This has been on my mind for a while as I thought about how we can frame the question of risk and sensibly debate the issue. Seeing talk-backs on various articles (I know the worst thing to read) has made me realise what outlandish things it is now possible to say about infiltration and terror. I have finally attempted to marshal an argument having seen the campaign video to sponsor the resettlement of refugees by the Jewish community:

And supporting article here with talk-backs…

At the 175th Anniversary Gala Dinner for West London Synagogue, David Aaronovitch, asked a very simple question. Did we want to be of those who were unwilling to risk their own safety in order to save a life or did we want to be of those who would risk, perhaps everything, in order to offer life, safety, a future? The scenario was real – it was real for those hiding individuals fleeing the Nazi death machine and it is real with regards to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The challenge – what risk would we take to protect those fleeing a horrendous humanitarian disaster and the onset of a brutal winter. And, of course, since the devastating events in Paris, and more recent increase in military activity in Syria, there is even less political motivation to resolve the refugee crisis nor the blot on political leadership that is Calais. What will we be prepared to do to find a political solution?

So what societal risks would we be prepared to take? How might we frame the risk and what it entails? I was thinking about two different texts. The first is about the notion of safek pikuach nefesh – a case of possible saving of life. Nice texts about saving life are easy – he who saves one life, it is as if he saves the whole world (and such like), but what about circumstances in which you aren’t sure you will save a life? That’s where the issue of ‘safek pikuach nefesh’ steps in. Of course this concept has been applied already in the context of medical care – in weighing up suitability to give certain medical treatments at the end of life (and see Dorff’s discussion of this in Matters of Life and Death p.204 in which he actually advocates that for the ‘benefit’ may not always mean more doubtful medical treatment). But on the subject of the possibility of saving life the Tosafists write:

דהכא והתם עבדינן לטובתו דהתם אם לא תחוש ימות והכא אם תחוש ולא יתרפא מן העובד כוכבים ודאי ימות וכאן וכאן שבקינן הודאי למיעבד הספק:

So here and there we act in his best interests. For there, if we do not care about a short amount of life, he will die; here if we do care about a short amount of life and do not allow him to be healed by the idolator, he will certainly die. Thus in both cases we abandon the certainty and do that which is doubt.

(Tosafot on bAvodah Zarah 27b)

In other words, we can abandon the certainty in order to save life. In the one case, it is possible to discount the life that is left and use an idol worshipping physician (usually prohibited) because the ‘life of the hour’ is only life remaining to certain death. Whereas in the other case, where someone may or may not be alive beneath fallen rubble it is possible to violate the Shabbat because they have the ‘life of the hour remaining’. In both cases, the possibility of saving life is used as a heuristic with which to violate other normative legal principles. In tough cases, merely the possibility of saving a life can over-ride other options. Tough cases are those were there is not an easy answer but competing ideals – here the Talmud clearly positions itself on the side of possible life saving when up against the observance of Shabbat or the possibility of a malevolent physician.

Now it seems to me this is only applicable where death will be the eventual outcome without other action, not where the possibility of saving life is applied in an instance where you are already uncertain whether life may or may not be in danger in the first place. You see the difference – if death is certain and it is your action that is of doubtful benefit we are a world away from a scenario where both the probability of death is uncertain and the course of action has uncertain consequences. Notwithstanding the overarching principle of benefit must surely still be important.

This leads me to two questions: first of all, what if the possibility of saving life was applied to a scenario where you were not even sure if the individual’s life was in danger? Secondly, what if the possibility of saving a life was put up against an uncertain probability of other harm: for example, the possibility of an, as yet, anonymous individual gaining entry to the UK and, at best, being an economic migrant and, at worst, seeking to commit a heinous act of terror. How do we balance these competing ‘possibilities’?

Maybe we are just at the mercy of calculations of probabilities. But maybe those probabilities are ultimately incalculable.

In the Yerushalmi (yTerumot 8:4 46b) there is a discussion of a scenario in which marauders come to a group of Jews and demand that an un-named member of the party is handed over or they will all be killed. The legal ruling given is that if no specific person is named, then no-one should be handed over to the marauders. In other words, the betrayal of one person should not take place in the case where the perpetrators of the violence are targeting the group not an individual – even with the threat of killing the whole group. However, the text gets more complicated when discussing the same case, only this time the marauders demand a specific person who is either guilty or just identifiably named. In this scenario, the Talmud tentatively rules that the individual could be handed over to avoid the rest of the group being killed.

 תני סיעות בני אדם שהיו מהלכין בדרך ופגעו להן גוים ואמרו תנו לנו אחד מכם ונהרוג אותו ואם לאו הרי אנו הורגין את כולכ’ אפילו כולן נהרגין לא ימסרו נפש אחת מישראל ייחדו להן אחד כגון שבע בן בכרי ימסרו אותו ולא ייהרגו אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש והוא שיהא חייב מיתה כשבע בן בכרי ורבי יוחנן אמר אף על פי שאינו חייב מיתה כשבע בן בכרי

It is taught: A caravan of persons who were traveling on the road, whom non-Jews came across and said, ‘hand over to us one of you and we will kill him, and if not we will kill you all’: even if they will all be killed, they should not hand over one soul from Israel. But if they had designated one to them, like Sheva son of Bichri, they should deliver him and should not all be killed. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, ‘That is only if he is capitally liable like Sheva ben Bichri.’ And Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Even if he is not capitally liable like Sheva ben Bichri’.

This troubling dilemma (and parallels) is discussed at length by many scholars and notably by David Daube in his seminal work ‘Collaboration with Tyranny in Rabbinic Law’.

I want to read this complicated scenario in light of our earlier questions (even though admittedly the text does have more to do with betraying individuals to tyrannical regimes and possible acquiescence to minimal collaboration). Those questions were: What if you’re not even sure that someone is at certain risk of death? How do we balance the life of the individual before us in possible danger of death with the possibility of infiltration by unknown perpetrators of violence or abuse of our liberal democracy?

I don’t think there is a simple answer, but reading the Yerushalmi Talmud, I want to suggest it points towards an ideal in which you should not damn anybody just because you fear the possibility of one anonymous person causing harm. In other words, we don’t leave refugees languishing in peril because we think the unknown person next to them may be up to no good. It seems to me, when we see the refugees, on the whole, as part of ‘us’ and not ‘them’ – what we do when we ignore their plight is sacrifice the anonymous refugees for our own dubious calculation of self-preservation. The Talmud forbids handing the unidentified individual even at risk to our own well being. So providing we see the refugees as not ‘other’ but part of the complex way in which we feel bound to all of humankind – we cannot abandon them.

On the contrary, we have the capacity to check status, we should invest all our power in saving the individuals and closing down Calais. We should be determined to not cede the primacy of saving life on account of our own fears – however justified we think they are. We must take a risk and sponsor refugees to safety – doing nothing mistakenly thinking there is such a thing as status quo cannot be an option.

I would be interested in seeing how far this direction of discussion takes us. Because what I’m seeing in the Talmud is a trajectory away from damning the innocent individual just because you fear for your own general wellbeing. The Talmud resists collaboration with tyranny – such that even a slightly suspected (or guilty but not of capital offences) fellow traveller is not betrayed by the whole group. The individual is protected from the power of the majority collective self-interest. Certainties are not on the cards any longer, but probabilities, political tyranny and self-preservation are. We must take a risk – damnation for an innocent refugee is not justifiable because we fantasise that we may be over-run by terrorists or cannot confront a deep seated islamophobia which imagines western culture in battle with marauding muslim thought.

So what risk would we be prepared to take?