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Judaism: Being Nice to Terrorists

Are we supposed to look for mitigating factors for terrorists? Are we allowed to attack?
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 3:25 PM


It says in Pir’kei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, that we should judge each person favourably (dan l’chaf z’chut). Does this apply to terrorists? If so, how?

A. The quotation is from Pir’kei Avot 1:6. The author is Yehoshua ben Perachyah. At first sight it might appear that he is in favour of being kind to terrorists. This might mean that once you understand the pressures and problems in the terrorist’s personal life, you might be inclined to pardon or condone their actions, and this clearly cannot be allowed.

The way to understand Pir’kei Avot is delineated by Maimonides, who says – I quote his statement in extenso – in his commentary:

“If there is some person whom you do not know to be either righteous or wicked, and you see him doing something or saying something which might be interpreted either favourably or unfavourably, interpret his action favourably and do not suspect him of evil.

“But if the person is well known as a righteous man, always doing good, and some action of his seems to be bad – then it is proper to judge it favourably, since there is at least a remote possibility that the action is a good one; and it is not permitted to suspect such a person of evil. It is in this connection that the sages said (Shabbat 97a): ‘He who suspects the upright should be whipped!’

“However, if there is a person notorious for his wicked ways, and you see him do something which seems to be good, but there is a remote possibility that it is evil, then it is wise to beware of him, not to assume that he is doing good. It is of such a person that the verse says, ‘He that hates dissembles with his lips… when he speaks fair, believe him not’ (Proverbs 26:24-25).”

On the basis of the Maimonidean explanation, there can be no exoneration or whitewashing of terrorists or terrorism.
Inline images 3
Car targeted in an Israeli air strike in Gaza

Q. Israel is often accused of being aggressive in its targeting of Hamas terrorists. Is there a Jewish approach to military attacks?

A. There is a well-known Jewish principle, ha-ba l’hor’gecha, hashkem l’hor’go – “If someone comes to slay you, forestall him by slaying him” (Sanh. 72a).
According to the Talmud, “The Torah stated (haTorah am’rah) this principle.” The Midrash Tanchuma finds the source in the verse, “Attack the Midianites and smite them, for they harass you with their wiles” (Num. 25:17). This provides authority for a pre-emptive strike to forestall an enemy when there are reasonable grounds to expect an attack.

Rabbi Moise Katz says, “We have here a criterion for determining cases of ba l’hor’gecha, namely: If a nation desires to annihilate Israel, and keeps advisers for that purpose, their mere presence is proof enough… Similarly, we may infer that the presence of an army, which could lead to an attack, is aggression of the ba l’hor’gecha type, so that the mitzvah of hashkem l’hor’go by surprise attack applies” (“Intercom”, Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, NY, Sept., 1968).