Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Maimonides vs. Bolton on Civilian Deaths

The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton tells us that there is a difference between Hezbollah’s killing of civilians in Israel by rockets and Israel’s killing of civilians in Lebanon by bombing and artillery. Hezbollah shoots its rockets to kill civilians, just any civilians in Israel. Israel drops its bombs to destroy bridges, roads, airports, ports, other infrastructure, trucks, Hezbollah fighters and Hezbollah leaders. The other civilians are just in the way. Israelis had no intention of killing them.

The medieval Jewish philosopher and legal scholar Maimonides would not buy the distinction. In his discussion of the prohibition of work on the Shabbat (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat, ch. 2), he notes the general principle that acts intended to transform the state of being of an object are forbidden. If such a change arises as a by-product of some other act, one has not violated the prohibition. He flags, however, one major exception to this principle: If the change is an inevitable consequence of the act, the act and its agent violate the Shabbat. The classic example, already mentioned in the Talmud, is of the man who wants to give his son a chicken’s head to play with on the Shabbat, so he chops it off the chicken. The Talmud asks rhetorically: “Does he think he can off the head and the chicken will not die?”

For Maimonides then agents are responsible for the inevitable consequences of their actions. These consequences can be imputed to their intentions. John Bolton is not likely to know or care what Maimonides thinks. Neither do most Israelis.

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