Responding to Genocide

Jewish perspectives on the responsibility to protect.

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This last source, however, raises some difficulties, as traditionally the term "neighbor" refers to Jews specifically. Can the laws of rodef be extended to non-Jews?

In fact, there are different texts of the Mishneh Torah that address this question directly. In one version, the threatened individual is identified as "ben adam m'yisrael" (i.e. a Jew); in another, the person is called "nefesh ben adam" (i.e. a human). It is beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly consider this question, but two brief sources in the Mishneh Torah suggest that Maimonides might have read the law expansively and included non-Jews in its scope. Maimonides often invokes the principle of mipnei darkhei shalom--the need to promote peace--to require Jews to visit the non-Jewish sick, provide for the non-Jewish poor, and bury the non-Jewish dead (Hilkhot Ovdei Kokhavim 10:5). There are a number of interpretations of the phrase mipnei darkhei shalom, but all of them suggest that it is incumbent on Jews to care for non-Jews in situations of grave vulnerability.

Second, in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:3, Maimonides invokes the principle of adam hayahid (that God originally created one human being alone) to argue that the preservation of a single human life is equivalent to saving the entire world. In doing so, he explicitly changes the language in the original mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) from "nefesh ahat m'yisrael" (i.e. one Jew) to "nefesh ahat min ha-olam" (i.e. one person). The implication is that, according to Maimonides, all human life is sacred and demands protection.

Of course, the laws of rodef were conceived for individuals, so extending it to peoples threatened by genocide requires an additional step. However, the spirit of these laws can serve as an important moral precedent. The obligation to save an individual from being killed should be broadened into an obligation to save a people from genocide as well. In my view, it is appropriate to cite these laws to support the deployment of peacekeeping troops in situations where genocide is taking place.

Anticipating and Protecting: Building a Parapet

At a more fundamental level, Maimonides posits an obligation to anticipate and prevent any danger which poses a threat to life. Not only are we required to intervene in a "murder in progress," we are bound to identify threats to human life and mitigate them in advance.

Deuteronomy 22:8 states: "And you shall build a guardrail for your roof." From this seemingly narrow and innocuous stipulation, Maimonides derives a comprehensive ethic for the preservation of human life. First, he simply broadens the guardrail requirement to cover "any place that might present a danger and cause a person to stumble and die (Hilkhot Rotzeah 11:4)."

Second, and much more ambitiously, Maimonides expands the guardrail principle in a virtually infinite manner. He writes:

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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.