimonides (they are all guilty) or the Maharal (there is no difference between the innocent and guilty in war) might seem unpalatable to those whose moral views on war are more in line with the Geneva Conventions than these authorities on Jewish law. There are alternative Jewish religious views.

In Rabbi Shlomo’s Goren opinion, what is important about the Shechem incident is that Jacob criticised his sons for their actions. Jacob rejected “collective responsibility . . . as a criterion in the ethic of waging war . . . [and]  was opposed to killing . . . both from a security viewpoint and from an ethical one.” Goren was able to conclude:

We are commanded… even in times of war . . . not to harm the non-combatant population, and certainly one is not allowed to harm women and children who do not participate in war…[19]

Ayre Edrei of the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University explains: “There are no traces of the Maharal’s position in Rabbi Goren’s writings, for he sought to advance an ethical model for the Israel Defense Forces anchored in Jewish tradition.”[20] According to Ya’acov Blidstein, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University, Rabbi Goren’s discussion “is not based upon Talmudic sources, nor does it confront the arguments of the opposing approaches. This naturally weakens its halakhic [Jewish legal] impact and authority.”[21] This may well be true. Even if so, Shlomo Goren’s opinions did not stop him being appointed Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces and later Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.


NB. All Internet links last accessed November 22, 2012.

[1] Gilad Sharon, “A decisive conclusion is necessary,” Jerusalem Post (Online Edition) November 18, 2012. Available at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?ID=292466&R=R1&utm NB At the end of the article an editorial statement is made: “The views expressed in this op-ed do not reflect the editorial line of The Jerusalem Post.”
[2] Sir Gerald Kaufman, “Why I believe Israel is committing War Crimes,” Huffington Post UK, November 20, 2012. Available on line athttp://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sir-gerald-kaufman/gaza-israel-palestine_b_2164599.html
[3] https://twitter.com/mehdirhasan/status/270921613057355776
[4] Mehdi Hasan, “We can’t pin Iraq on Blair alone,” New Statesman, (Online edition) January 21, 2011. Available at http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2011/01/blair-war-iraq-secretary-prime
[5] https://twitter.com/mehdirhasan/status/270942111547936768
[6] https://twitter.com/sunny_hundal/status/270944198881054720
[7] Genesis 34. This can be seen online for example at http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0134.htm
[8] Maimonides, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 9:14 Available on line at http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188354/jewish/Chapter-9.htm
[9] J. David Bleich, “Torture and the Ticking Bomb,” TRADITION, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2006: pp.111-112.
[10] Yitzchak Blau, “Biblical Narratives and the Status of Enemy Civilians in War Time,” TRADITION, Vol. 39. No. 4, Winter 2006: p.16.
[11] Binyamin Singer, Ramban Classic Themes in Nachmanides’ Chumash Commentary: Volume 1: Bereishis & Shemos (Targum Press, 2005) pp.164-168.
[12] Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, trans. Charles B. Chavel (Shilo, 1971), p.419 cited by Michael Walzer, “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition,” In Terry Nardin (ed.), The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives, (Princeton University Press, 1996), p.98.
[13] The Maharal’s commentary Gur Aryeh to Genesis. 34:14, cited by Ya’acov Blidstein, “The Treatment of Hostile Civilian Populations: The Contemporary Halakhic Discussion in Israel,” Israel Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1996, p.36.
[14] Matthew Wagner, “Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing Gaza: says there is no moral prohibition against killing civilians to save Jews,” Jerusalem Post (Online edition), May 30, 2007. Available at
[15] Michael J.  Broyde, “Just Wars, Just Battles and Just Conduct in Jewish Law: Jewish Law is Not a Suicide Pact!”, in Lawrence Schiffman and Joel B. Wolowelsky (Eds.), War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, (Yeshiva University Press, 2007), p.27, p.40n96.
[16] Yitzchak Blau, “Biblical Narratives and the Status of Enemy Civilians in War Time,” TRADITION, Vol. 39. No. 4, Winter 2006: p.11.
[17] Chaim Jachter, “Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties – Part 2,” Kol Torah, Vol. 17, No. 17, January 5, 2008, available on line at http://koltorah.org/ravj/Halachic_Perspectives_on_Civilian_Casualties_2.html
[18] Chaim Jachter, “Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties – Part 3,” Kol Torah, Vol. 17, No. 18, January 12, 2008, available on line at http://koltorah.org/ravj/Halachic_Perspectives_on_Civilian_Casualties_3.html
[19] Rabbi S. Goren, Meshiv Milhamah 1(Jerusalem, 1983 ) 16, 26, cited by Ya’acov Blidstein, “The Treatment of Hostile Civilian Populations: The Contemporary Halakhic Discussion in Israel,” Israel Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1996, p.37.
[20] Arye Edrei, “Divine Spirit and Physical Power: Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Military Ethic of the Israel Defense Forces,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law Vol. 7, 2005, p.287.
[21] Ya’acov Blidstein, “The Treatment of Hostile Civilian Populations: The Contemporary Halakhic Discussion in Israel,” Israel Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1996, p.37.

