The Role of a Jewish Mediator in a Time of War?

During times of war, individuals and their collective identities can often be at ends. Are Jewish mediators individuals first, members of the tribe, mediators, or do they act individually as Jewish mediators? This was the question on my mind this morning when I work up and wanted a distraction before reading the headlines about the ongoing conflict with Hamas.

Facilitative mediation is a process that bases itself on the premise that individuals are motivated by self-interests and needs. We try to identify the needs and interests of the parties in order to help disputants finding common interests. To illustrate how mediation is a process that achieves peace and doesn’t really aspire to justice, I quote my father who says that “a sadist and masochist can have a great relationship.” Facilitative mediation is a very Jewish practice in the sense that it pursues peace, Shalom, by making wholeness, Sholem. The Latin root for peace, Pax, actually means truce. There are many ways to reach a cessation of violence. Compromise is one, but so is beating the other side into a position where it can no longer fight.

Since facilitative mediation is based on self interest, it seems normal that Jewish mediators would forgo the Jewish and stick with individual interests, which may include their profession, but denying one’s collective identity is particularly hard for a Jew, especially in the face of the great anti-Semitism which has surfaced throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The saying, “It’s not the Jew who keeps the Shabbat, it’s the Shabbat that keeps the Jew,” could clearly be changed to, “It’s the anti-Semite who keeps the Jew.”

Additionally, Jewish thought is endemic to the system of Jewish mediation. This is why the Academy for the Hebrew Language in Israel decided to name the profession based on the Hebrew word for bridging, Geshur. To make Jewish peace, one must bring the parties from positions in the broken state of their relationship and communication, to needs and interests, which is the foundation of peace work.

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only the trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.” — Deuteronomy 20:19-20

In Deuteronomy, we find one of the few irrefutable references to an ethics of war in the Torah. Most frequently cited sources regarding self-defense and ethical killing are not specific to war. The two verses in chapter 20 regarding a besieged city provide an ethic that recognizes the wholeness of the relationship between warring parties. The verses make two important points. They remind us of our common humanity, even with our enemies, and they instruct us to preserve that which is necessary for the common interest of the parties, in this case food.

As a Jewish mediator, I cannot separate my Jewish culture and worldview from my approach to conflict, even when engaged with a seemingly evil enemy. I cannot close my eyes to the enemy’s humanity and make it go away, and I cannot achieve the same result by dehumanizing the other side. When the question of particularism versus universalism arises, I don’t answer with the expedient and expected loyalty to a people. I question my allegiance to my peoplehood. I don’t only remain a Jew because of the anti-Semites, I remain a Jew because of my loyalty to the ideals and culture that make me want to be a Jew.

Much of my thinking about the question that frames this article is based in corporality. Humans only live in one body. It is their minds that merge with others and create unions. In my mind, I cannot see myself diverging from the ideals that bring me to the body politic of Israel and the Jewish people, so I try to navigate the wholeness of this collective body. This is the role I chose as a Jewish mediator in a time of war, and it is guided by four rigid principles.

  1. Influenced by the school of Hillel, I seek the other side’s opinion before presenting my own. This includes the perspective of the enemy and those who disagree with me within the tribe.
  2. I always engage in tasteful, civil conduct. In practice, this means that I address ideas and not people. I will not vilify people for holding opinions that I don’t agree with, and I will not let those opinions affect the basic human dignity that we all owe one another.
  3. As a member of the Jewish people, Chaver, I turn to the ancient practice of our people, chevruta, learning dyads, to structure the way I am informed. This means that I will seek deep, critical understanding of the issues and remain open to the possibility of my own change in understanding as a result of the discourse.
  4. I am also guided by the principles of rebuke, as laid out in Leviticus (19:17). “Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and incur no sin because of this person.” By this principle, I am obligated to speak out when I see individuals or the community doing something I find repugnant to either universal of particular ethics. This includes things like the Geneva Conventions, the IDF Ethics of War, or just plan common decency. At the same time, the second half of the verse guides me. My rebuke must be measured and productive.

These are the points by which I navigate my behavior as a Jewish mediator in this time of war. In many ways, it is no different than peacetime, and I hope it may inspire others as a framework for seeking peace at all times.


About the Author
David J. Steiner is a Jewish educator and a mediator in the Chicago area. To learn more about David, check out his mediation practice at