The line connecting Trayvon Martin and an Israeli attack on Iran
Judaism demands in matters of life and death that facts, not fears, govern our decisions.
“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That's right, it's a duck. But this duck is a nuclear duck and it's time the world started calling a duck a duck.” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 5, 2012.
On February 26, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, allegedly killed Trayvon Martin, a teenager armed only with candy and iced tea.
Zimmerman, who now faces second-degree murder charges, maintains that the act was in self-defense. According to him, it was rainy and dark in a neighborhood that had a recent string of burglaries. A young, African-American stranger, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, was walking slowly and peering into windows. So he followed the youth, who responded by attacking him. Fending off the assault, Zimmerman shot Martin.
Zimmerman’s claims, of course, have been the subject of a great deal of controversy, and there are many questions that remain unanswered. Was Zimmerman suspicious of Martin primarily because of Martin’s race? Was Zimmerman justified in pursuing Martin even though the 911 dispatcher told him not to? Was there actually a physical altercation between them? If so, is Zimmerman’s account accurate, or was it Zimmerman who initiated the violence? Are we really to believe that the slight teen “got the jump” on a grown man like Zimmerman? And even if Martin started the fight, how does one know that he was acting out of malice and not in self-defense (after all, a suspicious and armed man was following him)? Furthermore, even if the altercation happened as Zimmerman has claimed, was he justified in pulling out a gun and firing? What ought to be the legal and moral criteria for determining when it is acceptable to use lethal force in self-defense? Did Zimmerman meet those criteria?
These are crucial questions, not simply for determining a just outcome in this case, but also for ensuring a moral approach to a broader challenge: How do we balance our legitimate need for security with our responsibility not to shed innocent blood? How certain must one be of a mortal threat before one can deal a mortal blow?
Jewish authorities assert the right to self-defense, and they even permit preemptively killing a would-be assailant in some instances. The standard for certainty in such cases, however, is high. The Talmud teaches, “If one comes to kill you, rise up early to kill him [first]” (Sanhedrin 72a). This imperative implies that one must be certain his or her enemy intends to kill and that the act is impending. In other words, only clear and imminent malice gives one the right and the religious obligation to preemptively kill, and the defender must be certain that a lethal assault is justified. Judaism expects an individual to bear some risk in order to avoid the possibility of wrongly taking another’s life. Indeed, insist the rabbis of the midrash, “Bloodshed of the innocent defiles the land and drives out the Divine Presence.”
Seen in this light, the Trayvon Martin case is striking because the youth’s death seems to have resulted from a series of conjectures: Martin seemed suspicious not because of actual criminal behavior, but because his clothing, the darkness of the environment, the recent crime wave in the area, and (perhaps) his race conspired to make him seem threatening. And even if Martin did attack Zimmerman (as Zimmerman claims), such an assault is not in itself proof that Martin was trying to kill him, that Martin wanted to kill him, or that Martin was even capable of killing him. It is questionable whether Zimmerman faced a clear and present mortal threat that would have justified, from the Jewish perspective, taking Martin’s life.
If the Jewish tradition’s ethical calculus for defensive killing is enough to raise questions about the justness of Zimmerman’s actions, then it ought also give one pause about the calls for Israel to preemptively attack Iran.
At the moment, it does not appear that Iran meets the Talmud’s standard for preemptive killing. Iran is developing nuclear technology, but no one knows with certainty whether it will build a weapon. And moreover, even if Iran were building a bomb, no one knows whether it plans to use it. Many countries have nuclear weapons, but only one country (the United States) has ever used them in hostilities.
To be sure, if Iran has nuclear weapons, it can endanger Jewish lives without using them. Having a nuclear arsenal can enable Iran to carry out other hostilities with impunity, dissuading Israel from retaliating against smaller Iranian assaults or attacks by proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. However, the possibility that such events might occur at some unforeseen point in the future does not, from the Jewish point of view, rise to a level that justifies “kill him first.” Indeed, even if Israel knew that Iran planned a nuclear attack against it, the tradition would insist Israel not “kill first” unless it knew that an attack was imminent.
While it is true that a constellation of factors makes Iran appear threatening, the presumption of a menace, based on circumstantial evidence, is not enough to justify the taking of life. In this sense, Netanyahu’s “nuclear duck” argument is similar to Zimmerman’s fateful and fatal assumption that, “If it looks like a criminal and walks like a criminal, then it must be a criminal.”
Of course, no metaphor is perfect. Iran is not an innocent, unarmed kid, and Israel is right to be vigilant. But even so, the Jewish tradition requires that we not ignite war based on supposition.
In ancient Israel, the rabbis would remind witnesses in capital cases that, if they helped convict an innocent person to a death sentence based on conjecture or hearsay, they would be “answerable for his blood and his descendents’ blood forever” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Judaism demands in matters of life and death that facts, not fears, govern our decisions.
Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles