Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Jonathan Freedland’s Utilitarian Problem

In Israel, Just War, Utilitarianism on August 15, 2014 at 3:32 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 28th 2014, 2:56 pm.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland has argued that not only is the Israeli government’s action in Gaza wrong, it is “utterly self-defeating”:

More Israelis have died in the operation to tackle the Hamas threat than have died from the Hamas threat, at least over the past five years. Put another way, to address the risk that hypothetical Israeli soldiers might be kidnapped, 33 actual Israeli soldiers have died.

I first should point out an inconsistency in his article. Freedland earlier states that the Israeli concern is not that specifically soldiers will be kidnapped but that civilians might be. The tunnels are “designed to allow Hamas militants to emerge above ground and mount raids on Israeli border villages and kibbutzim, killing or snatching as many civilians as they can.”  He even seems to accept that the tunnels are intended for kidnapping purposes by noting that “tranquillisers and handcuffs were reportedly found in those tunnels.”

His implication is clear: perhaps the odd person might get kidnapped, but better that than 33 soldiers lose their lives trying to prevent such an action.

I disagree with Freedland and I will do so initially by highlighting an analogy which in itself fails on certain levels to be a good analogy, but on another level it is an ideal analogy. The analogy is one discussed by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in his popular book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Penguin, 2010). It is a true story and dates back to the 1970s.

In summary, Ford had a car, the Pinto, where it knew the fuel tank was prone to explode in the event of a collision. For a small cost per car it could fix the problem. But Ford chose not to do so for a utilitarian reason. Ford estimated that the cost in compensating those that died through exploding tanks would be less than the costs of installing a safety device in all the cars. This was the approach taken. Ultimately the decision process reached the court and the jury was outraged. Ford were fined punitive damages for such behaviour.

The flaws with this analogy are obvious: comparing finances with lives lost. However, the principle is valid: the right thing to do is not necessarily the thing that costs the least. And it does not matter if that is in lives or in money. The simple utilitarian approach is not satisfactory. It ignores duty. In the case of Ford its duty was to install the safety device and, in the case of Israel, very high on the list, is the duty to protect its population from a hostile attack.

While Freedland’s negotiated solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians might be ideal, this takes time (and has not proved successful for decades) and the Israeli government’s knowledge about the tunnels might not allow so much time. Something had to be done. It is unthinkable that a government, any government, should acceptably say to its population: “Some of you might get kidnapped. We are sorry about that, but we are not willing to risk our soldiers’ lives to protect you from kidnap.”

The Israeli government could not know in advance how many, if any, soldiers’ lives would be lost following the Gaza ground invasion decision. According to the Jerusalem Post, the toll by yesterday stood at 43. Unfortunately, in war, soldiers do die. But it is understood that this is a risk soldiers (even conscription soldiers) take. Civilians also die in war, but they should not be deliberately targeted and they should be protected. Hamas fail on their side of the equation. They deliberately target civilians and hence commit war crimes. On its side of the equation Israel should not also fail. It should protect its population.

A following point is also relevant. For Freedland’s utilitarian calculation the input data should also be accurate. He seems to assume that the number of soldiers or civilians killed or kidnapped via the use of Hamas’s network of tunnels will be miniscule. The Gatestone institute report of a plot planned for the Jewish New Year, September 24:

The Hamas plan consisted of what was to be a surprise attack in which 200 fighters would be dispatched through each of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel, and seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.

We are dealing here in counterfactuals but if this alleged plot was allowed to proceed, the amount of Israeli citizens killed or kidnapped might be far greater than the amount of soldiers that lose their lives in the actual Gaza offensive. If so, under its own fundamental principle, Jonathan’s Freedland utilitarian argument would be completely shattered.


