Fallacy of the Proportional Response

Like decent people everywhere, I am horrified by the images coming from Gaza and am deeply saddened by the human suffering there. 

However, the way to stop the ongoing human rights tragedy would be to get Hamas to stop shooting rockets at Israel.

Any country has an obligation to protect its citizens from attack by belligerent outside forces.  Hamas has fired thousands of missiles at Israel in the last few years, and in the days leading up to the current offensive there were dozens of rocket attacks a day.  No country can sit by and absorb that.

I have seen others in the blogosphere claim that the latest outburst by Israel only used the rockets from Hamas as an excuse, they were preparing for some time. Yes, Israel has been preparing for some time, because even during the so-called cease fire the rockets didn’t completely stop and Hamas made no secret of planning to step up the violence when the cease fire was over.  Of course Israel was preparing.  The government is not stupid.

I listened to Bianca Jagger on BBC railing about the "lack of proportionality" of what is happening in Gaza.  That "proportionality" argument is largely rubbish.  I say "largely" because there is of course a reductio ad absurdum argument one could make — as a friend pointed out, killing a billion people to stop someone from harming one person, for example, would not be justifiable.  Reasonable men, I suppose, might differ on whether they believe 100 civilian deaths to stop thousands of rockets is within the range of reasonable. But then again, if Hamas were at all reasonable, they would have called it a day after the first round of air strikes, as obviously any further military activity will only result in continued disproportionate suffering on the Palestinian side.  But those guys are not rational.

The Talmud brings a few teachings that are relevant to this discussion.  Firstly, as is well known, there is a verse in the Torah which says if you catch someone breaking into your house at night you are allowed to kill him; the Talmud expands this to "if someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill him first."  But there is another teaching, somewhat less well known, which states you can only use as much force as it takes to stop the intruder.  If you can stop the intruder by wounding him in the leg, and you kill him, you are guilty of using excessive force.

The relevance here is that Israel’s legitimate defense objective is to stop the rocket fire.  Whatever level of force it takes to stop the rocket fire is legitimate. It’s not about comparing body counts or property damage — it’s about stopping attacks on your citizens.

If the rockets stopped, and Israel continued the aggression, that would be an unacceptable level of force and would be worthy of condemnation.  So far, however, the rockets have not been stopped.  If Israel were blindly shooting rockets into civilian areas — like Hamas is doing to Israel — that also would be an inappropriate use of force and a human rights violation.

The loss of life and miserable conditions in Gaza appall me; I am also appalled by the way half a million people (not just Jews) living in the south of Israel have to run to bomb shelters several times a day.  May God help bring both sides to not just a temporary cease fire agreement but to a long term peace agreement, "bimhara v’yameinu," speedily and in our days…

Rav Barry

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

4 thoughts on “Fallacy of the Proportional Response

  • January 9, 2009 at 7:38 pm
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    It is always refreshing to read your blog – of all the hot-headed rhetoric one has read over the past two weeks, a posed reasoning and a logical argumentation from a compassionate man is a relief. Even when I disagree with the conclusion.

    Allow me to dig a little deeper into the Talmudic teaching you mention. You are allowed to kill the intruder, with the restriction of not using more force than necessary.
    Very well.
    What if the intruder is a known criminal – and you (or the police) knows his whereabouts? Can one kill him as well to prevent him from breaking into your house?

    And – when stopping the intruder, is it alright to kidnap his child, or kill his neighbour, in the hope that ‘someone’ will prevent him from breaking into your house and threatening you?

    The “rockets have not stopped” therefore “any level of force is legitimate” is an argument i strongly challenge. A distinction must be introduced as to HOW you use this force. Anything doesn’t go. Killing a criminal’s kids to stop him isn’t morally okay – I’m sure there’s a Talmudic rule along the lines of “on shall not bear the sins of another” as we do. (did we not talk about that once?)

    Burning down a house to kill a mouse (as goes an egyptian proverb) is irrational. (and immoral when it’s someone else’s house!:) If it is the mouse you wish to kill – use a strategic strike or something. 🙂

    And as for stopping the rockets being the goal – well, this hasn’t really been made explicit by Israeli leaders, who love to use phrases along the lines of “changing the rules of the game” and whatever. But I can assure you, the day a cease-fire is reached, this very day, someone will launch a rocket they made in their kitchen.
    This is an impossible goal to achieve, Barry. And my guess is, the Israeli leadership knows it very well.

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  • January 9, 2009 at 7:41 pm
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    (a bad sentence formulation above that i need to correct: “as we do” (in the fourth paragraph was supposed to mean “as we have the Koran”, not “as we carry someone else’s sins. :))

    I hope you had a lovely shabbat with your family.
    m.

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  • January 10, 2009 at 11:23 am
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    Hi Mohamed, as always Shabbat was a lovely 25 hour retreat from the outside world.

    OK, I should not have said “whatever level of force it takes to stop the rocket fire is legitimate,” because my more nuanced feeling was expressed above — there are limits, reasonable people may disagree on what the appropriate limits are.

    And of course, as you surmise, you can’t kill someone just because he’s a known criminal and might break into your house. The movie Minority Report gives an excellent treatment of pre-emptive arrest, etc. However, the situation in Gaza is not a situation of a criminal, it’s a situation of war. Both human rights law (and morality) and Jewish law differentiate between what is legitimate in times of war and peacetime. Hamas has clearly declared war on Israel. Shooting rockets at someone is recognized world wide as “casus belli.”

    Right now, I have to admit, my heart is not so much in debating legitimacy and effectiveness, as it is in just praying that peace will come soon and the pain and suffering on both sides will stop.

    B.

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  • January 10, 2009 at 12:03 pm
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    I agree.

    And by the way – the post i just put up goes to you. I thought you might find it interesting…

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