Todd Berman

On the death of children in war

The barbarism and cruelty committed by Hamas terrorists and their many supporters shook all people of conscience to the core. These extremists came by land and air, they were defeated by sea, to kidnap toddlers and older people, broadcast the murder of parents in front of their children, rape, and many other heinous crimes. Their desecration of basic humanity demands that Israel end their existence lest they continue these rampages. Members of Hamas sacrificed their right to live.

Since the perpetrators fight asymmetric warfare, embedding themselves in the general population, and many regular Palestinians give assistance and support to these fundamentalist Islamists, fighting Hamas presents a complex problem. To protect Israeli civilians and maintain sovereignty over the country, Israel must combat them in the populated urban areas of Gaza. Unless Hamas and the other terrorist groups release hostages, including octogenarians and babies, and surrender to authorities, the war must continue. Typically, in war, the civilian population pays a steep price. In this war, fought in cities with labyrinth-like underground tunnels built to protect fighters and store weapons, short of sending in a vast invasion force, aerial bombardments are the only tool to put an end to the reign of terror. Air-to-surface missiles and artillery barrages result in the loss of civilian life. Even when Israel warns civilians to evacuate, the outcome is often gruesome. Taking Gaza by infantry will most likely result in fewer civilian but high military casualties. It is unclear which method will help redeem hostages, but foreign advisors seem to believe the present targeted bombing raids will lead to better results.

But what about the children?

What Hamas and its supporters did to Israeli children is unforgivable. Not only the kidnappings and murders but the cruel methods employed will live on forever in the annals of the history of evil. At the same time, the death of children in Gaza raises serious moral questions.

When the patriarch Jacob returned to Canaan with his family in tow, he sent messengers bearing gifts to his brother Esau. Esau assembled a massive army to confront Jacob, his wives, and little children. The Torah describes Jacob’s fear upon hearing the report of the approaching army. “Yaakov was very afraid, and he was distressed. He split the people who were with him, and the sheep, cattle, and camels, into two camps.” (Genesis 32:8). The double formulation “was very afraid” and “was distressed,” caught the attention of ancient interpreters. The rabbis suggest, “[he was very afraid] lest he be killed, [he was distressed] lest he kill.” War is a double-edged sword. Soldiers know that they might be killed. Yet, the fear of killing is also powerful.

Famously, Jewish tradition is not pacifist. The Talmud declares, “if someone comes to kill you, arise and kill him first.” (Sanhedrin 72a) This declaration, referred to as the law of the pursuer, relates to an individual at home, like those kibbutzniks whom Hamas came to massacre and worse. Yet this ruling is restricted. As Rabbi J. D. Bleich suggests, “Were war to be sanctioned solely on the basis of the law of pursuit, military action would perforce be restricted to situations in which loss of life is inflicted only upon armed aggressors or upon active participants in the war effort; military action resulting in casualties among civilian populace would constitute homicide, pure and simple.” (Contemporary Halakhic Problems vol. III, p.277)

The laws of “Just War” go even further. Rabbi Bleich continues, “however, not only does one search in vain for a ruling prohibiting military activity likely to result in the death of civilians, but to this writer’s knowledge, there exists no discussion in classical rabbinic sources that takes cognizance of the likelihood of causing civilian casualties in the course of hostilities legitimately undertaken as posing a halakhic or moral problem.” The laws of war extend far beyond the regular civilian break-in. When one group, nation, or country declares war or commits actions demanding reprisals, mainly to prevent future attacks, halacha does not seem to recognize a distinction between enemy combatants and civilians. The ethical notion of “distinction” between civilians and the military is a modern addition to warfare. The IDF ingrained this rule in its ethics and regulations. The IDF code of ethics reads,

Purity of Arms – 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.

The notion of distinguishing, when possible, combatants and non-combatants is sacrosanct in the actions of the Israeli army. This is why the Air Force informs non-combatants of the likelihood of a strike, warning them to vacate the area. Targets are selected to minimize civilian casualties. The IDF uses targeted munitions and not wanton carpet bombing to limit collateral damage. Yet, with terrorists and their sympathizers mixing and living with civilians, inevitably, attacks will harm children and other innocents. Given that the prime moral duty of any government is the protection of its citizens, the IDF must fight the terrorists where they are hiding.  There is no way to fight the perpetrators of vast crimes against the Israeli population without harming civilians.  There is no way to wage a sanitized war.

But we cannot ignore the fact that the death of any innocent victim, especially a child, cries out to heaven and harms the soul. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) offers a powerful thought when discussing the harsh, theoretical laws of rebellious cities. According to the Torah, such a city must be destroyed.  The Torah prohibits taking booty from the destroyed wanton city and promises that if people follow the laws, “God will grant you mercy.” (Deut. 13:18). What defines the “mercy” promised? Netziv suggests that “a person who kills [another, naturally] becomes cruel in his nature…here the text promises that if the person derives no personal benefit [from the attack] then God …will give him the character trait of mercy.”

There is no getting around the dreadful reality of war. War, in this instance, is a necessary tool in preventing the criminal Hamas regime and its supporters from killing more Israeli citizens. Unless Hamas surrenders and releases hostages, the need to combat them remains intact. That will mean killing some innocents who remain in place intertwined with Hamas operatives. The soul-killing death of children is inevitable and should shake every human being to their core; however, despite the fear of killing, the war is just and, from the Israeli side, necessary. We pray the evil Hamas and other terrorists surrender and end the bloodshed. This war, like all wars, cost too much of our humanity.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
Related Topics
Related Posts