Monday, July 20, 2009

Is this how to talk about war and peace in the Jewish tradition?

I just received a notice on the H-Judaic list about a conference on "War and Peace in Jewish Tradition" which will be happening on July 28 in Jerusalem. This seemed very promising to me, until I looked at the schedule of presentations, which does not deal at all with how the State of Israel should conduct war. I would have thought that a conference held in Jerusalem would have at least one session dealing with the contemporary debate on "just war" in the Jewish tradition and how and whether beliefs about just war should affect the actions of the state of Israel, but there is not even one paper on the topic.

I became very interested in this issue during the Gaza War and taught a section of my introduction to Judaism class in the spring on the ethics of war. (For those interested, see the relevant pages on the wiki that I created for the course: War in the Jewish Tradition; War and Ethics; and War and Ethics - Gaza War).

The first session is on "War and Peace in the Bible: From Release of Prisoners to Holy War." The second session is on "War and Reality and in Image." The three talks start with another paper on war in the Bible, the second deals with "Wars among the Jews in antiquity," and the fourth is on how Jewish immigrants in New York at the outbreak of World War I thought about the war. The last talk in this session, by Dr. Carol Lea Clark of University of Texas at El Paso, is the only one in the entire day-long conference that deals with the Gaza War: "Images of Technological and Moral Ambiguity: The New York Times' Coverage of the Gaza War, Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 19, 2009."

Session 3 is on war and peace in rabbinical literature. Session 4 deals with war and peace in contemporary Israeli society, but also does not deal with how Israel does or should wage war. In fact, this session includes a discussion by Dr. Nissim Dana of the Ariel University Center, on "The Wars of Muhammad as a Model for Arab Wars against Israel." What this has to do with war and peace in the Jewish tradition I do not know.

Session 5 is about "War in Jewish Law: From 'Justified War' to the Draft of Yeshiva Students." Three of the papers are on historical issues, the last one is on the draft of yeshiva students. Again, nothing on the very considerable contemporary Jewish discussions on "justified war" in the context of the state of Israel, conducted by distinguished scholars such as Michael Walzer, who wrote specifically about the Gaza War earlier this year.

The last session is on "War and Peace in Jewish Thought," which again does not appear to deal at all with how Israel should act in war. The only talk which seems to touch at all on contemporary issues is the last one, by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow on "Media Ethics in Times of War."

The conference is sponsored by Ariel University Center of Samaria - The Department of Israel's Heritage, and Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, Robert M. Beren College, The Ernest Schwarcz Institute for Ethics, Judaism and State. From looking at Beit Morasha's website, and specifically at the Schwarcz Institute, I am even more surprised at the lack of discussion on contemporary issues. The current focus of the Schwarcz Institute is on issues of war:
Coordinated by political scientist Dr. Moshe Hellinger, the Schwarcz Institute is currently focusing on ethics during times of war. Its explorations of “morality under fire” are delving into issues such as the concept of a “just” war, guerrilla warfare and collateral damage to innocent civilians, the use of human shields, and collective punishment of civilian populations. With a multidisciplinary approach, the Institute integrates content from Jewish studies, history, law, and the social sciences, and places emphasis not only on academic research and writing, but also on active involvement in education and in the public sphere.
It seems to me that a real opportunity is being lost to discuss the serious questions of ethics of war in Israel, especially after the recent release of testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence about violations of the laws of war in the Gaza War. The group has just published 54 testimonies from "Operation Cast Lead" (the Gaza War), providing evidence for numerous violations of human rights committed by Israeli soldiers during the war, and charging that these violations were not committed by rogue soldiers, but were military policy.

To read the testimonies (which are divided into a number of topics), read here. Topics include: Vandalism, Bombardment, Rabbinate Unit, Briefings, Use of White Phosphorus, Atmosphere, Home Occupation, Rules Of Engagement, House Demolitions, Human Shield.

The Breaking the Silence report is also available as a PDF at Operation Cast Lead report. Gershom Gorenberg has discussed these testimonies in a couple of recent articles. The first one was published in The American Prospect - New Testimony from Gaza. On his blog, South Jerusalem, he has posted his own commentary on the testimonies.

Why is this conference not dealing with Israel's own conduct of war?


  1. I too am surprised that Israel's own ethics of war won't be discussed at this conference -- as you say, especially in the wake of the Breaking the Silence reports.

    It's been fascinating to watch how the reports are being received in the Jewish blogosphere. I scanned the posts at the most recent Haveil Havalim; Jewschool's post and mine both took serious looks at the reports, but the posts from the religiously right-leaning bloggers all seem to dismiss them out of hand. It's not surprising, I guess, but it is depressing.

  2. It's not only the bloggers who aren't taking the reports seriously - the Israeli press isn't either. I saw a report in (I think) the Jerusalem Post asking what were the funding sources of Breaking the Silence. When they were told it was EU sources, that was that - no credibility. Defense Minister Barak just dismissed the testimonies out of hand. It just strikes me that people don't want to know what happened in Gaza. See Larry Derfner's column in today's Jerusalem Post - I think he's correct.

  3. Since in one of the links you talk of Michael Walzer, here's a bunch of videos of discussions at the Institute for Advanced Study on different facets of Michael Walzer's work. It may be useful in your class. Lecture 5 is on the Just War Theory, and Lecture 8 is on the Jewish political tradition.

  4. thank you, Victor - this would be useful!