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The Ethical Issues Surrounding the Middle East

John D. Rayner
Spring 2003

Principles of Jewish Ethics
Judaism is a strongly ethical religion. Central to it is the belief in a moral God who demands that human beings shall act morally towards one another.1  

The basic principles of Jewish ethics are, first, the dignity of every human being, created in God’s image,2 and secondly, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”3 In short, we are required to treat our fellow men and women with respect, and to seek their welfare.  

On this twin foundation Judaism has built a comprehensive code of conduct governing the relations between person and person, rich and poor, husband and wife, parents and children, teachers and pupils, employers and employees, merchants and customers, doctors and patients, rulers and ruled.4  

Like any ethical code worthy of the name, it is universal in application. The Hebrew Bible repeatedly enjoins concern for ‘the strangers who live among you,’ even to the extent of demanding that we love them, too, as ourselves.5 And the Talmud teaches that acts of kindness such as maintaining the poor, visiting the sick and burying the dead should be performed towards Jews and non-Jews alike.6  

International Relations
Like other ethical codes, Judaism’s is primarily concerned with relations between individuals rather than collectivities. But there is nevertheless an implication that the same principles should govern relations between social units, from families up to nations.  

Unfortunately, human beings are notoriously slow to make that transition. The larger the group, the less inclined they are to feel that it has any moral responsibility towards other groups. That individuals should care for their neighbours is readily enough accepted, at least in theory. But a nation is commonly regarded as entitled to pursue its own self-interest, with little or no regard for other nations. The only code it is supposed to observe is the non-ethical one of Realpolitik.  

All the more does it need to be emphasised that moral imperatives do apply between nations. The Hebrew prophets frequently castigate not only individuals but also peoples, and not only other peoples but also their own. Amos, for instance, castigates in turn the neighbouring kingdoms of Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon and Moab before rounding all the more severely on the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.7  

Similarly, the Prophets affirm that God cares for all peoples, with the implication that we should do likewise. “Are you not like the Ethiopians to Me, O people of Israel?” says Amos in God’s name.8 And Isaiah makes God declare: “Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My heritage.”9  

Then again, the Prophets depict the ultimate future as a time of international harmony and peace.10 with the implication that in order to get ‘from here to there,’ the nations had better learn to behave morally towards one another.  

Similarly, the Mishnah teaches that “the world rests on three pillars: truth, justice and peace”;11 and a commentator explains that these virtues need to be practised between nations as well as between individuals.12  

Thus it is clear that the same moral principles which apply to personal relations should also govern international relations. But it has to be admitted that the full implications of that principle have not been worked out in Judaism as thoroughly as those relating to personal ethics. To that extent its teachings need to be supplemented by the more recently created instruments of international law such as the various United Nations declarations and conventions, themselves largely influenced by Hebraic values.  

There is one further difficulty with the transference of moral values from the personal to the international sphere. Although personal behaviour is largely left to the individual conscience, it is nevertheless backed up by state legislation. By contrast, international law is largely unenforceable, and will remain so until there is some kind of world government.  

Whose Land?
Let us now apply these principles to the Middle East conflict. Our point of departure is the obvious one that it concerns the conflicting claims of two peoples to the same strip of land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, geographically known as Palestine.  

To whom then does it belong? There is an important sense in which its only rightful Owner is God.13 But then the Divine Freeholder may conceivably lease it to a particular people. Just that is what the ancient Israelites believed. For the Hebrew Bible is replete with passages in which God is said to have promised the land to Abraham,14 Isaac,15 Jacob,16 Moses17 and Joshua,18 to be inherited by the Jewish people in perpetuity — either unconditionally19 or provided that they remain loyal to the Covenant.20  

Unfortunately, there are fundamentalists who read the Bible as a divine book and therefore take these promises at face value,21 which means that they place theological considerations above ethical considerations. Against this, liberally minded Jews would assert the common-sense view that the Bible, though divinely inspired, is a human book, and that nothing may ever override ethical considerations. On this view, God does not make long-term geopolitical dispositions in disregard of historical events such as conquests and migrations which may materially alter the ethical situation.  

But this doesn’t mean that the Jewish people’s claim to Palestine is invalid. Admittedly, it is not as clear-cut as that of the Palestinians. Theirs is simple and straightforward. It rests on the fact that for many centuries, until the nineteenth and well into the twentieth, they constituted the large majority of the indigenous population.  

