Maccabees, Gaza, and the theory of ‘just war’

Maccabees, Gaza, and the theory of ‘just war’

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

It is a debate as old as the Talmud: Does Hanukka mark a spiritual miracle (the cruse of oil which lasted for eight days rather than one) or a military victory (the Macabees’ defeat of the Syrian Greeks.) or both?

Regardless of how one comes out on this debate, most scholars recognize that the stand taken by the Maccabees in the second century BCE may well have saved the Jewish people from assimilating and disappearing. Their victory was a just fight for a just cause.

The notion of a “just war” was brought into focus in the remarks of President Obama in Oslo at the Nobel Awards presentation. In justifying his receiving an award for peace within the same week that he had announced an escalation in the war in Afghanistan, the president drew clear distinctions between various uses of force.

Obama specifically singled out the war against the Nazis and the current war against Al Qaida. He drew on the accepted typology for a “just war” as presented most cogently and popularly by Michael Walzer of Princeton and further developed by Jeff McMahan at Rutgers. “[W]ar is justified,” said the president, “only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

It is precisely this understanding of a “just war” that was totally absent from the United Nations’ report on the Gaza War (the Goldstone Report). While the report evaluated the character and behavior of Israel’s soldiers, it was much less concerned with the behavior of the Hamas fighters. The report paid virtually no attention to the question of the casus belli — the case for war — which is critical in determining whether Israel had a just purpose in attacking Hamas.

Moshe Halbertal, the prominent Israeli philosopher, recently wrote on the “Goldstone Illusion” in The New Republic. Like the president, he cited the necessary variables for a “just war”: necessity, distinction, and proportionality. Halbertal, however, expands upon another aspect of the president’s calculus. Halbertal attacks the Goldstone report — and by association the president’s analysis — in stating that “necessity” as a form of self-defense need not be the last resort. For example, how many civilian casualties need to be endured by a state before the “necessity” for a response is justified?

On the other hand, Obama, in referring to the behavior of religious radicals seeking to destroy the United States, not only added an element justifying U.S. policy, but also, by clear extension, justified Israel’s decisions to respond to Hamas. No holy war, said Obama, “can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith.”

The Goldstone report also ignored the radical religious nature of Hamas.

What happened over 2,000 years ago during the Hasmonean revolt was not perfect, but it was a war that was just, as was the war against the Nazis, and, as the president suggests, as is the war against the Islamic radicals in Afghanistan and Al Qaida.

Today, Israel also faces a dilemma in this regard. On the one hand, the UN and the Goldstone report were unable to recognize the justice in Israel’s right to protect its people from indiscriminate attacks. On the other hand, Israel has a growing problem from its own religious fanatics.

Recent actions by West Bank settlers against other Jews and Israeli government authorities are not justified, nor are violent attacks against Palestinians and the burning and defacing of a Muslim mosque. Israel cannot achieve the high road of fighting “just wars” if it does not demonstrate the capacity to control its own religious radicals.

Israel must recognize that West Bank religious vigilantes are no Maccabees.

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