August 23, 2019

Drones, Jews and morality

My address to the first interreligious conference on the morality of drone warfare didn’t go over particularly well.

This happened last Saturday afternoon at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I was among 150 clergy, theologians, academics and peace activists gathered to discuss what makes our newest way of killing one another different from all other ways of killing one another.

The organizers invited me because I wrote a cover story for the Journal titled “The Torah of Drones” two years ago. The handful of Jews who have written on Jewish law and drone warfare — actually, it’s just two — likely didn’t attend because their level of Shabbat observance precluded it. So, I warned the audience, they’d have to hear from the bad Jew.

The sad truth is that the Jewish community has not wrestled in any meaningful way with a technology that history will remember was first deployed, advanced and disseminated by Israel, the Jewish state.

In fact, as I told the conferees, the only Jews I know forcing us to confront the morality of drones are the writers and producers of the TV show “Homeland,” whose most provocative plotlines have revolved around errant drone strikes.

The religious leaders gathered at Princeton also saw drones as categorically different from missiles, bombs and other long-distance killing machines. Drones’ relative low-cost and lack of direct human operator have made them a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. These factors also contribute to their fast, nearly unchecked, spread around the globe, without, as yet, any international standards regarding their use.

The result has been hundreds of nameless, dead innocents, and every indication that, as a Pakistani journalist once told me, every drone kills one terrorist and creates two. In fact, the most affecting part of the weekend was not something I heard, but something I saw: a quilt sewn by various church groups for the Drones Quilt Project, with each square inscribed with the name of a Pakistani child killed in an American drone strike. Upward of 984 civilians — including 200 children — have been killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“We need to bring religious voices to this dialogue, because certainly industry voices are there,” said Maryann Cusimano Love of The Catholic University of America.

Most of the religious voices at the conference called for an end to the strikes altogether. Mine wasn’t among them. It was a strange experience for someone often derided as too dovish to be the most hawkish in a room. But as I explained in my talk, Jewish teaching commands us to kill in self-defense. I urged the audience to try to empathize with an Israeli mother who would prefer to send in a drone, rather than her son, to stop a Hamas rocket. There was thunderous silence: This was not what you call a pro-Israel crowd. 

At the end of the conference, the attendees drafted a statement calling for a halt to drone strikes until issues of accountability and transparency have been established. The Mennonites, Quakers and others in attendance went along grudgingly — as one Mennonite leader explained, he’d rather die than kill.

My own feeling about drones was better summed up by Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., the only other Jew qua Jew at the conference. “Jewish tradition — and, indeed, many religious traditions — require proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an attack is imminent before pre-emptive action is justified,” he said. “Too often, America’s use of drone’s falls short of this requirement, and that is why the religious community must come together and seek a change.”  

But Jews face an additional moral question, which is this: Is it right to be spreading this technology, unchecked?

Israel began to develop drones following the Six-Day War as a way to circumvent Egyptian air defenses. It pioneered the use of weaponized Unmanned Aerial Vehicles during the first Lebanon War in 1982, selling the United States its first drone — the Pioneer — shortly afterward. Today, an estimated 41 percent of all weaponized drones sold around the world come from Israel. 

“If you scratch any military drone, you will likely find Israeli technology underneath,” Mary Dobbing and Chris Cole wrote in the Drone Wars U.K. briefing “Israel and the Drone Wars.” 

I often write in this column that the world must be mindful that bigotry and terror often start by being directed at Jews and Israel but spread from there to the rest of the world. 

In the case of drones, I’m afraid, the process is exactly the reverse.

We Jews are spreading a technology to the world that one day might very well be used against us, in Israel or elsewhere.

This is a strange problem to confront as we commemorate 70 years since the liberation Auschwitz. We have gone from wielding no weapons in our defense to selling some of the most deadly weapons the world has ever known. We have turned the tides — now how do we stop them from drowning us? 

We are rightly consumed right now with the debate over how to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of one state, Iran. But we should also take note that, meanwhile, Israel is rushing headlong into propagating technology that can provide deadly force to every state and nonstate actor on the planet.

You don’t have to be Mennonite to want to resist that.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.