The Jewish claim, by contrast, is complex. It rests on several facts none of which is decisive in isolation but which, cumulatively, make a very powerful case. Among these is the fact that in biblical times the Jews not only were the majority in the land but, as long as they remained unconquered by neighbouring empires, exercised sovereignty in it — the only indigenous people to have done so since then. Another is the fact that when eventually they left the land they did not, for the most part, do so voluntarily but because the Romans expelled them. A third fact is that even then some remained in the land and that thereafter they returned to it in smaller or larger numbers whenever conditions allowed.22  

Close Emotional Bond
Not only did they never completely abandon the land, but they maintained an extraordinarily close emotional bond with it, and never ceased to pray that ultimately they would be able to return to it. Jewish literature from the Bible onwards abounds with expressions of a passionate love and longing for the land. And any dismissal of these as only pious sentiments is refuted by the colossal outpouring of energy which that ancient hope has elicited from the Jewish people in modern times. Here I am referring to the extraordinary dedication, self-sacrifice and resourcefulness with which the Zionist pioneers and the builders of the State of Israel have drained the swamps and made the deserts blossom and generally transformed the land into an oasis of agricultural and industrial prosperity.  

To all that we must add that the experience of the Jewish people outside the land was often precarious and ultimately became catastrophic. In Muslim lands they rarely fared better than second-class citizenship. In Christendom they were generally treated as pariahs and periodically persecuted and expelled. And when, with the Emancipation, a new age of tolerance seemed at last to dawn, that hope was soon shattered by a resurgence of anti-Semitism more horrific than Dante’s Inferno. The need of the Jewish people for a homeland which might serve as a dependable haven of refuge became desperately urgent.  

Here I must interject that there are varieties of Zionism, which should not all be judged alike. There is a chauvinistic, militaristic, territorially maximalist kind, at present seemingly on the ascendant, which I find morally unacceptable. But what was and will again be mainstream Zionism seems to me a legitimate, honourable and even noble enterprise which deserves, as it has to a large extent received, the sympathy, support and admiration of humanity.  

That view was taken by the British Government when it issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and by the League of Nations when it mandated Britain to implement it.  

The Partition Principle
I would maintain, then, that the Palestinian and Jewish claims to the land, although differently grounded, are equally valid and, in so far as such matters can be quantified, of approximately equal weight. If so, then justice demands that the two peoples must, in one way or another, share the land.  

One way might have been a binational state, as advocated by some eminent Jews in the 1920s and 30s.23 But it would not have provided a guaranteed haven of refuge, and was rejected by both peoples.  

The only remaining solution, consistent with any kind of justice, was partition. Accordingly, that was proposed by various commissions of inquiry, and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly when, by a majority of thirty-three votes to thirteen, it passed the Partition Resolution of 29th November 1947.  

Furthermore, the partition principle has been reaffirmed by the UN with perfect consistency ever since, notably in Resolution 242 of 1967, Resolution 338 of 1973, the Preamble of the Camp David Accords of 1979, and the Oslo Accords of 1993. It may therefore be said to express the collective will of humanity. Indeed, it has even been endorsed by successive Israeli governments as well as by Egypt and Jordan and, since 1988, the Palestinians.  
In view of such remarkable unanimity, the essential basis for a just settlement of the conflict has long been crystal-clear. Yet the conflict continues, and its resolution seems as distant as ever.  

For this lamentable fact both peoples, Jewish and Palestinian, as well as their sponsors, must bear a heavy responsibility; and as Amos criticised other peoples before criticising his own, so let me proceed in the same order.  

The Arab-Palestinian Record
The Arabs of Palestine, who had always been less than friendly to non-Muslim immigrants, resented the arrival of Zionist pioneers which began towards the end of the nineteenth century, accelerated after the Balfour Declaration, and became a flood with the rise of Hitlerism in Germany. Their resentment was understandable but regrettable. It was ungenerous. And when it inspired anti-Jewish riots in the 1920s and 30s, it became positively reprehensible, and set a pattern of violence which has bedevilled the conflict ever since.  

When the UN voted for partition and the British withdrew, the violence degenerated into all-out war. That the Arab States should have rejected the Partition Plan is, again, understandable but regrettable. For if there is to be international law and order, then the collective will of humanity as expressed through the UN, created for that purpose, must be accepted even when it is not to the liking of a particular Member State. The Arabs cannot simultaneously defend their rejection of the Partition Resolution and condemn the State of Israel for its defiance of other UN resolutions. And if their rejection was motivated by some dogma to the effect that a non-Islamic State cannot be tolerated in the Islamic Middle East, then that dogma is to be repudiated as categorically as the Jewish fundamentalist claim to the whole of Palestine on biblical grounds.  

