The Jewish Obligation of Self-Defense: The Morality Of Israel’s War In Gaza

In the Jewish Tradition, there is a transcending ethical value known as “Pikuach Nefesh,” normally translated as “Saving Life.”  The principle states that virtually every law of Judaism must be suspended in order to protect one’s own health and life.

As a corollary, the Jewish ethic of “self-defense” is a primary human obligation.  If one is faced with a “Pursuer” seeking to do one harm, one is required to do anything necessary to protect oneself.  One is to use the minimum force necessary to stop the “Pursuer,” but one is obligated to use as much force as is required to protect oneself.

The Jewish Tradition extends this right of self-defense to the taking of the Pursuer’s life.

In the Jewish Tradition, taking a life is a cosmic tragedy. But it is, tragically, sometimes necessary when faced with a Pursuer bent on one’s own destruction.

This painful human reality should be part of every American’s understanding when coming face to face with the agonizing pain of Palestinian suffering in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.  The images we see daily on American television scream out for the violent madness to end!

Sadly, however, there are few in the American media who tell the truth about the carnage we see on our screens: that Hamas is a “Pursuer” and that — as terrible as the death of Palestinian children is — Israel is wholly justified in its defensive actions in Gaza.  The moral responsibility for every Palestinian casualty does not belong to Israel, but belongs solely on the head of Hamas.

The outrage expressed over the death of Palestinian civilians in Gaza should be directed at Hamas, as well as at all those who facilitated Hamas’s barbaric reign of terror over both Israel and the Palestinian people.

Moral culpability for every Palestinian casualty rests with those nations who have been too cowardly to call for Hamas’s destruction, including the Obama Administration which stood by, silently, giving tacit permission to Hamas to fire more than 1,000 rockets across Israel’s sovereign border and into the civilian population of America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East.

When Barack Obama was first running for president in 2008, he visited Israel and toured Sderot, then under fire from Hamas in Gaza.  Candidate Obama stated the obvious, saying, “I think that no country would accept missiles landing on the heads of its citizens,” and went on to articulate the ethical imperative guiding Israel today: “if missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.”

Israel is doing less than everything. Israel is doing its best to minimize civilian casualties, taking unprecedented steps to warn civilians of impending strikes and actually aborting missions when civilians are identified in the area.  Mistakes occur in the fog of war; but Israel has proven time and time again that civilians are never the target of Israeli actions.

In an obscene display of moral sophistry, some commentators have actually suggested that Hamas is in a superior moral position because so few of its 3,000 rockets have successfully killed Israeli civilians, while Israeli air and ground forces have successfully taken the lives of Palestinian civilians.  Indeed, Hamas leader Khaled Meshall made this very point on CNN this Sunday asking, “How many Israeli civilians did our rockets kill?  Meanwhile, how many Palestinian civilians has Israel killed?  We kill soldiers, combatants — while they kill civilians.”

It is not for lack of trying that Hamas has not killed more Israelis.  As long as Hamas is firing rockets that could kill Israelis, and as long as Hamas is operating tunnels with which to murder and kidnap Israeli civilians, Israelis have a moral obligation to crush Hamas.

Ari Shavit, perhaps the most celebrated author on the American Jewish scene today (My Promised Land), as well as being one of the most highly respected Israeli journalist among those on the left, wrote a stunning column in Haaretz with the English title, “In This Sad War Story, Israel Is In The Right.”  The English subtitle of the piece was, “Those who are even slightly forgiving of Hamas are cooperating with a fanatically religious tyrannical dictator.  Hamas are Palestinian neo-Nazis.”  In the body of the piece, Shavit describes Hamas as “war criminals” and warns readers to “show no empathy for the evil they represent.”

Appearing last week on both Shalom TV and on MSNBC, Shavit had a clear and simple message: as complicated as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be, the battle between Hamas and Israel is one of “good” vs “evil.”

On Shalom TV, Shavit went to great pains to explain that when one sees Palestinian deaths on American television — which is tragic — we are seeing Hamas’s real strategy.  It is not, Shavit argues, that Hamas wants simply to kill Israeli civilians.  Hamas’s ultimate strategy is to have Palestinian civilians killed in order to engender public sympathy.

