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Boycott, Crime, and Sin: Ethical and Talmudic Responses to Injustice Abroad

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2012


Zohar applies Talmudic views on communal sin to contemporary political discourse by posing the question “Are we our brothers' keepers?” The essay addresses international responsibility to protect victims of oppression worldwide. This discussion is particularly valuable in today's political system where the national sovereignty of a state may attempt to outweigh the victims' claim of persecution. While asserting that economic sanction, primarily boycott, in lieu of military action, is the most effective means of curtailing the actions of the oppressor government, he presents the views of Maimonides and Nachmanides on the Noahide Code of Jewish law. The former advocates full-scale embargo policy and holds all citizens responsible for acquiescing in the sins of their rulers and hence of communal sin, thereby justifying intervention. The latter, and more commonly accepted today, urges elimination of (direct or indirect) participation in the deeds of the perpetrators, the “clean-hands” approach, and hence allows for national boundaries to overshadow injustices occurring within them. Both types of boycott converge in that any transaction that fails to undermine the perpetrating regime is in some way facilitating its existence.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 1993

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1 Cf., e.g., Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 33Google Scholar; and Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 114Google Scholar.

2 For a defense of this view, see Donnelly, Jack, “Human Rights, Humanitarian Intervention and American Foreign PolicyJournal of International Affairs 37 (1984), 311–28Google Scholar.

3 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (London: Allen Lane, 1977), 86ff.Google Scholar; and see further note 5 on next page.

4 Walzer's reasoning (ibid., 91–95) therefore explicitly permits intervention to help a legitimate (i.e., mass-supported) secession movement.Google Scholar

5 See, e.g., Richard A. Wasserstrom's review of Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars in Harvard Law Review 92 (1978), 536–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Beitz, Charles R., “Bounded Morality: Justice and the State in World Politics,” International Organization 33 (1979), 405–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The debate was carried on in two consecutive issues of Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1980)Google Scholar.

6 Slater, Jerome and Nardin, Terry, “Nonintervention and Human Rights,” The Journal of Politics 48 (1986), 8696CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 It should be emphasized that Slater and Nardin's view is not purely consequentialist; rather, since they believe that moral obligations may call for too much intervention, they point out crucial pragmatic obstacles.Google Scholar

8 A good in-depth introduction to Halakha as a system of religious law controlled by human interpretation is offered in Berkovits, Eliezer, Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha (New York: Ktav, 1983)Google Scholar. For a briefer discussion, see Encyclopeadia Judaica (Jerusalem: Ktav 1971) 7: 11561166.Google Scholar

9 The Talmud takes up twenty volumes in the standard (Hebrew-Aramaic) editions. A complete English translation was published by Soncino in London (1935–1948); subsequent citations, however, are my own translations.Google Scholar

10 See, e.g., Talmud, Shabbat 88a. The role of consent in Judaism is a main theme of Daniel Elazar's work; cf. his “Covenant as the Basis for the Jewish Political Tradition,” in Elazar, Daniel, ed., Kinship and Consent (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983), 2156Google Scholar. For a more complex picture, see part 1: “The Human Being in Judaism,” in Hartman, David, A Living Covenant (New York: The Free Press, 1985Google Scholar).

11 For an extensive analysis of Noahide law, see Novak, David, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: A historical and constructive study of the Noahide laws, Toronto Studies in Theology, Volume 14 (Edwin Mellen Press: New Yorkand Toronto, 1983).Google Scholar

12 In such a vein, Emille Fackenheim criticizes those who believe that idolatry is no longer a serious danger; see, for example, his To Mend The World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Thought (New York: Schocken, 1982), 6972.Google Scholar See also Halbertal, Moshe and Margalit, Avishai, Idolatry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 209–13Google Scholar.

13 Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 9:14. Most of Maimonides's code, the Mishne Torah, has been published in English translation in the Yale Judaica Series. The text here, however, is my own translation.Google Scholar

14 Ibid.; for the bibilical account, see Genesis, chap. 34.Google Scholar

15 Maimonides substitutes this term, which appears in an entirely different context in Judges 9:2, for the simple “men” of Genesis 34. The Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Brown, Driver and Briggs, new ed. (1906; Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979) gives “owner, lord” as the general meaning of the noun Ba'al, but for this particular usage (i.e., the plural followed by a town's name) offers “citizens, inhabitants.” The Joshua and Judges volume of the “Soncino Books of the Bible,” ed. Abraham Cohen, rev. A.J. Rosenberg (London: Soncino, 1982) makes the following comment on the standard translation of “men“: “Literally ‘lords,’ perhaps ‘free men’ or ‘citizens.’” It seems that minimally non-citizens, such as slaves and presumably also women, are excluded. In any case, it is hard to judge the significance of this one-word substitution in Maimonides.Google Scholar

16 English translation by Charles B. Chavel (New York: Shilo, 1971).Google Scholar

18 Nachmanides relies here on a rather strong tradition, within the Halakhic system, of viewing liability for omissions as generally less severe than liability for commissions. With respect to the Noahide Code in particular, this point is made briefly in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b–59a). Maimonides, for his part, seems here untroubled by this distinction; perhaps he views failure to punish as equivalent to complicity in the criminal act itself.Google Scholar

19 Nachmanides's position is in fact more complicated. He asserts that the Shechemites were actually guilty along with the other Canaanites of severe violations of the Noahide Code. It is in this context that he states categorically that “…it was not the responsibility of Jacob and his sons” to bring them to justice. Nachmanides's conclusion appears overdetermined: if it is not the responsibility of one community to enforce compliance with the Noahide Code in another community, what difference would it make if Maimonides's point were conceded? Even if every individual were held liable for failure to enforce the law with respect to his fellow citizens, this would not justify external intervention!.Google Scholar

20 Talmud, Avoda Zara, 15b.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 15b–16a.Google Scholar

22 Ibid., 16a.Google Scholar

23 On unconditional surrender, see Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 111–24.Google Scholar

24 New York Times, August 31, 1992, p. 1.Google Scholar

25 For this reason, a moral problem remains even if we were to conclude that in this case even military intervention is actually justified, on the grounds that the Serbians have no legitimate claim to “self-determination” in subduing ethnic groups who wish to secede (cf. note 4 above). This might indicate a moral preference for military action over the current boycott policy.Google Scholar

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