The halachah of selling arms

The halachah of selling arms

According to recently released data, Israel exported approximately $7 billion of military equipment in 2012, mostly to the United States and Europe, but also to Southeast Asia and South America. This is no doubt a lucrative enterprise, but is it the right thing for the Jewish state to be doing from the point of view of Jewish law?

Halachah frowns on store owners who sell guns to irresponsible or violent customers. The notion that salespeople may simply close their eyes to the potentially harmful or unethical use of weapons remains foreign to Jewish law. But how does this apply when it is a question of countries and armies?

Legal perspectives on this question evolved in the course of the talmudic period and in later centuries, with Jewish law ultimately concluding, albeit somewhat hesitantly, that it is permissible to sell weapons to nations that will use them responsibly and protect the safety of Jews. Although the talmudic sages initially had drawn up an exhaustive list of weapons that it was forbidden to sell to pagan nations, a later passage in the Talmud raises the question “Why then do we sell them [weapons] nowadays?” Rabbi Ami’s answer is, “We sell [them] to the Persians who protect us.” By the 5th century, it seems, Jews in Babylonia were selling arms to local authorities, reflecting a generally cooperative relationship with them. Christine Hayes has argued that exceptions to the gun sale ban might have already existed in the land of Israel in the 3rd century, as a parallel text in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 2:1) seems to indicate. In that text, the Talmud asserts that the prohibition applies only to cities where no Jews live. Once Jews live there, weapons sales remain permissible either because they will serve to protect Jewish as well as non-Jewish residents or, alternatively, because the peaceful habitation of Jews within the city shows that these Gentiles are not hostile to them.

Medieval commentators explained this Persian dispensation differently, possibly in partial reflection of their position within their own society. Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri took a moral approach. We need to do our share to help our society, he maintained, arguing that the original prohibition applied only to the godless barbarians of yesteryear. Others made more pragmatic calculations: We need their help now, and we hope they won’t later turn their weapons against us (Nimukei Yosef). 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.” In the 13th century, Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna further deemed such a sale permissible even if the local ruler was at war with a city known to have a Jewish population, though he hoped that no harm would come to those Jews (Or Zarua Avodah Zarah 132). Others argued that no unvarying rule could be made, since the nature of Jewish-Gentile relations varied according to time and place (Riaz al ha-Rif). It remains clear, however, that this was not a mere theoretical discussion: Many sources affirm that Jews throughout the Middle Ages sold weapons or their components to their Gentile neighbors, because it benefited both parties and because they believed that the non-Jews in any case could acquire weapons by other means.

These talmudic dispensations allowing the sale of weapons to non-Jews developed at a time when the Jews lacked a sovereign state. What are the implications for the State of Israel’s arms industry? One of the first scholars to address this question was Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, Tel Aviv’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi. In a brief responsum written in the late 1970s, he cited the rationales offered by Maimonides and Meiri in arguing that any sales made to allies would secure mutually beneficial results. While noting that Israeli sovereignty placed Jews in a radically different position from the one they occupied in 5th century Persia, he nonetheless contended that the medieval justifications made it “absolutely permissible” for Israel to sell weapons to friendly nations in exchange for strategic benefits (Aseh Lecha Rav 1:19). 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” (Tradition 20:4). Those “other considerations,” of course, might be interpreted quite broadly. It would certainly justify Israel’s bribing Ethiopian and Sudanese leaders with weapons in the 1980s to free Ethiopian Jews. But would it justify arms deals with rogue nations or unethical leaders who offer indirect political favors or assistance in covert activities? And what happens when the sales are made simply to obtain revenue in order to keep the arms industry in the black?

These concerns led other scholars to raise 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 buy weapons from other dealers could not justify any Jewish participation in the shedding of blood, especially if the Israeli weapons were deemed uniquely advantageous. Dr. Meir Tamari, a senior economist at the Bank of Israel and a pioneering figure in Jewish business ethics, leveled a more trenchant critique. The Israeli arms industry had become an industrial behemoth, he argued, and had expanded far beyond what is required by military necessity. He further warned that its clandestine arms trade would embroil Israel in very dubious business, a warning that was partly vindicated when Israel’s role in the Iran-Contra affair was revealed. Most significant, Tamari bemoaned the fact that economic considerations, as well as moral carelessness, had led to the sale of Israeli arms, via direct or indirect channels, to such countries as Chile, Iran, South Africa, and North Korea, whose human rights records were poor, to say the least. Indeed, it should cause great shame to the Jewish state to learn that Israeli-made weapons (almost certainly without governmental approval) arrived via eastern Europe in Rwanda during the height of the massacres of the Tutsis in the mid-1990s, despite the fact that the defense ministry had banned sales to that country.

Yet defenders of the Israeli arms industry, including Rabbis Yaakov Epstein (Techumin 11) and Joseph Polak (Tradition 24:3), have responded that even when mistakes are made, the legacy of the Persian and medieval European scholars fully legitimizes selling weapons to foreign nations if the goal is to buttress Israel’s own defense. Just as medieval Jews sold weapons to their neighbors hoping that the weapons would not be used later against them, so Israel must remain active in weapons exports and hope that what it sells will be used only as appropriate. Although military exports bring Israel into murky moral waters, they are merely part of the complexity of foreign affairs in a world in which swords, not plowshares, continue to hold sway. Fortunately, in the last decade, Israel has made great strides in supervising the sale of Israeli-made weapons, including the creation of a Defense Expert Control Agency. This development followed American critiques of aborted Israeli arms sales to China but grew more generally from a greater international awareness that genocide can be prevented only if the world tightly regulates its weapons. Thus, Israel has pledged not to sell weapons to human rights abusers and taken further measures to prevent shady figures from becoming intermediaries.

Yet there is no doubt that military exports will continue to play a major role in Israeli foreign affairs. Take Israel’s covert war against Iran. Beyond sanctions and cyberwarfare, Israel has used arms exports to strengthen its strategic hand against Iran. Russia, for example, canceled the sale to Iran and Syria of S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, which military experts deemed critical to stopping foreign attacks on Iran. A few weeks later, Israel announced a new sale to Russia of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, which the Russians realized they needed in 2008, after Georgia used Israeli-made drones were used against them effectively. Similarly, Israel continues to provide drones to Azerbaijan, where tensions with Armenia might explode into a broader conflict. Yet Azerbaijan also borders Iran, thereby providing Israel with a central location for reconnaissance and possible refueling in the event of an air strike. Of course, arms sales always remain a gamble, as today’s ally might turn into tomorrow’s foe. America learned that when it armed Afghanistan against the Soviets; Israel today worries about what will done with the arms it previously sold to Turkey, and who will ultimately control the American weapons sold to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Can halachah provide a definitive answer to this political and moral dilemma? Perhaps not. But it does provide a framework of values to consider when setting policy. We must hope that Israeli officials will take these principles into consideration and that Israeli voters will ask themselves which candidates combine the strategic wisdom and moral fortitude to manage Israel’s booming defense industry appropriately.

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (, and is reprinted with permission