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Enemies, morality, and our new Chief of Staff

Despite efforts to discredit Yair Golan for Chief of Staff, Jews have always considered morality an issue in fighting wars

The current campaign to derail Yair Golan’s candidacy for Chief of Staff of the IDF has brought into relief the issue of what we call in Hebrew, tohar haneshek – purity of arms. The notion standing behind this term is that there are limits to legitimate use of force even in a military conflict. In the controversy over Golan’s candidacy, a number of his statements about legitimate use of force have been revisited. For example, Golan has said that it is illegitimate to mow down an apartment building full of innocent women and children to prevent a risk to Israeli soldiers. Are those who are condemning Golan suggesting that this is an acceptable tactic? Would they legitimate this for any level of risk? This extreme and simplistic discourse grates against some fundamental statements of Jewish war ethics. A full exploration of this issue is beyond the purview of this short piece. Here we will just explore some snippets that hopefully will demonstrate the pedigree of Golan’s concerns.

For example, the Midrash’s comments about Jacob’s reunion with his brother Esau provide us with a complex and nuanced set of concerns. The Torah tells us that on the eve of their meeting, “Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed.” (Genesis 32:8) Last Jacob saw him, Esau was out for murder. Of course, Jacob was afraid for his life when he approached his brother for the first time in twenty years. And yet, the Rabbis wondered why the Torah used two terms to express Jacob’s fear — he was “greatly afraid (ויירא)” and “distressed (ויצר).”  They explained that besides his fear for his own life, Jacob was distressed about the possibility of taking Esau’s life.

This concern for the welfare of our enemies does not find a voice only in the Rabbinic period when it could be argued that such statements had no practical import. Even in the modern reality of the state of Israel where these matters have extremely concrete ramifications, great Rabbinic voices spoke in these terms. In the midst of Israel’s war of independence, Rabbi Yehuda Amital published one of the first pragmatic monographs on war and Jewish law in modern times. While regretting that he could not fully address them, R. Amital touched upon these issues. He emphasized that every human being is created in the image of God; therefore, he declared that enemy corpses and captives must be treated with appropriate respect. In later years, R. Amital referred to the writings of Israel’s first chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, to set the bar for these types of concerns.

Rabbi Goren in the first chapter of his collection of responsa on war – Meshiv Milchama – emphasizes the sanctity of all human life, even the enemy’s. He states that it is forbidden to kill enemy combatants if there is no military necessity; it is likewise forbidden to kill noncombatants. In a fascinating responsum, R. Goren justified the IDF’s decision to allow the PLO to flee from the siege on Beirut because in his understanding, halakhah demands that the enemy always be given an opportunity to flee for their lives. Rabbi Amital and Rabbi Goren, pioneers in recreating a Jewish ethic of war in modern times, were clear in expressing the legitimacy of restraint of force to protect innocent civilians and even combatants.

What is the proper balance between avoiding harm to enemy combatants and non-combatants and protecting our own lives? Obviously the dominant and primary concern must be for self-defense, yet that primacy should not excuse complete disregard for all other human life. Reasonable minds can disagree over the degree of this sensitivity, but complete rejection of it runs counter to the deep strain of Jewish war ethics outlined above.

It seems to me that this nuanced approach should be that backdrop upon which we evaluate Yair Golan’s statements regarding risks to Israeli soldiers vs. Palestinian civilians. Only those in the know can judge his overall suitability for the role of IDF Chief of Staff. Here we are only concerned with the public discourse around his statements that some have found controversial. His calls of concern for the lives of bystanders and for restraint in using force seem to be a legitimate echo of Jacob’s “distress” over taking any life. I would hope that every Jew would share in this concern, and certainly a general in the IDF which prides itself on its morality. The question then should be, is his concern properly balanced with a profound dedication to the protection of the people of Israel from its enemies. His public record of service in the IDF would seem to suggest just that.

About the Author
Ross Singer served as a rabbi in the US and Canada before making aliya with his family in 2010. He currently lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa with his wife and four children and works as a tour guide and educator.
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