Thursday, December 9, 2010

WikiLeaks Public Interest, Trust, Subversion & Conscience in the Torah

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrote this week of his upbringing in a town that was small, where he learned to distrust Government that was big “if not watched carefully1”, he also claims that he has not endangered any lives. As I write, he sits in a jail cell because of “unrelated” allegations and has become a hero of freedom of speech. Focusing just on the cables rather than the military material, what are the ethical considerations relating to his actions and the person who supplied the information? There are four aspects to consider, 1) public good, 2) the rule of law, 3) trust, 4) the process by which one decides whether to sacrifice the latter for the former.

Public good interest in face saving
Judah when approaches the powerful man who holds his brothers life in his hands. Judah, not knowing it is Joseph, has some harsh things to say about Joseph's integrity2, and perhaps even that Joseph's interest in detaining Benjamin is driven not by a desire for justice but homosexual lust for the handsome Benjamin3. Judah is in a bind. If he loses, Benjamin remains as a slave in Egypt, but if he wins then the ruler and might have to kill him to save face4.

Judah, finds a way around this. “Please my master, let your servant speak a word in your ears, and not be angry with your servant as you are just like Pharaoh
5”. While the normal procedure is for a ruler to be addressed from further away with a circle of advisors sitting between the ruler and the supplicant, Judah requests permission to change the process and come right near the ruler and speak straight into his ear. This way, if the ruler loses the argument, no one heard and there is no loss of face6. Unless the whole thing turns up on Wikileaks a few months later.

Quality decision making
There is another layer to this. Judah also can be understood to be saying. You are just like Pharaoh and therefore fall under the principle of the “hearts of kings are in the hand of God”. If we discuss this privately you can do the right thing as per the divine guidance. If all your advisors hear it, there could be pressure to act not in accordance with the royal mind and divine guidance7. A lot is accomplished away from the limelight, where sensible compromises and back-downs can happen.

A damaging aspect of the leaking of diplomatic cables is the way it subverts the use of tact or flattery in the diplomatic communication. An instance of this is in Joseph handling the delicate task of trying to keep his family far away from the Pharaoh without offending him8. Our sages believed that sheep were an item of worship for the Egyptians9, possibly related to their worship of the zodiac symbol of Aries. If Pharaoh knows about Jacobs family occupation as shepherds, this will prompt him to keep him far away. Telling Pharaoh explicitly about this could be offensive, especially if Pharaoh knows or suspects that they want to stay away from him. Joseph therefore suggest that they avoid the word sheep, and talk about livestock more generally, and Pharaoh will read between the lines10.

The potential for exposure for good is also recognised.

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai is surrounded by his students on his deathbed. Teach us, our master they plead. One more lesson.

I imagine the Old master looking at them with perhaps one of those world weary looks that says I don't need to maintain appearances. “May your fear of heaven (God), be the same as your fear of men,” he says.

The students were initially disappointed, until they understood that when a man sins he is concerned that men should not see him.

On the public interest level then, depending on the varying circumstances, exposure either advances or damages the public interest.

Law vs. Conscience
The rule of law is greatly valued in the Torah. The Mishna states “pray for the peace of the monarchy, if not for the fear of it, each man would swallow his fellow alive.11” One of the seven commands for all people (the children of Noah) is to establish a system of laws and enforcement of these laws. Yet, law cannot be used as an excuse to act unjustly, our tradition is littered with heroic non-conformists. These include Abraham defying the idol worshiping consensus, midwives Shifra and Puah defying the murderous orders of Pharaoh to the violent non-state actors of the Chanukah story.

First ever Government (secret) anti-discrimination initiative
Joseph announced an ostensibly economic policy arising out of the Egyptian drought. After, desperate Egyptian citizens had sold their land to Pharaoh, Joseph orders all Egyptians to be moved around the country from one end to the other12. The only publicly stated social aspect of the policy, might have been transporting people by the cities, whole cities intact to new places, preserving community ties13. That's it, as far the Egyptian people were concerned.

The real story, is revealed not by Wikileaks at the time but in the Talmud 1500 years later. While not advocating a cover up, there is the suggestion that some would think this episode “ought to be burned, but the truth is that key ideas of the Torah are contained within it14”. This was actually an initiative motivated by great compassion for the fledgling Jewish people who faced the prospect of being degraded as “exiles15”. People who never experienced being a stranger and a migrant cannot empathise with the pain of the stranger, nor are they likely to care. For this purpose, it is suggested, that Joseph transferred people so that they would all be strangers in land that is not theirs16.

Joseph faced a conflicts of interest no smaller than that of the US government employee who had to decide to follow his conscience or keep trust with his government. Does Joseph pursue his government and kings interest, or his idea of justice? Joseph would have been very aware of the bigoted society he lived in, which only a short time later would enslave the Hebrews. Even before that, Egyptians could not even share a meal with the Hebrews17 as the people from the other side of the river disgusting to them18. His efforts fails to prevent the discrimination but that does not detract from the morality of his choice. 

While the topic generally, is a difficult one. It seems that in leaking the cables, two opposite conclusions are plausible depending on the specific contents of the particular cable.  Some cables deal with dishonesty of governments or Multi-national companies and serve a genuine public purpose.  On the other hand, other cables are likely to cause  damage to the process of government decision making, and humiliation of some public figures for little of no public gain. Like so many issues, there are strong arguments and elements of truth on both sides of the argument and the correct path hard to find. Assange argued in the Australian for the need not to trust big government, I think we need to be equally mistrustful of big agendas and grand certainties. 

1Julian Assange, the Australian,
2Rashi, quoting Beresheet Rabba, Genesis 44:18, in his commentary on “you are just like Pharaoh”, interpreted as “you do not keep your word just as Pharaoh does not”
3Beresheet Rabba 93, in Torah Shelaima, based again on “you are just like Pharaoh”, meaning “you are lecherous just as he is”.
4Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 44:18, referring to the Talmudic story of “Bar Ketia, who is told, you won against the king! And anyone who beats the king....”
5Genesis 44:18
6Ohr Hachayim, ibid
8Klei Yakar Genesis 46:32
9Targum Oonkelus Genesis 43:32, Rashi and others.
10Klei Yakar, ibid
11Pirkey Avot
12Genesis 47:21
13Haamek Davar, Luzato quoted in Studies by Nechama Lebovitz
14Talmud, Chulin, 60.
15Rashi, Genesis 47:21
16Klei Yakar, ibid
17Genesis 43:32
18Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot Genesis 46:34


  1. I suppose that having the information (that Wikileaks supplies) may server 2 purposes: (1) allow us to be better informed, of course that assumes that we use lessons in the holy texts and read them in the context in which they were written (private diplomatic opinion), and (2) reminds people in positions of power to be more truthful and accurate in their correspondence.

  2. Thanks Gary. I think the operative point is that while 2 is possible, 1 requires a level of responsibility that is too often absent. I discussed this in my "Shiur" this afternoon and modified my conclusion accordingly.