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Expert on Jewish Law Delves into Nature and Practice of War in Israel


Visiting law professor Daniel Sinclair speaks to an audience at the Fordham law school.
Photo by Leo Sorel

The memory of Kibiyeh lives on.

The Jordanian town, which was attacked by an Israeli Special Forces unit in 1953 as retribution for killings by Palestinian terrorists, was the basis for a Jan. 22 lecture at Fordham Law School by Daniel Sinclair, L.L.B., the John Wolff and Nancy Eppler-Wolff Fellow in Jewish Law.

In his lecture, “The Ideology and Practice of War in Modern Jewish Law,” Sinclair said the siege, which was lead by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, had far-reaching implications. It provided a basis for the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli to put forth what has become the leading modern Jewish law (or Halacha) on issues such as killing innocent civilians while attempting to eradicate terrorism.

The issue caught Sinclair’s attention last summer while searching for a manual on how to be a religious soldier. Sinclair’s interest piqued when all of the manuals he found dealt only with mundane issues, such as prayer times.

“Not one of these manuals for young conscripts into the Israeli Army dealt with the laws of war from a Jewish perspective,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Surely there are laws of war in the Jewish tradition.’ I, for one, claim the Bible as a Jewish book, at least the Old Testament, and thinking about the Old Testament, there are laws about war.”

At first, Sinclair figured it was enough to expect 18-year-old men and women to make it through boot camp without imposing complex explanations of wartime conduct on them. What drove him to delve deeper into the subject were recent statements by Michael J. Broyde, a law professor at Emory University, that the Israeli army obeys international law and that is all Halacha requires.

“What professor Michael Broyde is saying is he doesn’t have to go into the ethics of the battlefield, because all the Israeli Army has to do is in the name of Jewish law is follow international law,” Sinclair said. “The thrust of Broyde’s argument is that this relieves him of any obligation to mine Jewish law or Jewish lore for a legal or an ethical stand of an authentic Jewish nature on the issue of law. Now that strikes me as being very much a cop out.”

In fact, Sinclair noted that scholars such as Yisraeli looked to the days long before the Israeli state existed to make the distinction between a commanded war and a defensive action, the latter of which does not allow for the complete destruction of civilian populations. He even noted that Jewish law allows for pre-emptive killing for the sake of preventing a “pursuer” from killing his intended victim, a concept for which the army’s actions in Kibiyeh can be argued, if perhaps not successfully.

“His appeal to one line in Rabbi Yisraeli’s lengthy responsum, in order to slough off responsibility for producing a deep, richly textured meaningful Jewish response to war, is a cop out,” Sinclair said. “We have to find the answer to the ethics and law of war within traditional Halacha.”


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