What Judaism Says About Drones
Jewish tradition is weighted definitively against pacifism. But does that mean drone warfare is kosher?
Are drones an ethical tool of war? In the past 10 years, as Israel and the United States have increasingly relied on unmanned aerial vehicles to kill enemy combatants, that question has become extremely pressing for policymakers, politicians, and just war theorists.
Advocates of drones contend that the remote-controlled vehicles are merely a delivery mechanism for conventional weapons: They do not kill, maim, or injure in ways or numbers that can be invidiously distinguished from cruise missiles, bombers, or artillery. On the contrary, they often add a level of verification and precision unmatched by other types of tools. And they enable proactive defense in ways that were previously impossible. Critics contend that drones make war prohibitively easy.
What, if anything, does Judaism have to add to this debate? Anyone who tells you that Jewish law has a definitive stance on the use of aerial drones—or any other public issue—is selling you something. This isn’t simply because Jewish tradition is complex and multi-vocal. It’s because Jewish law is often technically irrelevant to non-Jews, who are not bound by the majority of its dictates. Thus, even if Jewish sources told us something about the obligations of Jewish drone pilots, or even about how the state of Israel should or should not deploy drones, they would not necessarily make the same demands on policymakers in the United States or the European Union. A useful Jewish perspective on drones, then, is a philosophical argument that incorporates the concepts, tensions, and arguments of halakha (Jewish law) in an effort to inform the general debate.
Before we get to the details, we need to establish a fundamental premise: While Judaism never celebrates war, the overwhelming weight of Jewish tradition is against pacifism, for both Jews and non-Jews. For example, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik argues in his commentary to Maimonides’ Laws of Murder that there is a universal human obligation to use deadly force when necessary to protect potential murder victims. Likewise, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the famed Yeshiva of Volzohin, writes in his commentary to Genesis 9:5 that the Torah demands punishment for the shedding of the blood of a human being only “from the hand of his brother-man”—but not for killing in wartime, when men are legitimately not brothers.
Some oppose drone warfare because it allows someone from side A to kill someone from side B without any risk that side B will kill him first. To the best of my knowledge, however, Judaism has never recognized unsportsmanlike conduct as a violation of military ethics. In westerns, it is often considered unethical to shoot an unarmed man, even if you and everyone else in the room knows that the man is not unarmed by choice, and that he will do his best to kill you the moment he lays hands on a viable weapon. Judaism by contrast contends that “One who comes to kill you, anticipate and kill him first” (Talmud Sanhedrin 72a). Maimonides writes (Laws of Theft 9:7) that one may kill someone whom one has a reasonable expectation will try to kill you “using any deadly means that will be effective.” There is no intrinsic Jewish reason to avoid using guns against knives, or tanks against cavalry, so long as the knives or cavalry pose a genuine threat to one’s life.
What of the argument that drone warfare violates international law? Prominent Jewish legal thinkers, such as the great 20th-century religious Zionist jurist Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, have argued that Judaism mandates obedience to international law in warfare and other matters. So, it might follow that Jewish law forbids drone warfare as well. However, even if one concedes the principle that international law carries significant Jewish weight—and in a different context I might dispute that principle sharply—that weight would apply only to settled international law. Drones are new enough that no settled international law exists regarding their use.
Thus, so long as a plausible argument exists for the legality of drone warfare, Jewish law would avoid ruling on it so as to avoid an excessive entanglement of religion with politics. Since Jewish law will eventually recognize whichever position the international system adopts, deciding it now will correctly be understood as preemptively imposing a secular predisposition without Jewish basis. This can only diminish respect for halakhic authority, especially as the decision may soon be summarily reversed when the secular authorities reach a consensus on the issue.
I don’t find these objections to drone warfare compelling.
But I do believe that serious Jewish and ethical objections to drone warfare arise out of three other questions:
1) When one side of a war develops a qualitative technological advantage, must it ethically consider what will happen on future battlefields when the technology spreads? Or is it rather entitled to win its own war and leave the future to be negotiated?
Judaism generally sees ethics as a device by which the strong constrain themselves. As Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is powerful? The one who conquers his evil inclination.” As such, I think there is room for a Jewish argument that imposes ethical responsibility for the consequences of drone warfare beyond the immediate military horizon.
Six prominent thinkers and activists make their case—and their answers may surprise you