Starvation in the North Korean Gulag

In North Korea on November 18, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Below I copy a single paragraph extract from page 155 of the following source:

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 7, 2/3 (August/December 2012): 147–165.

The North Korean regime is responsible not only for famine, but also for a deliberate policy of subjecting its prisoners to starvation rations. The government maintains a large system of repressive slave labor camps—in effect, a gulag—in which prisoners are even more likely to starve than the general population. Rations are far below what is needed to maintain health and were so even before the food shortages and famine of the 1990s: “Prisoners are provided only enough food to be kept perpetually on the verge of starvation.” Food is allocated on the basis of productivity: the less a prisoner produces, the less he eats, resulting in a spiral downward as those deprived of even more food produce less and less. Many in the camps die from lack of food, while some are executed for foraging; in one case a prisoner was executed for eating ripe chestnuts that had fallen at the entrance of a slave labor mine.

The article is freely available on line and is worthwhile reading in full.

Hat Tip: Paul Bogdanor.

On Hobsbawm, Hitchens, and Double Standards

In Hitchens, Vietnam War on November 11, 2012 at 7:33 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place at October 4th 2012, 1:39 am

When Christopher Hitchens died, this blog published panegyrics. This was not the case when Eric Hobsbawn died. Alan A of this blog determined that Hobsbawm was “wicked” (subsequently changed) and wrote a post largely consisting of an extract of a review of one of Hobsbawm’s books by Hitchens.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that comments below posts are not viewable one week after a post goes up. In this instance, it is a shame as an interesting debate occurred between some of this blog’s regular commentators from both below and above the line. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi suggested that there were double standards at play between the treatment by this blog of Hobsbawm and its treatment of Hitchens. In my opinion, Aymenn’s complaint is justified.

He accurately quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying in 2004:

The media cliche about the war is that it‘s like Vietnam. The Vietnamese were a very civilized foe and if they had had weapons of mass destruction, for example, wouldn‘t have used them and didn‘t target civilians, did use women as fighters and organizers, were not torturers and mass murderers and so forth.

In a dispute, another regular commentator, declared that Hitchens was mentioning “facts.”

This is simply not true. The North Vietnamese Communists and the Viet Cong certainly did use torture. Guenter Lewy (America in Vietnam [Oxford University Press, 1978], pp.337-8) discusses the treatment of American prisoners :

The most frequent mode of torture was to put a prisoner into ropes – arms tied tightly behind the back and head and shoulders forced down until the mouth practically touched the feet. As a result of constricted circulation, after a while the pain became so excruciating that the prisoner was prepared to do anything his captors demanded….. Col Kenneth North told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that according to statistics kept by the prisoner organization, approximately 95 percent of the men in the North Vietnamese prisons were tortured.

As regards mass murderers, one can consider what happened at Hue early 1968 when, in the course of 26 days:

some 5,800 civilians were killed or abducted; most of the missing are considered dead…. mass graves were discovered gradually during the following 18 months and yielded some 2,800 bodies. The lack of visible wounds on a large number of these victims, who included two Catholic priests, indicated that they had been buried alive.

Source: Ibid., p.274.

Commenting on terror killings, Lewy adds (p.277):

The killing of noncombatants through VC terror, on the other hand, was systematic and intentional, in violation of the most basic principles of humanitarian conduct in time of war forbidding deliberate attacks on the civilian population.

Mass murders by Vietnamese Communists had occurred even before the Second IndoChina War had begun. Communist policy in the Soviet Union and China had led to millions of deaths as a result of Stalin’s collectivization and Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward. Michael Lind (Vietnam the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict [Free Press, 1999], p.152) explains what happened in Vietnam:

Collectivization began on March 2, 1953 with the promulgation of a “Population Classification Decree” that divided the subjects of the Hanoi dictatorship into five categories from “landlord” to “agricultural worker.” Somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese were summarily executed for being of the wrong class category; many more were imprisoned in the Vietnamese Gulag.

