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Rebecca Walberg


By Rebecca Walberg, June 14, 2010

This article was first published in the National Post on June 10, 2010.

Human life, being created by God, is sacred. This is at the core of all ethical monotheistic religions and the societies they helped create. From a purely secular perspective, a culture that does not consider the taking of a life to be the ultimate transgression will deteriorate, slowly or rapidly, into decadence and cruelty, as borne out by much of the 20th century.

In practice, this translates not merely into refraining from murder but also protecting and saving lives whenever possible. When these two imperatives collide, and protecting life requires taking a life, a painful tension results. The moral dimension of the decision to use military force confronts all states, but perhaps none more than Israel, a country confronted with explicit and implicit threats from all sides, and from within, on a daily basis.

Israel is also unique with regard to the harsh and usually uninformed criticism it faces when it has to protect its own citizens at the expense of the lives of Israel’s enemies, as illustrated most recently by the reaction to the raid on the self described “Free Gaza” flotilla on May 31.

Providing moral guidance in the face of thorny dilemmas is the bread and butter of religion, and the Judeo-Christian tradition does not disappoint on this score.  Neither does it speak with one voice; Christian thought on the morality of killing to save others ranges from the rich and complex thought on “just war” developed by both the Eastern and Western churches in medieval times, to those various peace churches that advocate accepting death rather than committing acts of violence.

Rabbinic Judaism over the course of 15 centuries has developed its own thought about the morality of force, much of it stemming from the philosophers of the Middle Ages who lived in many European states that were in a near-perpetual state of conflict.

The many sources of Jewish law make it clear that the use of force to protect oneself, or an innocent third party, from a pursuer with lethal intent is required.  Failure to practice self-defense is, in an attenuated way, the failure to value life properly, and choosing death over legitimate self-defense is no more to be celebrated than choosing death over other difficult situations.

Passivity in the face of imminent danger is not an acceptable option, according to Jewish tradition. Neither is unnecessary cruelty to either combatants or non-combatants.

Two rabbis and physicians living in 12th and 13th century Spain, who are still revered by Jewish scholars, both articulated explicit rules that illustrate the Jewish insistence compassion, even towards enemies, and even in a time of war. Maimonides explains that in the event of a siege, non-combatants must be permitted to flee the conflict, even though there is a strategic advantage to forcing residents to stay in the besieged city, consuming limited resources.

Similarly, Nachmanides expanded on the Torah law declaring that fruit trees surrounding a city may only be cut down only if they are required for construction of fortifications, and not for mere destruction or to starve residents.

Despite the claims of its detractors, Israel has honoured these two aspects of Jewish just war in its treatment of the flotilla. All ships were warned repeatedly that they would be boarded if they did not turn back, giving all about ample opportunity to escape the conflict entirely. And ships that were willing to dock at an Israeli port, so it could be verified that they carried only humanitarian supplies, saw their cargo transferred into Gaza.  It was only the Mavi Marmara that refused to turn back or to be inspected, that came under fire.

In fact, the most serious mistake Israel made in its handling of the flotilla may have been in its reluctance to use force right away. The first commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara carried paint guns, suitable for breaking up riots but unfit against deadly force.  If Israel had clearly stated that ships that did not change course would be fired upon, it might have pushed all six ships to comply, preventing the deaths of those on board and the injuries suffered by Israeli soldiers.

There is a Talmudic axiom that states “he who begins by showing mercy to the cruel will end up showing cruelty to the merciful.”

Approaching agitators who seek to harm Israel as if they were student protesters armed only with placards and slogans might seem, at first glance, to be the merciful course of action.  But when it induces violent resistance that leads to death and injury, it becomes clear that the more merciful approach would have been to make very clear that any ships attempting to circumvent the blockade would be met with deadly force.

Rebecca Walberg is a founding member of and a Winnipeg-based writer

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