Lazer Gurkow

Lech Lecha: On the Question of Human Shields

The question of human shields has been in the news a lot these past few weeks. As Israel responds to the heinous massacre of innocent civilians, men, women, and children, perpetrated by the sub-human Hamas terrorists, it is being accused of targeting innocent civilians.

Some of these accusers are the very people who were quick to blame Israel for Hamas’s atrocities even as the atrocities were ongoing. In my mind, these people have lost all credibility. Anything they say going forward is capricious and without merit. I don’t take them seriously. They are not after facts. They are propagating their own agenda.

It is rich to be lectured on the value and sanctity of human life by nations that were involved or stood idly by while six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. It is ironic to be accused of causing a holocaust in Gaza only days after Hamas murdered and tortured more Jews in one day than have been killed since the Holocaust. It is a sport for them. Hit Jews when Jews are down. When we are in pain, blame us. Never sympathize. Never consider us human. Just stick to your script and propaganda.

Is it not ironic that Jews, who taught the world about the sanctity of human life, are being lectured on this sanctity by murderers? Hamas accuses Israel of war crimes. Did you hear that? Hamas, the people who attacked innocent families, murdered them whole, abducted babies and the elderly, burned innocent civilians alive and to a crisp to the point that they can’t even be identified, accuses Israel of genocide and war crimes?

Hamas was quick to blame Israel for bombing a hospital when it turned out they had bombed it themselves, albeit inadvertently. But get this. While people around the world were quick to point out that this is a war crime of the worst magnitude, there was stunning silence when Hamas targeted the Barzilai Hospital in Israel with rockets on October 8, only several days earlier.

Hamas denies that it targeted women and children after they recorded and published these atrocities on their GoPro cameras. Now, Hamas had the audacity to deny it. What’s worse is that protestors around the world accept this bald-faced lie as truth.

And you have to love it when Vladimir Putin accuses Israel of war crimes and dehumanizing attacks after he targets and carpet-bombs civilians in Ukraine. Oh, I forgot, he, too, denies his wrongdoings. Then there is the United Nations. Don’t even get me started on the United Nations.

I am sure you get my point. Jews are under no obligation to respond to and to fend off such allegations. Yet, I will respond anyway because there are many Jews who read and watch these allegations and take them at face value. It is important that rabbis and Jewish leaders present the Jewish view.

Jews hate to kill, even in self-defense. We have no choice but to kill in defense of innocent lives. Jewish law is unequivocal about this. If you witness someone pursuing another with intent to kill, you must kill the pursuer to save the prospective victim. Jews have an obligation to kill every terrorist who pursues Jewish lives with the intent to kill. In other words, every terrorist.

Though we are under obligation to kill, we do it with a very heavy heart. In this week’s Parshah we read that Abraham got involved in a war to liberate his nephew, who was taken captive and held hostage. Abraham was triumphant and released his nephew, but during this war, he was forced to kill many.

After the war, G-d appeared to Abraham and told him to have no fear. Our sages explain that G-d was referring to Abraham’s fear that he would be punished for the killing he had done. He had no choice, yet he hated to kill. G-d told him, Abraham, have no fear. You will not be punished for this.

Golda Meir is reputed to have said that we could forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. This is not in the nature of Jews. Therefore, when world leaders accuse Jews of killing innocent civilians in Gaza, Jews are naturally prone to accept the blame and feel the guilt. This was Abraham’s response. This is the prototypical Jewish response.

But Israel is not to blame; Hamas is. Israel would have been to blame had they targeted civilians and carpet bombed them as Putin did in Ukraine and as Hamas does every day to Israel with their rockets. Israel would have been to blame if they did to Gaza what Hamas did to Israel on October 7.

Israel targets legitimate military locations from which terror is exported to our people. Wiping out command cells, weapons factories, terror safe houses, rocket launchers, and weapons depots is an obligation. It is part of destroying the pursuer to save the pursued. The problem is that Hamas uses a diabolical, disgusting strategy that offers them a win-win.

They locate their military facilities in civilian neighborhoods. Often even in the basements or courtyards of schools, hospitals, and orphanages. They kill Jews and force Israel to respond. When Israel responds, they hide behind civilians so that Israel inadvertently kills the human shields. Then, they parade the dead bodies before the cameras and accuse Israel of genocide.

They have played the game so many times that you would think the world would awaken to their diabolical tactic. But they don’t. Instead, they eat it up. Every time. This is antisemitism at its worst. But it’s also anti-Palestinianism because Hamas is sending their own civilians to their deaths.

But it does bring us back to the question. What is the moral responsibility of the defender when the pursued hides behind human shields?

I can’t give you a definitive answer because Judaism often has more than one way to view a subject. I will share the halachic rationale that permits killing a human shield. In the book of Samuel, we read that King Saul prepared for war against the tribe of Amalek, sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Members of the Keini tribe (Descendants of Jethro) lived among the Amalekites. King Saul gave them fair warning. “Come, withdraw at once from among the Amalekites, that I may not destroy you along with them.” (I Samuel 15:4.)

The former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, pointed to this passage to demonstrate that if our killers are in our crosshairs, we must take the shot even if human shields are in their path. This is especially true if the shields choose to act as shields, and worse, when they support the cause of the terrorists. In these cases, the shields themselves assume the status of pursuer and forfeit their right to life.

Of course, it is impossible to discern who supports Hamas and who does not, who opted in, and who was forced in. However, in a state of war, these considerations fall away. In a state of war, we are required to go after the combatants even if they are embedded among civilians. That is the meaning of war.

The caveat is that one must do as King Saul did. We must warn the pursuers and give them a chance to flee. If they choose to remain in place, it is morally correct to take the shot, even if it results in the inadvertent killing of human shields.

May G-d protect our land and our people. May there be peace in Israel. And may we live in harmony and serenity. Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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