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Jewish Battlefield Ethics

In recent weeks, Israel has been defamed, de-legitimized, and demonized in the media on college campuses and by the international community for the ‘heinous crime’ of defending herself from those who seek to destroy her.

Unfortunately this is not the first time Israel has been accused of war crimes. Following 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel was accused of crimes against humanity and violations of international law.

But Israel’s army has also been called “the most moral army in the world” by Colonel Richard Kemp, a decorated British officer who served as commander of all British forces in Afghanistan. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 in 2014, Kemp went on to say that, “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone.”

And a report issued after Protective Edge by high-level military officials, including top generals from the US and Europe, found that “Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza Conflict met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.” They wrote, “It is our view that Israel fought an exemplary campaign, adequately conceived with appropriately limited objectives, displaying both a very high level of operational capability as well as a total commitment to the Law of Armed Conflict. The IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded these on the battlefield at significant tactical cost, as well as in the humanitarian relief efforts that accompanied its operation.”

Israel carries out strategic airstrikes, targeting Hamas’ leadership and military installations. The IDF gives warning through phone calls, text messages, the dropping leaflets, and ‘roof knocking,’  in order to evacuate an area or building that is about to be hit. During the current war, Israel is urging Gazans to evacuate in order to prevent the loss of innocent life. While at the same time Hamas intentionally targets civilians, brutally murdering innocent men, women, and children – young and old – and indiscriminately launching rockets into Israel. Hamas uses human shields, intentionally placing Gazans – women and children – in the line of fire, as more casualties means more support for their cause. They understand that today, war is fought not only on the battlefield – but on the battlefield of public opinion and social media. It is a battle of hearts and minds.

The IDF’s code of ethics, Tohar ha-Neshek (lit. Purity of Arms), provides its soldiers with the ‘rules of engagement.’ Among the basic values articulated in its ‘The Spirit of the IDF’ is: “The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position,” and, “The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

But what are the Torah’s Battlefield Ethics? What are the rules of engagement according to the Jewish Law? Is there an obligation to minimize civilian casualties? 

Jewish Law is clear that one has the obligation to defend and protect and preserve his life and the lives of others. The mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh, saving life, takes precedence over all the mitzvot in the Torah except for three. As the Talmud teaches, “ ‘And you should live by them’ – and not die by them”  (Sanhedrin 74a). 

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 8:7) states that a Rodef, one pursuing his fellow in order to murder him, is to be killed before he has the opportunity to murder. Concerning a burglar who tunnels into a home, the Talmud teaches, “If someone comes to kill you, rise to kill him [first]” (Sanhedrin 72a).

As Jews, we are merciful, the children of the merciful. It would seem against our very nature to be cruel, even to terrorists or combatants. But in war, showing mercy when the times call for a show of force is also wrong: “Rabbi Elazar said, all who show mercy to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the merciful” (Tanhuma, Metzora 1).

In fact, all those who have the ability to save a life, but instead do nothing, are in violation of “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow,” and, “Your eye shall not show pity” (Rambam, Hil. Rotze’ah 1:14-15. Cf. Sanhedrin 73a).

But the Torah also prescribes a code of conduct, even in times of war. Deut. 23:10 instructs: “When your camp goes forth against your enemies, keep yourself far from every evil thing.” Ramban (ad loc.) comments: “The Torah is warning of a time when sin is commonplace. The well-known custom of military forces going to war is that they eat all abominable things, rob and plunder, and are not ashamed even of lewdness and all vileness. The most upright of men by nature comes to be possessed of cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy. Therefore, the verse warned, ‘When your camp goes forth against your enemies, keep yourself far from every evil thing.’”

 It has been said, ‘All is fair in love and war.’ Our Torah understands human nature and the breakdown of the very basic moral fiber which can take place on the battlefield.

In his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam invokes the verse, “Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23:15), and writes, “…unlike the camps of the gentiles, dedicated to nothing more than corruption and crime, harming others and stealing their property, our objective is to prime people for the worship of God and regularize their situation.” 

According to Rambam, we are different. Our camp is “holy.” This informs our very attitude towards war.

The Torah instructs that before Israel wages war, they must first offer peace (Deut. 20:10-12; Rambam, Hil. Melakhim 6:1). Sefer ha-Hinukh provides the reason: “Among the rationales of the commandment is the fact that the quality of mercy is a positive one and it is appropriate that we, the holy seed, employ it in all of our matters, even with our idolatrous enemies, for our own advantage, not because they deserve mercy or loving kindness… And there is no advantage in killing them, as they are willing to bear our conquest, so that by doing so there should be no corruption or anything that might show that we are cruel, causing all who hear to curse us” (Mitzvah no. 527).

Our Torah also prohibits attacking innocent women and children (See Rambam, Hil. Melakhim 6:4).

Ramban, in his commentary to Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, writes: “We are commanded that when we besiege a city, we must leave one of the sides un-besieged, so that if they want to flee, there will be an escape route, because through this we learn to act mercifully even towards enemies in a time of war.” (Forgotten Positive Commands,  no. 5). 

According to Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, however, the obligation to leave one of the sides of a city open and allow for people to escape applies only in a Milhemet Reshut, an ‘Optional War,’ i.e. a conquest fought to expand Israel’s borders. But concerning a Milhemet Mitzvah, a ‘Mandatory War’ fought to preserve Jewish life, Rabbi Yisraeli writes, “We do not find the obligation in war to distinguish between blood and blood. In the course of war, when laying siege to a city and the like, there is no obligation to make such distinctions” (Teshuvot Amud ha-Yemini, 16). For Rabbi Yisraeli, in a Milhemet Mitzvah there is no obligation to try and reduce casualties, potentially placing Israeli soldiers in harm’s way. It is the preservation of Jewish life which takes priority.

But Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as both Chief Rabbi of the IDF and later Chief Rabbi of Israel, disagreed and concluded that when possible we must try and minimize civilian casualties. He wrote, “Despite the explicit Torah commandment regarding battle, we are also commanded to have mercy upon our enemy, to refrain from killing even during times of war unless necessitated for reasons of self-defense in order to achieve the objective of conquest and victory, and not to harm a non-combatant population, and it is especially prohibited to harm women and children who are not taking part in the war” (Meishiv Milhamah, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, p. 14).

It is the opinion of Rabbi Goren and others which guides the IDF today.

War is ugly. And unfortunately there are always civilian casualties. That is the nature of war. But unlike our enemies, the IDF makes every effort to minimize civilian casualties. Israel’s army is a Kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s Holy Name – that other armies can learn from.

About the Author
Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as Rabbi of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef, Rosh Kollel of the Sinai Kollel and Hovevei Zion's Kollel Boker.
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