After the war, many Vietnamese were so scared as to what the Communists would do that they left the country in rickety boats. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 1 million people fled Vietnam in the aftermath of the the 1975 communist takeover of which some 400,000 died at sea.

Source: Associated Press, June 23, 1979.

Those fleeing had good cause to be worried. According to Doan Van Toai, after the fall of Saigon, the whole of the county was turned into a “Vietnamese Gulag” with food rations dependent on whether the Communist Party bosses were obeyed. And then, after hard days at work in rice fields, free time was restricted as peasants had to attend indoctrination lessons. (Source: Human Events, March 17, 1979.) And in terms of deaths etc, Human Events (August 27, 1977) reported one former elected Communist government official estimated by 1977 that

between 50,000 and 100,000 people had been slaughtered outright; that there are another 200,000 or more in the “re-education” camps; an additional 200,000-300,000 who have been processed through these camps, released, but kept under the equivalent of house arrest; and perhaps one million or more sent to “new economic areas” to perform forced labour.

And so it goes on.

Michael Lind (Vietnam The Necessary War, [Free Press, 1999], p.156) comments:

members of the Western left who minimised or made excuses for the North Vietnamese Land reform terror were apologists for state-sponsored genocide

There does indeed seem to be a double standard.

Jewish Law and Proportionality in War

In Israel, Jewish Matters, Just War on November 8, 2012 at 5:57 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on November 8th 2012, 3:30 pm

Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative on the International Atomic Energy Agency, has caused some controversy in a speech he gave at Warwick University where he stated:

Israelis don’t practise an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, they practise ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth.

He added:

The idea that a just war requires the use of force to be proportionate seems to be a Christian notion and not a Jewish notion. [1]

The Jewish Chronicle reports that in response to Jenkins’ comments, Jonathan Sacerdoti, director of the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, informed the audience that Jenkins’ speech was ‘laced with its subtle attempts at antisemitism, masked behind polite diplomatic chatter.’ [2] The Community Security Trust, an organisation that represents British Jewry to Police, Government and media on antisemitism and security, accused Jenkins of ignorance.[3]

Like many statements that are often used to attack Israel, while devoid of any context, there is an element of truth in Jenkins’ remark. Michael Broyde of the Emory University School of Law explains that while it is ‘terribly disquieting’ and ‘deeply uncomfortable’ to him:

Jewish law has no ‘real’ restrictions on the conduct of the Jewish army during wartime, so long as the actions being performed are all authorized by the command structure of the military in order to fulfill a valid and authorized goal and do not violate international treaties.[4]

The conclusion is stark: it is international treaties, not Jewish law that leads to the proportionality requirement of the conduct in war. While conventions external to Jewish law, but mutually agreed by the combatants, would be binding on all Jewish adherents, ‘Jewish law has few, if any, rules of battle.’[5]

Elliot Dorff, Rabbi and professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University comments that ‘the principle of proportionality is not nearly as clear and authoritative a tenet in Judaism as it is in Catholicism.’[6] Even more firm in his statement is Yishai Kiel of the Department of Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He points out that there is a ‘total absence of moral issues relating to warfare in the classical rabbinic statement regarding the laws of war in the eighth chapter of tractate Sotah, including the Mishnah, and theTosefta, and both Talmuds.’[7] Dorff points out that it is not even entirely clear as to whether Jewish law ‘requires any distinction between combatants and noncombatants even in the conduct of war.’[8]

Moreover, in advance of war, Rabbi Bleich,  Professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in a conclusion largely agreed with by the eminent Just War theorist, Michael Walzer,[9] said:

Not only does one search in vain for a ruling prohibiting military activity likely to result in the death of civilians  but, to this writer’s knowledge, there exists no discussion in classical rabbinic sources that takes cognizance of the likelihood of causing civilian casualties in the course of hostilities legitimately undertaken as posing a halakhic [Jewish legal] or moral problem.[10]

Numerous Jewish laws (the discussion of which is outside the scope of this article) exist as to which wars are optional, which are commanded, and which are obligatory to fight. There are laws as to what must occur before a war. Notably, according to Maimonides, a great authority on Jewish law, it is obligatory to seek peace before a war is commenced:

One does not wage war with anyone in the world until one seeks peace with him…. as it says [in the Torah], ‘When you approach a city to wage war, you shall [first] call to it in peace.’[11]

A traditional Jewish greeting is ‘Shalom.’ This translates as ‘peace,’ but as Michael Walzer explains, ‘Shalom has a more local and immediate meaning, “not war,” as in the biblical command to “proclaim peace.”’[12] Yishai Kiel is explicit: ‘the “Call for Peace”…[is] ultimately designed to avoid the bloodshed concomitant with the state of war.’[13]

Moreover, the important thirteenth century Jewish scholar Nahmanides tells Jews:

God commanded us that when we lay siege to a city that we leave one of the sides without a siege so as to give them a place to flee to. It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies even at time of war.[14]

 Jewish law prohibits wanton destruction. For as it says in the scripture:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down. (Deuteronomy 20:19)[15]

In his codification of this prohibition of cutting down fruit-bearing trees, Maimonides expanded it to include other items: tearing clothes or demolishing a building, as examples, would both transgress the command ‘You shall not destroy.’[16]

 Rabbi Bleich informs us that in Jewish law an assessment must be made as to ‘whether a proposed war is indeed necessary and whether it will be successful in achieving its objectives.’ It is ‘only when the lives preserved are greater in number than the lives whose loss may be anticipated as a result of armed conflict’ that ‘the need to eliminate a potential aggressor is an imperative causus belli that renders even preemptive war permissible.’ He notes, ‘The justification of war in such circumstances is the saving of lives, not the punishment of the enemy.’[17]

When it comes to nuclear war, the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits discussed the matter some fifty years ago:

In view of this vital limitation of the law of self-defense, it would appear that a defensive war likely to endanger the survival of the attacking and the defending nations alike, if not indeed the entire human race, can never be justified. On the assumption, then, that the choice posed by a threatened nuclear attack would be either complete destruction or surrender, only the second may be morally vindicated.

What is clear from Jakobovits’s argument that leads to his conclusion is that in his opinion, the immorality of the use of nuclear weapons in Jewish law is largely because the survival of both sides are endangered, for as he earlier says:

So long as wars were limited and it was likely that the belligerents would survive and one would emerge victorious, the basic right to arm and to wage war was clearly asserted by the law of self-defense, whether what was to be defended were lives or moral values. But if both the lives and the values to be defended may, as now appears possible, themselves be destroyed together with the aggressor in the exercise of self-defense, the right to resort to it is questionable.[18]

It is true, as Peter Jenkins suggested, that the concept of proportionality in war in the way that we understand it in the modern day owes much to Christian thought, specifically to Aquinas in the thirteenth century, as opposed to Jewish thought.[19] The reason why Jews did not historically focus on this area is obvious – and it was pointed out by the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs: ‘For 2,000 years Jews had no state of their own, so that the whole question was academic.’[20] Michael Walzer elaborated on this point: ‘Jews are the victims, not the agents, of war. And without a state or an army, they are also not the theorists of war.’[21]

The ethics of war are considered both by the State of Israel and by scholars of Orthodox Jewish law. In a meeting of the Orthodox Forum held in March 2004, a conclusion was as follows:

The committee believed that discussions about how Judaism conceives the justification for war and the conduct of war should not be held in a vacuum; they should not take place exclusively on the plane of [Jewish legal and traditional non legal Jewish narrative] sources. Rather, religious explorations must engage secular ethical perspectives and secular legalities, as well as perspectives promulgated by Christianity in its quest for a definition of ‘Just War.’ We need to place Jewish tradition in conversation with general moral sensibilities and international regulations.[22]

When it comes to the value placed on human life, rather than Jenkins’ argument that Israelis ‘practise ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth,’ one can consider what occurred in practice: last year the Israeli government agreed to free 1,027 prisoners, including some with blood on their hands, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a single captured Israeli soldier.[23]

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) have a code of ethics. The Spirit of the IDF is drawn from a number of sources including ‘The tradition of the Jewish People throughout their history’ and ‘Universal moral values based on the value and dignity of human life.’ This code includes the idea of ‘Purity of Arms.’ The relevant clause I copy below:

The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.[24]

I leave the last word to Michael Broyde:

We all pray for a time where the world will be different – but until that time, Jewish law directs the Jewish state and the American nation do what it takes (no more, but no less, either) to survive and prosper ethically in the crazy world in which we live.[25]


Bleich, David J. 1983, ‘Preemptive War in Jewish Law’, TRADITION: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, Vol. 21, Number 1, Spring: 3-41.