Since partition is the only just solution, therefore every attempt to prevent it must be considered unethical. That applies to all the propaganda that emanated from Arab sources until recently, and to a large extent still does, to the effect that the State of Israel has no right to exist. It applies still more to the vicious anti-Jewish hatred purveyed by much of that propaganda, and even instilled into school children.24 And it certainly applies to the countless acts of terrorism carried out against the State of Israel ever since its creation. For if ethical judgments are to be made at all about the Middle East conflict, then violence, especially against civilians, must be unequivocally condemned, whether perpetrated by one side or the other.  

1967 War
Admittedly, the 1967 war, largely provoked by Colonel Nasser of Egypt, created a new situation in that, following Israel’s victory, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza found themselves under a foreign occupation which UN Resolution 242 sought to bring to an end. (Previous occupations, by Jordan and Egypt, had been less resented.) But for the failure to implement that resolution, including its demand for Israel to withdraw from the conquered territories, the Arabs must take a large share of the blame, not least in view of their Khartoum summit of September 1967 with its Three Noes: No peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.  

It is true that with the years the Israeli occupation became increasingly intolerable from a Palestinian point of view, leading ultimately to the first intifada, and then to the second, which is still going on. But though the Palestinians cannot be blamed for their attempt to throw off the occupation, and would have been widely admired for it if they had adopted a strategy of passive resistance à la Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, the atrocities, including the suicide bombings, perpetrated by their terrorist organisations cannot be condoned.  

It should be added that the pressures and persecutions, to which the half-million Jews living in Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa were subjected from 1948 onwards, prompted most of them to seek refuge in Israel. (Clearly, this is a major factor to be taken into account in determining what would constitute a just solution of the conflict.)  

That, in short, is the ethical case against the way the Middle East conflict has been handled by the Palestinians and their Arab sponsors.  

The Jewish-Israeli Record
But it does not exonerate the Jewish people. For from its very beginning the Zionist movement failed to take sufficiently seriously the presence, let alone the grievances and aspirations, of a large Arab population in the land in which they proposed to establish their homeland, and the paramount importance of cultivating their good will.25 Although that was perhaps understandable in the days when colonialism was still commonly considered acceptable, it became less excusable as the twentieth century wore on, yet has tended to persist.  

Admittedly, the bitter hostility of the Arabs towards the Zionist State before, during and after its birth did not encourage magnanimity towards them. Nevertheless it is now known from a number of recent historical studies26 that during the 1948 war the Zionists did a great deal more than defend the portion of the land allotted to them by the UN. They also aimed for as large a territory as possible with as small an Arab population as possible.27 In that process they drove out the populations of more than 400 Arab villages,28 and some of their armed units, I am deeply ashamed to say, committed atrocities29 which, in turn, created a general panic and caused some hundreds of thousands of Arabs to flee the country. Consequently, for the naqba (the Palestinian tragedy) the creators of the State of Israel must bear a substantial share of responsibility.  

Since then, Israel has consistently failed to cultivate a moderate climate of opinion which might have encouraged a like tendency on the Arab side. And though it has commendably made peace with Egypt and Jordan, it has not yet done enough to launch, or to respond to, initiatives aiming at a solution of its much more fundamental conflict with the Palestinians.  

In addition, Israel has during most of its history practised a policy of fierce retaliation for any attack launched against it, in the false but nevertheless persistent belief that this was necessary for its security. In fact, far from deterring further violence, every reprisal has merely provoked a counter-reprisal and deepened anger and hatred on both sides.  

This policy reached its nadir in 1982 with Ariel Sharon’s unprovoked and disastrous invasion of Lebanon, fraudulently named “Peace for Galilee,” of which Abba Eban said that it marked “a dark age in the moral history of the Jewish People.”30  

In recent years Israel’s policy of building more and more settlements in the occupied territories in brazen defiance of world opinion has had the effect, if not the intention, of making the attainment of a peace settlement more and more difficult. It goes without saying that these actions, as well as the confiscations of Palestinian land, demolitions of houses, and collective punishments, are indefensible from a Jewish ethical point of view.  

I am bound to conclude that for the fact that fifty-four years after the UN Partition Resolution the Middle East conflict has still not been resolved, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, are both to blame. But so as not to conclude on a negative note, let me add that on both sides of the conflict there have also been ethically commendable efforts to reach an accommodation.  