Akiva Orr 1931-2013: An Obituary

In Anti-Zionism, Israel on February 13, 2013 at 9:42 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on February 13th 2013, 12:29 pm

There are two types of anti-Zionist: those who can do little more than regurgitate stock phrases: “racist,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansers,” “colonial settlers,” “Nazis,” etc., or plagiarise the work of others and those who have something interesting to say. It is because Akiva Orr fell into the latter camp, together with the fact that I had some familiarity with his background and output, and combined with my own interests in Marxism and anti-Zionism, that I was interested in developing a cordial relationship with him.

I began corresponding with Aki in 2006. As well as email, there were some telephone conversations that could go on very long into the night. He invited me to stay with him in his house near the Israeli town of Netanya. While I never took him up on that kind offer, I did, on a trip to Israel in the summer of 2009, arrange to visit him with my friend Paul Bogdanor. This meeting was ostensibly to discuss the Kasztner case and his involvement in the notorious anti-Zionist play, Perdition, one which caused a storm of controversy in the UK in 1987. The meeting ended up going on much longer than anticipated and included our taking him out to dinner to hear more of what he had to say.

He was born in Germany, immigrated to Palestine in 1934, and did not become politicised until a seaman’s strike in 1951. He joined the Communist Party but became disillusioned with it due to its slavish following of the Soviet line. The Communist Party expelled him in 1962, but if it hadn’t, he would have left. Aki was not lacking in opinions. When we asked him about Trotsky, he dismissed him as someone who “would have been worse than Stalin” had he obtained power. Together with Moshe Machover and others, Aki formed the Socialist Organisation in Israel known as Matzpen.  The aim of Matzpen was for a “de-Zionised” Israel. The organisation’s solution to the Middle East conflict (The Times, June 8, 1967) was a “revolutionary transformation.”

The Zionist power structure and all elements of Jewish supremacy must be abolished totally. This must be achieved only through internal joint struggle of all non-Zionists inside Israel who wish to integrate this state in the Middle East…

This federal state will participate in the process of political and economic unification of the entire Middle East.

Readers might not be surprised to find out that Matzpen never had more than a few dozen members.

Orr came to London for post graduate studies in 1964. He continued his activity with Matzpen and became, again with Machover and others, a co-founder of the Israeli Revolutionary Action Committee (Abroad), known as ISRAC(A). They published a magazine ISRAC which promoted their anti-Zionist views.  They integrated themselves in what became known as the New Left and had articles published by Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group, and also in Socialist Worker.

Orr returned to Israel in 1990 because, as he told me, his mother, who lived in the country, was getting very old and he wanted to spend time with her and also because he preferred the climate.

When we met him, as well as discussing the Kasztner case and Perdition, we were able to ask him about Matzpen and the backing of the terrorist activities including plane hijackings by Marxist PLO groupings. Orr’s response was that while he personally did not agree with such tactics, he did not feel that it was his place to tell the Palestinians how they should resist Israel.

Aki was very keen to tell us about his LSD trips that he experienced in London. He was highly enthusiastic about the drug and promoted its use. Another area that he was keen to discuss was his own political trajectory beyond Marxism and anarchism to something he labelled autonarchy, a form of direct democracy.

I was never going to agree with his political outlook, but when I heard that he died over the weekend, I felt sad. The truth is, despite our political disagreements, I liked him.

The inscription page of one of Akiva Orr’s books that kindly he gave to me.

A film portraying a sympathetic account of Matzpen featuring Akiva Orr.

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.

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.


In BDS, Israel, Trotskyism on July 2, 2012 at 8:48 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 2nd 2012, 2:27 pm

Yesterday I attended Ideas for Freedom, the annual summer weekend event of the Trotskyist group Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. One of the debates was between Sacha Ismail of the AWL against Michael Chessum, an executive member of the National Union of Students. Ostensibly the debate was on the left and Israel/Palestine, but in practice it was a debate on the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Chessum, who was eating a packet of Iranian pistachio nuts from the platform, was arguing in favour of boycotting Israel. His position was vigorously opposed by AWL supporters at the event. They made the point that he was hypocritical to argue in favour of boycotting Israel if he used a modern mobile phone that contained any Israeli technology or went on visits to Israel as an activist as part of his campaign against the country. Chessum argued that it was different for activists opposed to Israel to visit the county and spend money there than for tourists to the country. He implied that these differences meant that BDS activists do not need to boycott Israel if on a fact finding mission to the country whereas other people should.

