Judging Preemptive Attacks

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

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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.