Responding to Genocide

Jewish perspectives on the responsibility to protect.

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Over time, however, the words have come to encompass a broader commitment, among Jews and non-Jews, that genocide not be tolerated in any place at any time. In 1979, President Carter declared: "[W]e must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide." And in 1999, Elie Wiesel invoked the phrase to challenge the U.S. leadership's commitment to respond to genocide perpetrated against any people: "Is today's justified intervention in Kosovo...a lasting warning that never again will the deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world?"

In this more universal form, "Never Again" can be understood as a contemporary parallel to the Biblical mandate, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9) ." With this often repeated phrase, the Torah codifies for Jews a notion of empathic justice--because the Israelites knew the experience of oppression in Egypt, they must not subject others to oppression.

The sentiment behind "Never Again" is essentially the same. Because the Jewish people experienced genocide firsthand and were abandoned by the international community in their time of greatest need, Jews bear a particular responsibility to ensure that genocide be prevented.

"Never Again" is a powerful moral imperative, but there are other Jewish values and laws that may compel us to protect potential victims of genocide.

Intervening to Prevent Murder

In Hilkhot Rotzeah u'Shmirat Nefesh (Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life), Maimonides explicates our responsibility to protect others.

After delineating the appropriate punishment for a murderer, Maimonides considers the question of the rodef (pursuer): "When, however, a person is pursuing a colleague with the intention of killing him--even if the pursuer is a minor--every Jewish person is commanded to [attempt to] save the person being pursued, even if it is necessary to kill the pursuer (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:6)." If a person is in immediate danger of losing her life at the hands of an intentional killer, Maimonides demands that bystanders stop the pursuer by any means necessary.

Maimonides does not merely require an individual to intervene personally to save a life. The responsibility extends to include the agents an individual can employ or direct: "Similarly, [this commandment applies] when a person sees a colleague drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and he can save him himself, or can hire others to save him (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:14)." According to Maimonides, the responsibility to preemptively protect someone from death is such that one is held responsible for not doing so: "Whenever a person can save another person's life, but he fails to do so, he transgresses a negative commandment, as [Leviticus 19:16] states: 'Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:14).'"

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Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.