In recent weeks, Israel been defamed, delegitimized, and demonized by the media and the international community for the heinous crime of protecting her citizens from rocket attacks. Sadly, even Jews in Israel and abroad have criticized the IDF, claiming use of excessive and disproportionate force in Gaza.
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 Operation Protective Edge by high-level military officials, including top generals from the US, Europe and abroad, 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.”
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 is the IDF’s Code of Ethics compatible with the Torah’s battlefield ethics?
Jewish Law is clear that one has the obligation to defend his life and the life of others. The mitzvah of Pikuah 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, children of the merciful.’ It would seem against our very nature to be cruel, even to terrorists or combatants. But in times of 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).
But the Torah also prescribes a code of conduct, even in times of war.
Deuteronomy 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.’”
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 the Rambam, we are different. Our camp is “holy.” This informs our 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 also because doing so is beneficial for us… 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).
War is ugly. And unfortunately, there are civilian casualties. That is the nature of war. Per its Code of Ethics, the IDF uses proportional force and makes every effort to minimize casualties.
The Torah prohibits attacking innocent women and children (Deut. 20:14; Rambam, Hil. Melakhim 6:4).
In addition, Ramban, in his commentary to Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 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 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, literally an ‘Optional War,’ a conquest fought to increase Israel’s borders. But concerning a Milhemet Mitzvah, literally a ‘Mandatory War,’ fought to preserve and defend 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 Milchemet Mitzvah there is no obligation to try and reduce casualties, potentially placing Israeli soldiers in harm’s way. It is the preservation of Jewish lives that takes priority over the enemy.
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 reduce 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, Part 1, Chapter 1, p. 14).
It is the opinion of Rabbi Goren and others that guides the IDF today.
Our hope and fervent prayer is that we see a cease to the violence. We long for the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the nations of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Until then, we must have the courage to stand up to terror and protect our borders and ourselves.
And of course, support our holy soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect ours.