On the Arab side, we should remember the courage and imagination which Anwar Sadat showed when he flew to Jerusalem to speak so eloquently in the Knesset for a peace agreement, for which he was assassinated. We should honour the memory of King Hussein of Jordan for the statesmanlike, conciliatory role he played in his later years, as his brother Prince Hassan continues to do. In view of the allegation so often heard nowadays that the Palestinians don’t want peace, we should recall that in September 1993 Fatah activists led marches of tens of thousands of Palestinians through the streets of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in support of the Oslo Agreement. We should acknowledge that many eminent Palestinians have long co-operated with their Israeli counter-parts in organisations such as IPCRI (the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information) and the Jewish-Arab Centre for Peace at Givat Haviva (which has won the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education), and have co-signed the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of 25th July this year. Mention should also be made of the fact that Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University and the Palestinians’ chief envoy in East Jerusalem, has condemned violence and urged a peace agreement that does not include the contentious “right of return.”  

On the Jewish side it needs to be said that Israel is a democratic country in which Jews and Arabs alike enjoy freedom of speech; that it has had many brave peace activists, including Israel Shahak and Uri Avnery, as well as pro-peace writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman; that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, although a late convert to the cause, showed both vision and courage when he addressed the peace rally, which cost him his life, in Tel Aviv in 1995; that there are in Israel several active peace organisations including Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace), Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), B’tzelem (the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), and Shomrei Mishpat (Rabbis for Human Rights) which has won the prestigious Knesset Peace Prize. Their aim, in their own words, is to prove that “Judaism is a religion of justice, truth and peace, of tolerance, compassion and righteousness.”  

With so much good will among some of the people on both sides, we should not despair. But it has to be admitted that just at present it is very difficult not to. Nevertheless it is still possible to return to the path of reason and justice, of moderation and restraint, of reconciliation and peace. At least let us hope and pray that it is not too late.  


1. Cf. Psalm 11:7, Jeremiah 9:22 f.
2. Cf. Genesis 1:26 f., 5:1; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 24:7.
3. Leviticus 19:18; Sifra ad loc.
4. See Principles of Jewish Ethics by Rabbi John D. Rayner, New Jewish Initiative for Social justice, 1998.  
5. Leviticus 19:34.
6. Gittin 61a.
7. Amos 1-2.
8. Amos 9:7.
9. Isaiah 19:25.
10. Isaiah 2:4, 11:1-9, 32:16 f., Micah 4:1-4.
11. Avot 1:18.
12. Obadiah Bertinoro ad loc.
13. Cf. Psalm 24:1, Joel 4:2
14. Genesis 12:2, 13:15, 15:7,18, 17:8.
15. Genesis 26:3.
16. Genesis 28:13, 35:12, 48:4.
17. Exodus 3:8, 6:8.
18. Joshua 1:3.
19. Deuteronomy 32:8.
20. Leviticus 18:26 ff., 26:27-39, Jeremiah 18:7 f.
21. On Jewish fundamentalism, see John D. Rayner, Fundamentalism (pamphlet), Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, 1998. On the relevance of this to the Middle East conflict, see chapter 24 (“The Land, the Law and the Liberal Conscience”) in John D. Rayner, Jewish Religious Law, A Progressive Perspective, Berghahn Books, 1998.
22. See James Parkes, A History of Palestine from 135 A.D. to Modern Times, Victor Gollancz, 1949.
23. For instance, Judah L. Magnes and Martin Buber.
24. However, Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University has demonstrated that Palestinian school textbooks are not as hostile to Israel as anti-Palestinian propaganda has alleged (Anglo File, Ha-Aretz, 30 November 2001).
25. That point was strongly made by Walter Zander, Secretary of the Friends of the Hebrew University, in 1946 and 1948. See the article by his son Michael Zander in The Jewish Quarterly, Autumn 2001, No.183. The same point has been made, e.g., by Simha Flapan in his Zionism and the Palestinians (Croom Helm, London, 1979).
26. E.g., Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1987); Correcting a Mistake: Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel 1936-1956, Am Oved Publishers, 2001; Avi Shlaim, The Politics of Partition: King Abdullah, the Zionists and Palestine, 1921-1951 (Oxford University Press, 1998); The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Penguin Books, 2000); Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds), The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Anton La Guardia, Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelies and Palestinians (John Murray, 2001).
27. To call that “ethnic cleansing is not quite fair since the word “cleansing” implies a racial contempt which was not there.  
28. Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, The War for Palestine, p. 14.  
29. E.g., at Deir Yassin, Lod, and Kibya. See also The War for Palestine, pp. 54 f.
30. Jerusalem Post, International Edition, 8-14 August 1982. The invasion was unprovoked and fraudulently named in that, with the exception of one minor incident, the PLO in Lebanon had observed a cease-fire for nearly a year.

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