Is Assassination Tikkun Olam?
For most of us, the phrase “tikkun olam”—Hebrew for “fixing the world”—conjures youth group soup-kitchen volunteering or hackneyed Bar Mitzvah speeches. Shlocky, but basically decent.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman has different associations. The head of the Hartman Center, an influential Jerusalem research institute, Hartman wrote the following in an op-ed posted on the Israel website Ynetnews:
Targeted killings of known terrorist leaders, those with blood on their hands and the self-expressed desire and capacity to spill more blood, are not morally ambiguous, but rather acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world. I hate to see 20% of Israel living under the threat of missiles. I am pained by the fact that they must bear the brunt of our actions… At the same time, I recognize that evil exists, and that it is our responsibility as Israelis and moral duty as Jews to see this evil, and even if we cannot destroy it completely, to do everything in our power to limit it and to not allow its terrorist intent to rule our neighborhood.
Are extrajudicial killings tikkun olam? Are Jews obliged to blot out evil wherever they see it, even if the blotting endangers more Jews and Palestinians than the evil itself?
No, they’re not. Hartman’s right that Jewish tradition teaches, “When someone arises to kill you, pre-empt them, and kill them first.” But the permission he cites—when placed in its Talmudic context—relates to personal self defense, and it comes circumscribed by a complex legal system, because—as any resident of Ashdod or Gaza can tell you—killing evildoers can get out of hand. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) teaches that someone who stops a murderous pursuer by killing him—when he could have been stopped him merely by injuring his arm—is liable for murder. All the more so (kal v’chomer, for you Talmud buffs), for an attack that killed not just Zuheir Al-Queisi (its intended target) but also his assistant, and which led to an exchange of ordinance in which twenty five Palestinians (including a 12 year old boy) have died, and a million Israelis have been put under the threat of rocket fire.
Nor does Jewish law (at least on the basis of Hartman’s sources) allow retaliatory assassinations: a pursuer who cannot be stopped and becomes a murderer must be tried by a court, and he gets the same legal rights as any other defendant (Sanhedrin 72b). And you cannot just kill someone on the hunch that they’re after you: the Talmud discusses at length the foreknowledge required, with one source requiring that the would-be murderer’s intent be “as clear as the sun” (72a). Certainly it’s hard to say that standard was met for Al-Queisi: defense minister Ehud Barak said after the strike, “it is not completely clear what the plan was and where, or if it had been foiled.” (Hebrew)
In his op-ed, Hartman says he cannot “speak to the military efficacy of Israel’s actions.” But collateral damage, standards of guilt, and side-consequences aren’t just military questions: they’re moral and legal problems, about which Jewish sources have much to say—much more than you'd know from reading Donniel Hartman.