Friday, October 30, 2009

The Goldstone Report and Jewish Law

In "The Goldstone Report and Jewish Law", Rabbi Ido Rechnitz, Director of the Mishpetei Eretz Institute, displays his unfamiliarity with the Law of War that underlies the Goldstone Report. Some of what he proposes as Jewish law is no different from the Law of War, such as the permissibility of killing civilians where there is military necessity ("collateral damage") and the demand to reduce civilian casualties. He misreads the Law of War as based on the distinction between individual and collective responsibility, and argues that Gaza should be treated as a collective entity under the rule of Hamas. Again, this assertion is perfectly compatible with the Goldstone report, which does not argue that Israeli should treat Hamas combatants as criminals, and Gazans as innocent bystanders.

Where Rabbi Rechnitz gets it right, and where Jewish law does indeed differ from contemporary Law of War, is his claim that wars are fought between collectives. According to Jewish law, there is no fundamental distinction between combatants and non-combatants, although in the Bible there is occasionally a distinction drawn between potential combatants on the one hand, and women and children on the other. The Law of War, on the other hand, draws a sharp line between combatants and non-combatants, and for good reason: the genocides and war crimes of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, were predicated on the notion that peoples must suffer along with their combatants because they are collectively responsible for their leaders' actions. According to postwar law and conventions of war, wars are, or should be, fought between armies and not between peoples.

There are some collectivist approaches in recent discussion of just war theory – I will elaborate next week – but not in the manner that Rabbi Rechnitz mentions.

On Rabbi Rechnitz's reading of Jewish law, it would be perfectly permissible for Syria to bomb Tel Aviv and kill thousands of Jewish civilians in a war. The Syrian army would not have to risk its soldiers life in order to avoid harm to Israeli civilians; it could bomb yeshivot and synagogues. It couldn't do so only for the sake of killing, but would need some cause, such as punishing Israel for its aggression. Perhaps Rabbi Rechnitz assumes that civilians can be killed with impunity only when the war is just. So let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Syria is fighting a just war against Israeli aggression, and let us assume further, for the sake of Rabbi Rechnitz, that the government of Israel is run by pork-eating heretics. On his view of the Jewish ethics of war, if the Syrian army could bomb a girls' seminary and thereby achieve a military objective, without risking its own soldiers, then that would be permissible.

The Goldstone Report does not criticize Israel for harming Palestinians where there was military necessity. The Goldstone Report argues that for many operations it examined there was no military necessity; and in some cases where there was military necessity, the damage was disproportionate (another term apparently unfamiliar to Rabbi Rechnitz) to the military objective. If securing a position can be achieved by killing 50 civilians, it is wrong and illegal to kill 500. It is also wrong and illegal to destroy civilian installations, even if one recognizes some sort of collective responsibility. That is because the whole thrust of the laws of war after WWII is to ensure that civilians are removed from the picture.

That Rabbi Rechnitz and Hamas want to return civilians to the picture shouldn't surprise anybody who knows how much political-fundamentalist Judaism and Islam share in common


pabelmont said...

To inject some levity --

You write that "the whole thrust of the laws of war after WWII is to ensure that civilians are removed from the picture." Some will argue that removing civilians from the picture is just what Israel and Palestinian rocketeers intended (Israel having proved a good deal more effective at doing it).

On a more serious note --

I have heard (can you comment?) that Jewish laws of war forbid cutting down trees and require leaving a way open for retreat when a city is attacked. There seems to have been a lot of tree cutting by Israel as measures to defend settlers (who, of course, were present illegally, though not illegally under Jewish law); and the noose around Gaza recently and around Beirut in 1982 hardly left open a means of escape. Assuming that these were, in fact, Jewish laws of war, I ask: was Israel acting as a Jewish State when it conducted its wars contrary to Jewish laws of war?

PalestineCause said...

Goldstone Report
Gaza war and the scenes of crimes committed is still living in the mind and heart of every decent human , the crimes were not the first crimes that committed against Palestinians and Arabs although we hope they were the last . in order to be the last ones the criminal body must not be left to go free with it , To be fair to Palestinians one must review all the suffers that they went through , for the last century no were on this globe went into suffering such as Palestinians , we may hear Kashmir or Somalia ,Sudan ,south Africa, Korea, Vietnam .or any other place in the world Iraq or Afghanistan , Yemen ,Pakistan ,Lebanon , but at the end of day you find that the Somali goes back to his wife and kids to his home and so the Iraqi , if he chose to go to Jordan as a refugee or to Syria or may be to London or America , but its his own free will , again at the end of day he will leave Syria ,Jordan or where ever and buy a ticket or may be got it bought for him , and in no time he is in Baghdad But this is not the case of Palestinian , a Palestinian refuge to Lebanon is forced to live in Lebanon without having a way back to Palestine , even more a Palestinian who lives 5 kilometers far from Jerusalem and in many cases less than that find himself incapable to go to Jerusalem .even though all members of his family are there , to get closer to the view a person living 200 meters far from the mosque find himself incapable of going to pray in the mosque , why do I say in Palestine it is different , I never saw or heard in any part of this globe that Police check your age before you enter the house of God , if a person is over 50 so he can go , if not so he is not allowed , In Palestine it is different because at the end of day the Lebanese would go to his family and home ,but the Palestinian is not sure Goldstone report is dealing with one case , its the Gaza war , but the report talks nothing about Sara and Shatella (massacres committed in Lebanon during Israeli attack led by Sharon) and also the report has nothing to say about Qana 1996 or Qana 2 in 2006 ,in Belgium these cases were covered up and the trial met the neglecance . the UN resolutions which claims Palestinians to go back to their homes , Goldstone is only one sign on the road but its importance comes out that in the other cases the others shared with the cover up such as America with its Vitoes, Britain ,Belgium ,Spain even United nations with its resolution . This time it was not one of all that it was the Palestinian Authority , …. strange !!!!

Seth said...


Can you please provide a link to the Rechnitz paper? I cannot find it on the web. thanks.