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Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition
Michael J. Broyde

V. Peace Treaties

The book of Joshua recounts the story of the first treaty the Jewish nation entered into as follows:

The people of Givon [who live in Israel] heard what Joshua did to Jericho and to Ai [they were destroyed]. And they worked with trickery and they made themselves to look like ambassadors . . . And they went to Joshua at Gilgal and said to him, and to all the people of Israel "We have come from a far land; make a treaty with us" . . . And they said to Joshua "We are your servants;" he said to them "Who are you and where do you come from?" They replied "From a very far away land . . ." And Joshua [and the Jews] made peace with them and he signed a treaty with them which was sworn on [ratified by] the presidents of the tribes. And it was at the end of three days after the treaty was signed that the Jewish nation heard that the Givonites were neighbors and lived nearby. The people of Israel traveled and came to their cities on the third day ... And the Jews did not attack them since the presidents of the tribes had ratified [the treaty] -- in the name of God, the God of Israel. The Jews complained to the presidents of the tribes. The presidents replied "we swore [not to attack them] by the name of the God of Israel and thus we cannot touch them."

(Book of Joshua 9:3-12)

Even though the treaty was entered into under fraudulent pretenses, the Jewish people maintained that the treaty was morally binding on them. Indeed, Maimonides, basing himself almost exclusively on just this incident codifies the rules of treaty as follows:

It is prohibited to lie [or breach] in treaties and it is prohibited to make them [the defeated nation] suffer after they have settled and accepted the seven commandment's.67

Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (Radvaz) in his commentary on Maimonides explains that "this is learned from the incident of the Givonim since breaking one's treaties is a profanation of God's name.68" According to this rationale, the reason why the Jewish nation felt compelled to honor its treaties with the Givonim -- a treaty that in the very least was entered into under fraudulent circumstances -- was that others would not grasp the full circumstances under which the treaty was signed, and would have interpreted the breach of the treaty as a sign of moral laxity on the part of the Jewish people. One could argue based on this rationale that in circumstances where the breach of a treaty would be considered reasonable by others, it would be permissible to breach.69

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) understands the nature of the obligation to observe treaties differently; he claims that the reason the treaty with the Givonim had to be honored was that the Jewish nation "swore" to observe its obligation and the nations of the world would think that the Jewish people do not believe in a God and thus do not take their promises seriously.70

Rabbi David ben Kimchi (Radak) advances an even more radical understanding of the nature of the obligation. Among the possible reasons he advances to explain why the treaty was honored was -- even though it was a void treaty because it was entered into based solely on the fraudulent assurances of the Gibbonim -- was because others would not be aware that the treaty was really void and would (incorrectly) identify the Jewish nation as the breaker of the treaty. This fear, that the Jewish nation would be incorrectly identified as a treaty breaker, he states, is enough to require that the Jewish nation keep all treaties duly entered into.71

Each of these theories, whatever the precise boundaries of the obligation to keep treaties is based on, presupposes that treaties are basically binding according to Jewish law. It is only in the case of a visibly obvious breach of the treaty by one party that the second party may decline to honor the treaty. Thus, Jewish law accepts that when the war is over, the peace that is agreed to is binding. Indeed, even in a situation where there is some unnoticed fraud in its enactment or ratification, it is still binding.

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