David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

A second Nakba, and there’s no evading responsibility

Image grab from AFPTV video footage shows Palestinians looking for survivors in a crater following a strike in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 31, 2023. (Fadi Alwhidi/AFP)

Many people, Israelis included, admit that Israel is pursuing its war against Gaza and Hamas in a way that violates tohar ha-neshek, the “purity of arms” doctrine. In theory, tohar ha-neshek requires Israel to calibrate its use of force against an enemy in order to protect civilian lives. Not living up to that doctrine is why Biden balked at sending some heavy munitions to Israel.

The Torah has something to say about this: “Before a blind person you will not place a stumbling block” (Lev. 19:14). Sefer Hachinukh, a compendium of all the commandments from 13th century Spain, explained that this commandment (#232) forbids selling weapons, or anything that can harm many people, to non-Jews or to Jewish criminals. The only exception is “to sell weapons to non-Jews so that they can defend us.” (See Hebrew below.)

How ironic that we ended up reading that verse in the same week that President Joe Biden decided to delay the transfer of 2000 pound bombs to Israel, because it might be too dangerous, because it might cause harm to too many people, if Israel were to use them.

Biden’s action was condemned by those who claim to be “pro-Israel,” because any limitation placed on Israel’s freedom of military action is seen as an existential threat to Israel’s existence. But we have known since the beginning that the IDF is not following all the laws of war that require protecting civilians.

How do we know this? Even from the beginning of the war, Israel was bombing areas it had told civilians to evacuate from, before they had enough time to evacuate. How else do we know this? Think a moment: three hostages, stripped to the waist and waving a white flag, were shot dead by IDF soldiers. Yes, it was a horrendous mistake, in a battlefield full of enemies hiding behind and pretending to be non-combatants. But if the three people who died were Palestinian civilians waving a white flag, the incident would have gone unnoticed, and the dead blamed.

Can anyone doubt that such incidents have occurred? As many as seven to ten times the number of people have been killed in this war than in the second intifada or the 2014 Gaza War.* More than twenty times as many as the first intifada, and four times as many as in 1948. More than the total number that were injured in the 2018-2019 Great March of Return. Even by the IDF’s count, as many as two thirds of the people killed are civilians.**

The need to destroy Hamas’s capacity to carry out its murderous evil is powerful, so much so that any method of attack and level of destruction starts to seem justified. There’s little question that this has affected the IDF. That seems incompatible with the fact that there are people who would be most concerned about hurting innocents, who are serving right now as IDF soldiers (I know some of them), but the evidence is abundant.

How else do we know that the IDF is not following its own ideals? How many times have we now heard about soldiers humiliating Palestinians and making videos of them that are condemned by the IDF itself. Can we not smell that there is moral rot? How else do we know this? Attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank by extremist settlers, with soldiers by their side, have quadrupled, along with destruction of water tanks and cars, killing of sheep and olive trees, slogans grafittied and shouted at Palestinians villagers: “Leave or we will kill you!” Even worse, settlers have actively tried to destroy food shipments into Gaza, and the army has not stopped them.

How else do we know this? Operation Golden Hand, which involved rescuing two hostages from the Shaboura neighborhood in Rafah, created a diversion to cover its attack by bombing houses in other neighborhoods. Over 90 Palestinians died, some were militants, but two-thirds were children or women, and whole families were obliterated, many of whom did not even live directly alongside the hostages being rescued. How could anyone tell Israel not to rescue its hostages? And yet, what could one say to the families that were wiped out in order to create a diversion?

How else do we know this? The killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers was not by a single bomb. There were three trucks. When the IDF struck the first truck, the wounded were moved by their colleagues into one of the other trucks. Then the second truck was struck, and again WCK workers moved everyone still alive into the third truck. And yet, the IDF soldier in charge of sending the missiles struck again, killing every last one of the aid workers. Each time, the person directing those smart bombs had to decide to continue the attack.

How else do we know this? In Sde Teiman, a makeshift prison encampment where captured Palestinian men have been sent to be vetted in order to root out Hamas militants, people are interned for weeks, blindfolded with their wrists tied. According to the testimony of doctors and nurses who have worked in the prison camp, some captives have had their hands so injured by the zip ties and ensuing untreated infections that these medical staff have had to amputate prisoners’ hands.

