Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Jewish Political Thought

Morality and Power: Contemporary Jewish Views


Daniel J. Elazar

In September 1988, as the intifada approached the end of its first year, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs invited a distinguished group of leaders in academic and public affairs in Israel and the diaspora to participate in a symposium on the problems of relating morality and power in contemporary statecraft. We asked participants to respond to three questions:

  1. Is there a difference between individual morality and the morality of public policy choices for a state or other political community?

  2. Assuming a less than perfect world, how should political communities, their leaders and members deal with the problem of maintaining moral positions under duress or at times of crisis?

  3. To what extent does or should a morally relativistic or morally absolutist position influence one's conclusions with regard to the first two questions?

We initiated the symposium for three reasons. The immediate one was the spate of callow and superficial moral criticisms of Israel on the part of the mass media covering events in the territories, joined by the reactions of "anguished" professional Jewish moralists, principally but not exclusively in the diaspora, as well as the usual critics of Israel who exploited the opportunity to the hilt. We at the Jerusalem Center came to the conclusion that whatever the rights and wrongs of the intifada itself, we could not leave the moral field to those self-proclaimed moral arbiters.

Beyond that, the decade of the 1980s has seen an erosion of Israel's moral position in the world for real or imagined reasons. The political consequences of that erosion are clear to behold, both in the form of new challenges to Israel's position abroad and in increasing divisiveness and loss of self-confidence at home.

There is also the larger question of the relationship between morality and power which confronts every polity in determining its policies and actions and which we as Jews must fully confront once again as a result of our return to statehood. Those of us who have argued that the reestablishment of the State of Israel is not only morally challenging but enables Jews to test the norms of their civilization and the premises of their faith in the most concrete and practical ways, must engage in consideration of the issues of morality and power as they are played out in the life and actions of the Jewish state and must seek to develop guidelines for Israeli and Jewish public policy through the most serious inquiry into the question. We view this symposium as a step in that direction.

The symposium itself grows out of that special combination of concern for the Jewish political tradition and the contemporary Jewish public agenda which is characteristic of our Center and has been the focal point of its work. Many of the contributors have been involved in that effort as Fellows, Associates or Overseers of the Jerusalem Center or members of one of its workshops. Others have not. Nevertheless, the responses of all are consciously Jewish and deliberately rest upon -- and usually explicitly refer to -- Jewish sources, beginning with the Bible. In most cases they felicitously combine this Jewish grounding with a consideration of the concerns and works of Western political philosophy. Thus we find Machiavelli contrasted with Bahya ibn Pakuda, Hillel the Elder linked with Emanuel Kant, and halakhah weighed in connection with the principles of natural law and justice. In that respect this symposium is potentially a significant contribution to political thought, dealing as it does with a universal question from a perspective that is at once universal and appropriately rooted in the concrete situation of a concrete people.

Our authors move back and forth between the general and the specific, interweaving the two just as they interweave Jewish and general sources. The end result is that, within a wide spectrum of viewpoints presented by people of varying backgrounds and vocations, cutting across much of the political spectrum -- left, right, and center -- we have a near consensus that fits squarely within the mainstream of Jewish political thought. There is general agreement on the existence of absolute moral parameters, binding public as well as private behavior, states as well as individuals, but with much room for consequential moral decisions within those parameters, more for states than for individuals. Moreover, there is a general consensus that moral decisions require serious consideration of ends and means, with certain highly moral ends justifying means which if taken alone would be of questionable morality, while at the same time certain means are too immoral to be considered, even for the best ends.

Throughout all of the contributions, with a few exceptions, runs a strong rejection of oversimplification. This effort to avoid oversimplification unites people whose conclusions with regard to the specific problems of Israel and the intifada and in relation to the Palestinian Arabs are very different indeed. It is what makes this symposium a dialogue in which people talk to one another from within a common moral understanding rather than separately or past one another. This is reflected in the way in which there are overlapping references in the essays although none of the participants saw those of any of the others.

There is a frequent recurrence to the teachings of Machiavelli, sometimes with approval, sometimes through explication, and sometimes in rejection. The dilemmas of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War receive their share of attention, as does Franklin Delano Roosevelt's incarceration of Japanese Americans at the beginning of World War II. But within those parameters there is a vigorous discussion which tends to meet in the middle around such basic Jewish political principles as legitimacy of national self-expression, the necessity for developing the world community as a community of nations, the need to wrestle with moral questions in the exercise of power, and the moral dignity that striving brings to human actions, even when human behavior is inevitably flawed.

In this the Bible particularly and halakhic sources secondarily play a major role for most of the participants, whether they lean toward religious Orthodoxy or religious liberalism. Nor is Scripture quoted as proof test as is often the case in theological discussions of these questions. Rather it is searched for political teachings the way it should be. Only when some of our political analysts slide over into a homiletic posture do they sometimes violate this consensus. Abraham, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Joshua, Jeptha, and Samuel provide us with hard teachings about the relationship between morality and power according to our essayists, most of whom remain "hard-nosed" throughout.

The participants are a varied group. Seven are Israelis and fourteen Americans. Seven are political scientists by training and four others are political philosophers or political commentators whose background was originally in other disciplines. Six have published in the field of Jewish political studies. Other academic disciplines represented are economics, history, law and sociology. Six are political activists. One is a Jewish communal worker. Two others are Jewish communal leaders. One was a judge, one was a member of the United States Cabinet, and another occupies a similar position in Israel. Five are rabbis including leading figures in the three mainstream branches of contemporary Judaism.

What can we conclude from all this? There is clear agreement that nations and all but fundamentally immoral states have the right to survive and the obligation to protect the lives and security of their members or citizens. In doing so they may use appropriate methods which in themselves would not be considered moral from an absolute perspective, such as deceit and force, provided that they are used in context with appropriate humility and subject to the limitations of certain absolute moral parameters. It is generally understood that , given human flaws, mistakes will be made and excesses committed, some of which should be punished if found to be deliberate, but always with an understanding of the circumstances involved.

There is further agreement that however high the obligation of leaders of states to act to protect the lives of their citizens and those under their protection, they must also consider the lives and legitimate concerns of those whom they are confronting. Moreover, since in this imperfect world individuals may have to pay a more drastic price than do their nations or states, as for example when an individual sacrifices his life in a war to preserve his nation which, while paying a price, survives as a collectivity, that is part of the tragedy of human existence. It calls for reciprocal concern on the part of the national or state leadership to try to safeguard the members of the body politic.

While a number of the essayists hint at or clearly state their reservations about Israel's present policies, with regard to the peace-making process as a whole, and particularly with regard to the future of the territories, only one suggests that Israel is not morally justified, nay, required to preserve order in those territories as long as it is responsible for them. Indeed, even those who do not want Israel to retain permanent control over the territories make their argument on prudential as much as on moral grounds.

The moral issues posed by Israel's situation are among the most difficult that humans confront in our time since they involve conflicting rights as well as interests and the problem of a people who were committed for nearly 4,000 years to maintaining the highest of moral standards, even when exercising political power. No symposium, nor for that matter, no philosopher can be expected to resolve these problems. What is necessary, however, is to seriously consider them on the highest plane but with an eye to the most practical application of the results of that inquiry, without abandoning either the exercise of political power or the pursuit of justice.

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