This bizarre logic reminds me of an anecdote that Ronald Radosh recounted in his memoirs (Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, [Encounter Books, 2001], p127.) On a visit to Cuba, Radosh was given a tour of a psychiatric hospital in Havana. The doctor was proud to tell the tour group, “in our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomised than any other mental hospital in the world.” One group member was horrified – but Suzanne Ross, a Castro loyalist, said, “We have to understand that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies.”

Next Week: the SWP’s Marxism 2012. I can hardly wait.

Our man in Tel Aviv: diplomacy, deception and the Six Day War

In Britain, From the Vaults, Israel, James Vaughan, Six Day War on June 6, 2012 at 8:00 AM

I am delighted to provide a space for this post written by James Vaughan, Lecturer in International History at Aberystwyth University. It is an amusing hindsight look at correspondence between the British Ambassador to Israel and the Foreign Office around the time of the Six Day War which was fought for six days commencing June 5, 1967 between Israel and Arab countries. Dr. Vaughan has taken the trouble to locate this correspondence, which I certainly view as worth reading, in the National Archives. Michael Ezra

Our man in Tel Aviv: diplomacy, deception and the Six Day War

Sir Michael Hadow served as Britain’s Ambassador to Israel from 1965 to 1969, during which time he earned a reputation among Arabist circles in the Foreign Office as being unusually sympathetic to Israel (he would later take up a role as the Director of the Anglo-Israeli Association based in London).

 The following extracts, from despatches issued by Hadow to the Foreign Office, provide a faintly comic insight into the success of the Israeli diplomatic deception campaign conducted in the days leading up to the outbreak of the Six Day War on 5 June 1967 and the extent to which the British Ambassador was, in his own words, ‘led up the garden path.’

 28  May 1967

 Speaking frankly, Israel’s military situation was far from what it had been ten days ago. There was now little prospect of an out and out “victory” in a short time.  It would be disastrous for Israel to embark on an operation which entailed the maximum of international opprobrium but which would fail to secure any real advantage for Israel….  I understood that the air battle was important, but I thought here too the odds had gone down fairly sharply…. Israel had lost the element of surprise…. They had signalled their punches to such an extent that I should have thought that as from tonight the Egyptian Air Force would be ready to such an extent that there might be some unpleasant surprises in store for Israel. [1]

4 June 1967

Yesterday was a return to normal Tel Aviv Sabbath.  Beaches packed and general holiday atmosphere.  There has obviously been an extensive stand-down for the Armed Forces…. I propose to discontinue these [situation reports] unless there is anything of significance to report.[ 2]

4 June 1967

The day of the firebrand in the Israel Defence Forces is over.  They are now preparing for the long haul…. [Moshe] Dayan…will be in favour of a longish pause and a ‘détente’…. He will be starting to make plans, depending on Arab inability to maintain the same posture for too long, to be ready for a situation under which Israel could put in a powerful first blow while making the Arabs appear to have struck first.  I would not put it past his ingenuity to think up something: but I do not think he would estimate that such a situation can be brought about in under at least three months. [3]

6 July 1967

On the 4th of June I reported with some confidence that the Israel Government, for a variety of reasons, appeared to have accepted that for the foreseeable future there was no alternative to maintaining a passive posture…in the face of Nasser’s seizure of the initiative against them. Next day they embarked upon one of the most ruthlessly efficient military campaigns in modern history. [4]


[1] The National Archive, Kew, FCO 17/489, Michael Hadow to Foreign Office, No. 393, 28 May 1967.
[2] The National Archive, Kew, FCO 17/489, Michael Hadow to FCO, No. 464, 7.00am, 4 June 1967.
[3] The National Archive, Kew,  PREM 13/1619, Michael Hadow to Foreign Office, No. 469, 12.30pm, 4 June, 1967.
[4] The National Archive, Kew, PREM 13/1622, Michael Hadow to George Brown, 6 July 1967.