How else do we know this? The IDF for the first time has been using artificial intelligence to identify targets for assassination in Gaza, while accepting an alarmingly high rate of misidentification, far higher than in any previous war. Human oversight of the AI targeting amounts to less than a minute of checking before approving a missile strike against someone who may only have a similar name to someone in Hamas.

This area of warfare is too new to have any defined laws about how it may be conducted, but it is almost certain that after this war, when such laws get codified, they will need to outlaw or limit exactly what the IDF has been doing.

There are a million psychological excuses people make for how far the IDF seems to have gone off course away from the ethics of warfare. The ongoing suffering of the hostages makes it compelling to focus only on Israeli trauma, and not on the trauma inflicted on Palestinian civilians. And of course, Hamas has intentionally baited Israel to take exactly such a course of action, by the viciousness of its attack and by embedding its military assets and soldiers among civilians, in schools and hospitals, in every place and every way that could bring catastrophe on Palestinians and calumny upon Israel.

We know that we have lost our way when most Jewish people who see themselves as “pro-Israel” blame Hamas for every death, no matter how egregious were the errors made or actions taken by the IDF.***

But is that how we really imagine things work on a moral plane? Do we really want Israel to transgress human rights exactly the way Hamas has set Israel up to do? How long will “pro-Israel” Jews continue to declare that Israel’s moral responsibility is lifted because of the viciousness of Hamas’s initial attack? Have we fallen so far as to make such vacant and empty moral arguments that would put any thinking person to shame?

Given that that is exactly how people continue to justify the IDF’s lapses, how is anyone shocked that Biden would temporarily delay the delivery of 2,000 pound bombs, bombs that cannot in any way be used in population centers without wiping out vast numbers of civilians? Delivering those bombs, just as Israel ratchets up its attack on Rafah, would be putting a stumbling block before the blind, just as Sefer Chinukh teaches. Indeed, a great proportion of the Jewish people are currently “blind,” in just the way that Sefer Chinukh imagines non-Jews to be.

Sefer Chinukh has more to say about this mitzvah. It explains, “The root of the mitzvah to not put a stumbling block before the blind is known, for its purpose is tikkun ha’olam v’yishuvo — setting right the world and settling it, which means guiding people and giving them good advice, in every area of action.”

There is no way to be pro-Israel in any real sense now, without raising our voices to bring sanity. Good advice means bringing pressure to reach a ceasefire now. What started out as a catastrophic trauma against Israel’s people, has become an even greater catastrophe for the Palestinians — some are even calling it a second Nakba. And that catastrophe has turned into a catastrophe for the state of Israel and for the whole Jewish people as well.

Postscript: the civilian deaths in Rafah since this article was published, caused by two separate incidents of inappropriately-used munitions, only prove further that the IDF is failing to protect civilian lives.


*  On counting the number of dead: The UN recently revised the death toll estimates based on the Hamas Health Ministry, which has been found to be accurate in past wars (as opposed to the Hamas media office, which lies). The total number of dead has not been revised — it’s still over 35,000. But the number of women and children killed has been revised down from 69% to “only” 52%. If half the dead are still women and children, a significant number of the men killed are also civilians, since whole families are dying, not just women and children separate from the men. Thus the estimate of civilians killed might range from 20,000-28,000. And this is consistent with IDF estimates that only one in three of the dead are Hamas.

** More recently, Israel’s government has claimed that only half of the people killed were civilians, but given the proportion of women and children, this is almost certainly an attempt to stave off protest against the war, and not a reflection of actual casualties.

*** Some people have made such claims in obvious incidents like the deaths of the aid workers, which even Netanyahu and the IDF leadership called a grave mistake. Of course fatal mistakes regularly happen in war, but these kinds of mistakes suggest that rules of engagement have been widely relaxed.

Sefer Hachinukh #232:

רל״ב: שלא להכשיל תם בדרך…שנאמר: ״וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל״ (ויקרא יט:יד)… שורש המצוה ידוע, כי תיקון העולם ויישובו הוא להדריך בני אדם ולתת להם בכל מעשיהם עצה טובה… וכן מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (עבודה זרה טו, ב) שאסור למכור כל כלי מלחמה וכל דבר שיש בו נזק לרבים, אלא אם כן מוכרן כי היכי דמגנו עלן, וכן אסור למוכרו לישראל המוכרו לגוי, וכן לישראל ליסטים, ואסרו הכל משום ולפני עור

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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