Ask a rabbi: Should Israel sell weapons to Myanmar?

As Israel began to develop its arms industry in the 1950s and ’60s, it became clear that the industry could not support itself unless it also exported these powerful products.

MK MASOUD GNAIM (center) participates in a protest against the killing of his Rohingya Muslim ‘brothers’ in Myanmar, outside the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv, September 11, 2017. (photo credit: UNITED ARAB LIST)
MK MASOUD GNAIM (center) participates in a protest against the killing of his Rohingya Muslim ‘brothers’ in Myanmar, outside the country’s embassy in Tel Aviv, September 11, 2017.
(photo credit: UNITED ARAB LIST)

Last week, the Israeli Supreme Court sealed its confidential decision regarding ongoing Israeli weapons sales to Myanmar. Opponents claim that Israel is aiding a brutal government crackdown, while defenders claim that such sales remain within the confines of international law. While the secrecy behind such trade makes it difficult to make a definitive judgment, it pays to develop a Jewish ethical framework for this moral dilemma.

The Talmudic stance regarding selling weapons to non-Jews evolved in late antiquity, with Jewish law ultimately concluding, albeit hesitantly, that one may sell weapons to nations that will use them responsibly and protect the safety of Jews. The Talmudic Sages had initially drawn up an exhaustive list of weapons prohibited to pagan nations. Part of the worry, as Rashi notes, was that the weapons will ultimately be used against Jews. Maimonides emphasized a more universal concern: the pagans will use the weapons to wreak destruction.

Yet a later passage asserted that Jews did sell weapons in a later era, accompanied by a fascinating explanation: “We sell to the Persians who protect us.” By the fifth century, Jews in Babylonia were selling arms to local authorities, reflecting a generally cooperative relationship with them. In fact, such an idea may have already existed in third-century Israel, as the Jerusalem Talmud asserts that the entire prohibition applies only to cities in which no Jews reside, but not in circumstances when the sold weapons might protect Jewish residents.

Medieval commentators explained the Talmudic dispensation differently. Some asserted that we need to do our share to help our society in which Jews live relatively peacefully. Others made more pragmatic calculations: we need their help now, and we hope they won’t later turn their weapons against us. Maimonides formulated this dispensation in terms of an alliance: “If Jews live among idolaters and have established a covenant with them, it is permitted to sell arms to the king’s servants.” Whatever the rationale, many sources affirm that medieval Jews sold weapons to their gentile neighbors since it benefited both parties and they believed that the non-Jews would in any case acquire weapons by other means.

As Israel began to develop its arms industry in the 1950s and ’60s, it became clear that the industry could not support itself (and therefore provide the IDF with necessary weapons) unless it also exported these powerful products. As Amir Bohbot and Yaakov Katz document in The Weapon Wizards, this trade also spawned a significant financial boom to a fledging country with economic struggles while providing important incentives for foreign countries to develop friendly relations with Israel. Yet it also raised deep ethical questions, as clients like Chile and South Africa committed human rights atrocities.

In the late 1970s, Tel Aviv chief rabbi Chaim David Halevi cited medieval precedents to argue that any sales made to allies would secure mutually beneficial results, even while noting that Israeli sovereignty placed Jews in a radically different political position. Rabbi J. David Bleich reached a similar conclusion, though he indicated his uncertainty as to whether current Israeli policy fully complied with halachic criteria: “Sale of arms to nations allied with Israel by means of a formal or informal security pact would be justified. Absent such agreement, arms sales would be forbidden unless absolutely necessary by virtue of other considerations in order to protect life, e.g., as part of a barter arrangement designed to secure material necessary for self-defense.”

Because of reported sales to rogue nations with unethical leaders, other scholars raised serious objections to the Israeli arms industry in the early 1980s. Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni contended that international arms sales could be justified only when they involved nations that had Jewish citizens to protect or would adhere to principles of ethical warfare. Otherwise, Israel was providing a “stumbling block” that encouraged unethical behavior by aiding and abetting rogue nations. The fact that these countries could purchase weapons from other dealers could not justify any Jewish participation in the shedding of blood, especially if the Israeli weapons were deemed uniquely advantageous.

The most trenchant critique was launched by Britain’s chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. He accused Israel, Britain, the United States and other Western countries of greedily following the ways of the biblical Esau. In his words, “The rationalization that such exports are required to sustain the supply-nations’ own arms industry for self-defense lacks every moral basis, at least in Jewish teaching. You can never save your own life at the cost of threatening or taking another.”

Rabbinic defenders of the Israeli arms industry have responded that even when mistakes are made, the Talmudic and medieval precedents fully legitimize selling weapons to foreign nations if the goal is to buttress Israel’s own defense. Although military exports bring Israel into murky moral waters, they are a tragic part of the complexity of foreign affairs in a world in which swords, not plowshares, continue to hold sway.

In the particular case of Myanmar, it remains hard to understand what financial, diplomatic, or military advantage is procured from selling weapons to this insignificant country while it is in the midst of a horrific civil conflict. Jewish law reluctantly permits weapons sales when they produce concrete security advantages, but not when meager benefits are greatly overshadowed by aiding horrific bloodshed. I join Rabbi Yuval Cherlow in calling for expanded ethical overview of such sales to ensure that Israel properly balances its strategic needs and moral duties.

The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.