Judging Preemptive Attacks

Have Israeli and U.S. attacks been ethically justifiable?

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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from S'VARA 2:1 (1991)

It is worth underscoring that the Jewish tradition reluctantly justifies war and, in our time, only for self‑defense. Some sources, however, legitimate even preemptive wars for that purpose. How would that viewpoint apply to some of the contemporary instances of intervention?

Room for Disagreement

As one might expect, in some cases the application would be straightforward while in others it would be more ambiguous. In the latter cases, even those who have the same Jewish perspective on the general issue of preemptive war may disagree as to whether a given preemptive action is legitimate.

In many cases though, they would agree, and where they differ they would at least share the same universe of discourse so that they could argue intelligently about how to apply their shared values to the case at hand.

Clear Cases, Difficult Cases

Let us begin with some of the clearer cases. From the perspective of the Jewish value system, certainly Israel's strike against Egypt on the first morning of the Six Day War was a justifiable act of self‑defense in view of Egypt's bellicose words and actions in the prior weeks.

israeli army tankIn light of the incessant rocket and terrorist attacks against Israel's northern settlements, one could probably make the same case for the initial stages of Israel's 1982 incursion into Lebanon, although probably not for the remainder of that affair. The Entebbe raid was similarly justifiable; citizens of Israel and other travellers on her aircraft had been kidnapped.

America's strike against Libya was probably justifiable also, although the terrorist provocation for it, while likely in view of Libya's past behavior, was not as publicly verifiable. All of these actions were, it seems to me, legitimately undertaken in the name of self‑defense.

American action in Chile, Grenada, Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and the Israeli bombing of Beirut are, from a Jewish point of view, much less defensible. The intervention in Chile in 1976 was at least restricted to nonmilitary means. Even so, its morality from a Jewish point of view is doubtful in light of the fact that the regime, communist though it was, did not immediately endanger the United States and, given its own internal weakness, probably would not have posed much of a threat over the long term either.

A stronger case could be made for the legitimacy of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962 because of the direct Russian involvement in Cuba and its proximity to our shores.

The Grenada invasion was justified by the Reagan administration in part as a move to save American medical students there from captivity. If they were indeed threatened by the communist government there, and if no peaceful action could extricate them, the action would be justifiable, but the record is anything but clear on either of those points.

And Yet More Difficult Cases

Vietnam, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are even more murky. In each case, the American government claimed that military intervention was necessary in order to save the country from communism. Vietnam raised major questions about whether that type of intervention works, and, the reader will remember, one of the Jewish criteria in determining the legitimacy of going to war is the likelihood of its success.

Even if success could be assured, one wonders whether preemptive military action in those areas was or is justifiable as a means of defense of the United States. It is, after all, stretching the concept of defense against a clear and direct threat rather far.

Similarly, the Israelis in 1982 probably had justification to invade southern Lebanon in order to remove the guerilla bases there, but the march to Beirut and the lengthy occupation that followed cannot be justified on grounds of defense. Indeed, had the Israelis left soon after incapacitating the Palestinian Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon, the Amal militia there would undoubtedly have continued to see the Israelis as their liberators and may have provided an important defensive buffer for Israel.

Others may evaluate some of these borderline preemptive actions differently. If they share the Jewish point of view, however, they would assert that even when military action is justifiable as a matter of defense, it is so only after serious efforts are first made to accomplish the same ends peacefully.

"Seek peace and pursue it," said the Psalmist (34:15). The rabbis, noting the duplication of the verbs, enjoin us not to wait passively for the occasion to make peace but actively to work for it.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.