The Jews are people guided by tradition, perhaps even more so than by the complex blueprint for living set out in the Law, both oral and written. It is tradition that guides the Jewish life cycle, Jewish education, and Jewish communal responsibility.
“Rabbi Eliezer said: The Book (Torah) and the Sword came down from heaven together, intertwined. ‘If you fulfill the teaching written in the one, you’ll be saved from the other. And if you don’t…then it will consume you.” (Sifrei Devarim, 12):
The passage above-from the commentary on the section of Jewish law dealing more than others with national responsibility, the establishment of courts, armies, and social norms-is a foundational element of the Jewish tradition guiding the actions of the Jewish people as they defend themselves and their homeland.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was created 12 days after the declaration of the State of Israel, on 26 May 1948. In its guiding principles, codified as the IDF Spirit, Jewish tradition is identified as one of the four core sources of the concept of Tohar Haneshek, or “purity of arms” which every IDF recruit is taught, and which is meant to guide the choices of every soldier, from the Chief of Staff to the youngest private.
In his 2005 article for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Professor Norman Solomon laid out the position of Jewish law and tradition regarding armed conflict. It is sufficient to share these conclusions:
- In the defense of the territorial integrity of a sovereign Jewish state, or in defense of its people, a Jewish army must execute its mission while maintaining standards of behavior that apply necessary but not gratuitous force to achieve the objective.
- The sanctity of human life must be respected and taking a life can only be approached with an understanding that there are no realistic alternatives.
- Civilian non-combatants are not to be targeted and steps must be taken to distance them from danger if, as, and whenever possible.
These are the foundations of what makes the IDF a distinctive, idealistic source of pride for Jews around the world. For me, the abiding love and respect goes much deeper.
The battles yet to be fought on battlefields yet to be contemplated will be won with a bullet, a missile, a pen or a keystroke. The living demand our effort and effectiveness. The fallen demand our commitment in the war of Jewish existence. And they demand it of each of us, of the soldiers in the IDF, and of Israel’s defenders abroad. The book and the sword descended together. We must continue to harness them both
The courage and sacrifice of the men and women of the IDF has been a source of overwhelming emotion and pride for me since I was a small child. I have studied the history of the Jewish people my whole life. In 3000 years, the Jewish nation has not had a shield and sword as powerful as it has today. In 3000 years no Jewish army has been structured to uphold the purity of arms and the sanctity of life as the IDF does today. For millennia, no Jewish army has held rifle and Tanakh in hand, intertwined, swearing to protect the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. And never has there been so much precious life and potential to defend within the land of Israel.
I can recall the first time I was able to witness a Tekes, or swearing in ceremony for soldiers at the Kotel, in 2003. It was just after the height of the Al Aksa war. The soldiers in front of me were about to step into the most sustained terror campaign against both the military and civilian population that Israel had ever experienced. Yet the pride on their faces, and the knowledge that they had of their responsibility not only to the people of Israel, but to Jews worldwide and to the memories of all those who had no sword and no shield, truly radiated. I’m not ashamed to say, I cried that day. I couldn’t contain my emotions.
What is undeniably unique is the IDF’s combination of the incredible power of its arms with the humanity of its actions when and where it is able to make a difference. IDF search and rescue teams have been saving lives for decades, from Mexico to Greece, from Turkey to the Philippines, from Haiti to Kenya. IDF personnel created and operated a field hospital to triage and treat thousands of Syrians wounded in that country’s bloody civil war. It continued to operate for years, and people who had been educated to see the IDF and Israel as enemies went back to Syria healed, with a new perspective on the Jewish army. Its staff and commanders like IDF Res. Colonel Eyal D. brought great credit to the IDF simply by demonstrating the compassion they have always done and have always been mandated to do.
Almost a year ago in July 2019, the IDF was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of Syrian White Helmets and their families as the Syrian regime closed in on the last strongholds where they operated.
This is the same force that must make critical life and death decisions on the Gaza border. An infiltrator doesn’t need much more than a knife to murder Israelis. Ask the Fogel family, or at least its few survivors. Ask young Hallel Ariel’s grieving mother. The IDF must make hard decisions, because the cost of not doing so is numbered in Israeli lives lost to terror, as borne out by the use of ambulances by the 2001 Sbarro bomber and several others.
Recently, I accompanied a group of our Fellows in Israel as they simulated a scenario where the IDF had to neutralize a terror cell in the process of launching rockets at Israeli civilians. Our participants learned of the challenges of weapons being fired at Israelis from hospitals and places of worship, of a hostile media and populace, and of international observers who injected themselves in the conflict to protect terrorists. They learned about the chain of command and the requirements of the Tohar Haneshek doctrine in determining the circumstances where the IDF was permitted to attack.
This experience drove home the lesson that has been clear to me since I first stepped foot on a university campus 32 years ago. The soldiers of the IDF have their mission to accomplish, and so do we. They have a responsibility to protect Israel and the Jewish people, and so do we. In doing so we have to use facts, our intellect, our compassion and our pride in our heritage, and so do they.
The battles yet to be fought on battlefields yet to be contemplated will be won with a bullet, a missile, a pen or a keystroke. The living demand our effort and effectiveness. The fallen demand our commitment in the war of Jewish existence. And they demand it of each of us, of the soldiers in the IDF, and of Israel’s defenders abroad. The book and the sword descended together. We must continue to harness them both.