“It’s not that (Hamas) is using (their civilians) as human shields.  Their actual aim is to have hundreds of Palestinians killed by Israel.  That’s the real war-game they are playing.”

One need not rely on Israeli journalists for this perspective.  Hamas leaders proudly announce their objective as Hamas minister Hathi Hammad proclaimed on Hamas television in 2008:

“For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land.  The elderly excel at this, and so do the mujahideen and the children.  This is why they have formed human shields of women, the children, the elderly and the mujahideen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine.  It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: ‘We desire death like you desire life.'”

Is the death of Palestinian children tragic?                                           Of course.

Should Israel stop its campaign.                                                          Of course not.

Not until Hamas, the “Pursuer,” either stops pursuing or is destroyed.  Until then, Israel has every moral right and obligation to continue its operation.

Commentators often fail to mention that not one additional Palestinian child would die if Hamas were to stop its rocket assault on Israel and destroy its network of tunnels.  Instead, all we see and hear is the rising Palestinian death toll and visuals which tear at one’s heart,  suggesting that Israel is guilty of the wanton slaughter of women and children.

Does anyone doubt for a moment that Israel would cease all air and ground fire in Gaza if Hamas stopped its rocket fire and destroyed its tunnels?

Anyone “sickened” by the images on American television must remember that Hamas has the power to stop the killing any time it wishes.  If Hamas refuses to put an end to its rocket and tunnel assault on Israel, Palestinian civilians will be continue to be its casualties of war.

Is Israel losing the public relations battle, as NBC’s David Gregory asked on Meet The Press?


But it would be far less likely to lose the battle if television reporters framed the story accurately, explaining that Israel is doing exactly what Barack Obama said he would do if his family lived in Sderot — protect Israeli children from the Hamas Pursuer. Israel has nothing to apologize for in its efforts to stop the Hamas assault.

And whether Israel wins the PR battle or not, if it succeeds in putting an end, for however long, to Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks, it will have fulfilled its Jewish and humanitarian obligation to do whatever is necessary to protect itself from an evil Pursuer.


About the Author
Mark S. Golub is the President and Executive Producer of America's television network, JBS, which is a PBS-style Jewish channel available on various television providers, Roku and online ( and YouTube JBSTV). Named by Newsweek magazine one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, Mark is a graduate HUC-JIR in New York City ('72) and leads an independent chavurah in Connecticut which he founded in 1972. Mark is a graduate of Columbia College ('67) where he served as President of Seixas Menorah and as General Manager of WKCR-FM & AM while producing the longest running talk show in the station's history. During his rabbinic studies, Mark became the first assistant editor of Sh'ma magazine. After ordination, Mark became the Editorial Director and Director of Public Affairs for WMCA Radio in New York, then the leading telephone-talk station in the country. In 1979, Mark created Jewish Education in Media, Inc. (JEM) and the producer/host of its radio magazine, L'Chayim, which has not missed a Sunday since its premiere in 1979. L'Chayim's guest list reads like a "Who's Who" in the Jewish world and moved to television in 1990. In 1991, Mark created the first Russian language channel on American television, The Russian Television Network of America (RTN), to serve the needs of the Russian-speaking community of America. RTN has evolved into Russian Media Group, LLC which now licenses RTN to cable companies throughout America and Canada, and nationally distributes its own package of Russian channels to Russian speaking families throughout America. In 2006, Mark became the president and CEO of Shalom TV, the first Jewish network to be part of an American cable system's lineup of channel offerings (Comcast). Shalom TV has been renamed "Jewish Broadcasting Service" (JBS) and is now a 24/7 channel seen on such major television providers as Cablevision, RCN, Atlantic Broadband, Metrocast, Century Link and Google Fiber. When Mark is not producing television, he and his brother David produce Broadway shows and have won three Tony Awards ((The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Vanya, Sasha, Masha and Spike. Mark is married to Ruth Ellen Gelman who is his partner in all his endeavors. They have five children and three grandchildren.