Editorial: True Self Defense

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 26, 2004

Our opinion pages have received a number of letters regarding Israel’s recent assassination of a Hamas leader. They’re from all over Northern California, written in a variety of styles by obviously concerned citizens, but they have a common outline and theme: what’s wrong with assassination in self-defense? Since most of the writers don’t seem to be Daily Planet readers, we’ve sent this stock response: 

“Thanks for your submission. We probably won’t print it, since we usually publish only letters from our local readership area, or occasionally responses to our editorials from other places. We haven’t written an editorial about the morality of assassination yet, but your letter convinces us that we have been  

derelict in not doing so, an omission we hope to rectify soon.”  

One or two of these letters have been from our circulation area, and we do plan to print those. But the interesting thing, as our stock response letter points out, is that the letters themselves are pre-emptive strikes. Even though the Planet has yet to speak on this topic, counter-arguments are being organized and launched. Could it be that some of the writers have a deeply suppressed perception that something is indeed wrong with assassination as a tool of national policy? 

Discussions of the moral issues around self defense have played a prominent part in the evolution of the Anglo-American legal system. The criminal codes in various jurisdictions attempt to define precisely when killing another human constitutes legitimate self defense. Though I’m not familiar with Jewish law, I expect that similar discussions are central there too. 

I do not know of many instances in American law where pre-emptive killing is justified. Historic Christian discussions of what constitutes a just war have left very little room for pre-emptive killing on a national scale. We would be interested in comments from additional letter writers on what mainstream Jewish ethical thinkers have to say on this topic.  

Among the letters we’ve already received, which appear to be part of an organized campaign, is one from David Meir-Levi of Menlo Park which is reprinted in this issue. He says, in part: “…..appeasement emboldens the aggressor. Hypocritical and shortsighted Israel-bashing appeases the aggressor, condemns the victim, and gives succor and support to those who seek to finish what Hitler started.”  

But is it Israel-bashing to suggest that killing an elderly, almost blind quadriplegic, along with a number of bystanders, was both immoral and impractical? To suggest that it would have been relatively easy and much more ethical to capture the man, using tear gas if needed, and try him under Israeli law for any crimes he might have committed? It’s true that Palestinian activists, including some who were part of Hamas, have also carried out assassinations and killed innocent bystanders, but does that make it right for Israelis to do the same thing? In simple everyday ethical terms, familiar to most people in most cultures, do two wrongs make a right? And even, to put this on the level of what almost all parents tell their children, just because “everyone does it”, should you do it too? 

In the eyes of many thoughtful people, the true defenders of Israel, and of Israel’s reputation, are those like my many Israeli friends who have voluntarily exiled themselves from the country where their families still live, because they do not want to be associated with what they consider a war conducted with immoral tactics. They’re like the 19-year-old girl I know who went to jail as a conscientious objector to serving in the Israeli army. They’re Berkeley people from Jewish backgrounds like Henry Norr and Barbara Lubin, who go to Israel to find out for themselves what is being done to Palestinians in the name of Israel.  

Many sincere and ethically conscious people, both Israelis and others, have of course concluded that sometimes assassination is ethical, and if they have thought carefully about that decision one must respect it. But it does not illuminate what should be a sober consideration of the moral issues involved when people who come down on the other side are accused of giving “succor and support to those who seek to finish what Hitler started.”  


Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.