Broyde, Michael J. 2007, ‘Just Wars, Just Battles and Just Conduct in Jewish Law: Jewish Law is Not a Suicide Pact!’, in Lawrence Schiffman and Joel B. Wolowelsky (Eds.), War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, New York: Yeshiva University Press: 1-43.

Dorff, Elliot N. 1991, ‘Bishops, Rabbis, and Bombs’, in Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction, edited by Daniel Landes, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.: 164-195.

‘Ethics’, Israeli Defence Forces. Available on line athttp://dover.idf.il/IDF/English/about/doctrine/ethics.htm (Accessed November 8, 2012)

‘Israeli court rejects Shalit swap delay bid’, 2011, BBC, October 17. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15338829 (Accessed November 8, 2012).

Jakobovits, Immanuel 1962, ‘Rejoinders’, TRADITION: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, Vol. 4, Number 2, Spring: 198-205.

Kiel, Yishai 2012, ‘The morality of war in rabbinic literature: The Call for Peace and the Limitation of the Siege’, in War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition: From the biblical world to the present, edited by Yigal Levin and Amnon Shapira, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge: 116-138.

Kimelman, Reuven 1991, ‘A Jewish Understanding of War and Its Limits’, inConfronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction, edited by Daniel Landes, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.: 82-99.

Leventer, Herb 2007, ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Just War’, in Lawrence Schiffman and Joel B. Wolowelsky (Eds.), War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, New York: Yeshiva University Press: 45-92.

Peli, Pinchas H. 1991, ‘Torah and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A View from Israel’, in Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction, edited by Daniel Landes, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.: 69-81.

Scheinman, Anna 2012, ‘A just war? That’s just not Jewish, says ex-envoy’,  The Jewish Chronicle Online, October 25. Avilable online athttp://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/88067/a-just-war-that%E2%80%99s-just-not-jewish-says-ex-envoy (Accessed November 8, 2012).

Shatz, David 2007, ‘Introduction,’ in Lawrence Schiffman and Joel B. Wolowelsky (Eds.), War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, New York: Yeshiva University Press: xiii-xxxviiii.

Walzer, Michael 1996, ‘War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition’, in The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives, edited by Terry Nardin, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press: 95-114.


[1] Scheinman 2012.
[2] Scheinman 2012.
[3] Scheinman 2012.
[4] Broyde 2007, p. 7.
[5] Broyde 2007, p. 7.
[6] Dorff 1991, p. 180.
[7] Kiel 2012, p. 132.
[8] Dorff 1991, p. 176.
[9] Walzer 1996, p. 108.
[10] Bleich 1983, p. 19.
[11] Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1 cited in Broyde 2007,  p.19.
[12] Walzer 1996, p. 96.
[13] Kiel 2012,  p. 125.
[14] Broyde 2007, p. 21.
[15] Peli 1991, p. 73. (NB. In Peli’s article the reference is incorrectly provided as Deuteronomy 20:10. I have used the correct reference.)
[16] Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 6:10 cited in Kimelman 1991, p. 90.
[17] Bleich 1983, p.25.
[18] Jakobovits 1962, pp. 201-2.
[19] Leventer 2007, p. 51.
[20] Jacobs, Louis 1973, What Does Judaism Say About…? New York: Quadrangle: p.228 cited in Dorff 1991, p. 171.
[21] Walzer 1996, p. 96.
[22] Shatz 2007, pp. xiii-xiv.
[23] ‘Israeli court rejects Shalit swap delay bid’, 2011.
[24] ‘Ethics.’
[25] Broyde 2007, p. 31.

Christopher Hitchens Anecdotes, No. 1.

In Hitchens Anecdote on November 6, 2012 at 10:55 AM

I didn’t personally know [Bill] Clinton [at Oxford], but I knew some in his circle. One of them, a super-serious youth named Ira Magaziner who is now a Clinton campaign adviser, once got me into trouble without knowing it. A telephone message in my shared home read “RING IRA,” and alas was still on the table when the cops came round on some bovine errand. I had to waste hours convincing them that I wasn’t trying to unify Ireland by force that week.

Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” The Nation, March 16, 1992.