The Perdition Affair

In Anti-Zionism, Antisemitism, From the Vaults, Israel, Trotskyism on May 17, 2012 at 6:41 PM

In 1987 a debate occurred in public sphere on a play written Jim Allen, someone who had previously been associated with Gerry Healy’s organisation the Socialist Labour League, a forerunner to the WRP.  The play was called Perdition and was in the genre of faction, a fictional play with historical facts brought in. The historical facts in this case was that of the Zionist leaders in Hungary during the Holocaust and of Zionism in general during the 1930s and 1940s. The play was loosely based on the Kasztner trial that occurred in Israel in the 1950s.

Allen was quoted in Time Out, (January 21-28, 1987) declaring the play:

the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches on the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.

The play was due to be shown at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs but was pulled by the theatre in January 1987 shortly before public previews were due to go ahead. The Artistic Director, Max Stafford Clark, had lost confidence in the play. But this was not before there had been a storm of controversy played out in the press and as a result of meetings that had occurred between the theatre and the play’s critics. Critics had accused the play of distorting the history of the Holocaust and of antisemitism.

One of the more interesting polemical exchanges on the play was in a few issues of the Trotskyist magazine Workers’ Liberty, the magazine of the organisation Socialist Organiser, the forerunner to today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The reason for this post is that the AWL have recently published the debate on their website.  Sean Matgamna, writing under his pen name, John O’Mahony, wrote the initial article attacking the play. In two subsequent issues there was an exchange between Matgmana and the anti-Zionist activist Tony Greenstein. The Engage web site has linked to this debate and a discussion is under way where both I and my good friend Paul Bogdanor have commented.

For those interested in either the anti-Zionism from the far-left in the UK or in portrayals of the Kasztner affair, then an understanding of this play and the controversy that ensued is useful. One of the more important debates on the play was a televised debate on March 18, 1987 for Channel 4’s Diverse Reports. A recording of this programme has been uploaded to the Internet and can be seen below:

Ben White #fail

In Israel on February 10, 2012 at 2:56 PM

This was originally posted at Harry’s Place on February 6, 2012 at 2:00pm

Ben White, he who has no objections to positively citing Holocaust Deniers,  is at it again: attacking Israel in an article in the New Statesman.  In this latest screed, White repeats the information about “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. The truth surrounding such allegations have been dealt with extensively elsewhere, not least by Benny Morris. White is aware of this, but chooses to ignore the fact and propagate the same old distorted narrative. He is also frothing at the mouth because Michael Walzer said:

I think there is a sense in which Israel, I mean green line Israel, is right now politically a state of all its citizens.

White attacks Walzer for presenting no evidence for this assertion and then tries to dismiss it. My interest was piqued by his following words:

there is a distinction in Israel between ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’, a difference missed by English speakers, who tend to use the terms interchangeably. Professor David Kretzmer, law scholar at Hebrew University and member of the International Commission of Jurists, has written how this concept of ‘nation’ “strengthens the dichotomy between the state as the political framework for all its citizens and the state as the particularistic nation-state of the Jewish people”.

It just so happens that I have a copy of the relevant and scholarly book: David Kretzmer, The Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel (Westview Press, 1990). If one ignores the comma that White left out from the quote, he has not otherwise misquoted Kretzmer, but what he has done is be deliberately evasive by only quoting half of the sentence. The sentence in full, which can be found on page 44 of the book, is as follows but I emphasize part of the sentence which was left out by White:

Registration of “nation” is irrelevant  in determining the rights and obligations of citizens, but strengthens the dichotomy between the state as the political framework for all its citizens, and the state as the particularistic nation-state of the Jewish people.

Moreover, as Kretzmer states on page 43, something White must surely have read:

Israeli law does not make duties or obligations dependent on one’s nation or religion.

Perhaps, next time, Ben White will be more honest in his writings about Israel. I am not holding my breath.