Ben Rothke

Book review – Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality

There is a UPS commercial from years back with two consultants proposing a solution to a client. When the client informs them that he wants them to do the work, they embarrassingly and incredulously reply, “We don’t actually do what we propose; we just propose it.”

That approach is repeated in Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody’s superb book Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality (Maggid Books). The analogy is that from the United Nations to other countries, countless advisory groups propose how war should be done, how it is to be carried out, and more. Yet they do this from pristine meeting rooms in picturesque locations like Geneva without having a clue about the realities and facts on the ground.

Civil War general William Sherman observed the ages when he said war is hell. What Brody makes eminently clear in this groundbreaking book is that war is quite complex, too. Whether at the political level or within halachic decision-making, the choices are rarely binary. Instead, there are many levels of complexity with competing values.

In countless case studies and historical overviews, the book lays the groundwork on how wars have been done, how they should have been done in hindsight, and the often double standard Israel faces.

Brody writes that if there is anything the exilic experience teaches us, is that Jews must be willing to do what it takes to protect themselves. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik brilliantly articulated this in Kol Dodi Dofek, where two of the themes he discusses are the importance of the modern State of Israel and the role of Zionism in American Orthodox. The Rav noted that when God smote the Egyptians, He sought to demonstrate that there will always be accountability for the spilling of Jewish blood.

The question then becomes by what means Jews will employ to prove that Jewish blood isn’t cheap. Sovereignty brings with it responsibility both towards one’s own people and their enemies. This creates countless, often intractable, halachic and moral dilemmas for which there are usually no clear-cut answers.

Rabeinu Chaim HaKohen, one of the ba’alei ha’Tosfos) says in Gemara Kesuvos that while there is a mitzvah to live in Israel, it does not apply nowadays since it is so difficult to properly fulfill all of the mitzvot that apply in Israel. That difficulty was mended by the Chazon Ish who codified the requirements.

When it comes to creating an army, Israel faced that same dilemma given that there were simply no halachic discussions on practical armed services Jewish law. Brody writes in the introduction that this is the first book to offer a systematic perspective on Jewish military ethics. And that includes challenging topics such as collective warfare, revenge, giving people a fourth way out during battle, and more.

One thing that has significantly hampered Israel’s ability to defend itself is Protocol I (also known as Additional Protocol I or AP/1), which is a 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions that details the protection of civilian victims of international war. Israel, along with the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Turkey; are the only countries that did not sign onto AP/1.

One could almost call AP/1 the Hamas Protection Act. Taken at face value, AP/1 would require Israel to turn the other cheek against Hamas attacks. Hamas breaks every rule of warfare and moral obligation when it embeds itself within schools and hospitals, and amongst civilians. Yet Hamas and its defenders will use AP/1 to contemptuously accuse Israel of excessive force. And those who use it to support Hamas have turned international law into a weapon for the terrorists.

The United States and Israel were quite prescient in refusing to sign AP/1 as it incentivizes groups like Hamas to use human shields against their enemies. AP/1 removes the onus of protecting civilians from the defender, who has greater control of their home field, and places it onto the attacker, who has significantly less control of the battle zone.

Hamas is a textbook example of a terrorist group using unconventional warfare. Many international laws and protocols presume state actors do military acts, and these laws and protocols were often effective deterrents. But with nonstate actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, these deterrents don’t exist. As Israel argued in 1981, international norms formulated at the beginning of the Cold War must be rethought in light of newer types of weapons and threats.

Israel is perhaps the only country in the Middle East that considers ethics when it comes to its military initiatives. Brody writes that the concern for ethics and world opinion has many times cost the lives of Israeli soldiers. He writes of numerous instances where ethical and world considerations got in the way of what would seemingly be no-brainer military activities. Which ultimately would cost Israeli lives.

Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet when it comes to wars and conflicts, a wise decision in one historical moment might be perilous at another, and it’s unclear which variables determine that outcome. That is the challenge Israel has long faced, and the book gives numerous examples of where Israel fell into these predicaments.

In providing a comprehensive overview of the ethical and moral approach the IDF puts into its activities, Brody has written a masterful defense of the IDF. And how they are unique in their approach to conducting war and military activities. Yet with all of those ethical considerations, Israel still finds itself being accused of military genocide.

This is a fascinating book on numerous topics, including military history, ethics, halacha, and more. Brody accomplished his goal by writing a work that gives the reader a complete perspective on Jewish military ethics. War is hell and quite bloody. But Brody has shown that for the IDF, it too can be a Kiddush HaShem. May God bless all of the soldiers of the IDF success and that they return safely.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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