Purity of arms

As Yom Kippur approaches, the 'Post' asks, did the war in the North leave the IDF with any moral sins to atone for?

IDF Artillery 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF Artillery 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In times of peace Amnon Nachmias and his soldiers might have enjoyed the view from the hills overlooking Tyre: the sprawling citrus groves, the expansive Mediterranean port and the mountainous terrain farther inland. But Nachmias's "Spearhead" paratrooper battalion was in Tyre for a different objective altogether. For the last 72 hours of the war in Lebanon the battalion hunted down Hizbullah gunmen, gathered information and located and destroyed missile launchers.
  • The second Lebanon war: JPost.com special report From their observation position Spearhead's soldiers clearly saw the farmhouses nestled in among the groves. Children played in dirt lots, farmhands tended to animals and citrus trees and pickup trucks transported supplies. But sudden violent blasts regularly broke the quiet. "We did not know where the missile launchers were until they started shooting," recalls Nachmias, who served as assistant commander of the battalion. "But locating them was not enough. More times than I choose to count we called off artillery strikes for fear we would kill the children." Like hundreds of other IDF soldiers, Nachmias was forced to grapple with the moral dilemmas presented by Hizbullah's use of human shields. Should a missile launcher, purposely positioned among civilians, be wiped out at any cost even if it means the certain death of children? For Nachmias the answer was no. "If you are human, you must be sensitive to the knowledge that when you pull that trigger you are going to kill innocent people," says Nachmias. Not everyone agrees with Nachmias. The gut reaction of many op-ed writers, pundits and taxi drivers was that the IDF should "wipe Hizbullah off the map, and too bad for any Lebanese who get in the way," "erase any memory of Hizbullah," "utterly destroy them." But perhaps more than any other group, most religious Zionist rabbis, citing Jewish law, criticized the IDF on moral grounds. These rabbis argued that the killing of Lebanese civilians used by Hizbullah as human shields was not only morally permissible, according to Jewish law it was a moral imperative. Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba issued a statement immediately after the Kafr Kana bombing justifying the action and reprimanding the IDF for calling a 48 hour cease-fire. "When our enemies hold a baby in one hand and shoot at us with the other," announces Lior, "or when they purposely position missile launchers in the midst of civilian populations, we are obligated to act according to Jewish morality which dictates that 'he who gets up to kill you, get up yourself and kill him first.' "Any other reaction is distorted Christian morality of turning the other cheek," says Lior. Lior was joined by Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Shmona and others who accused the army of the Jewish people of behaving in a very un-Jewish way. "Those who are overly compassionate with the cruel will end up being overly cruel with the compassionate," says Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, author of four volumes of halachic responsa entitled Bnei Banim. "The Halacha (Jewish law) countenances the killing of non-combatants in times of war," says Henkin. "There is no excuse for endangering our own citizens or soldiers to protect the lives of civilians on the other side." EVEN THE Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), which, as a Diaspora organization, normally refrains from criticizing Israeli policy, issued a statement during a trip to Israel immediately after the war calling on the IDF to rethink its military ethics policy. Rabbi Basil Herring, Executive Vice President of the RCA, said that from reports and talks with injured soldiers and doctors it appeared that the IDF may have unnecessarily endangered its forces out of moral considerations. "Like Jews everywhere, we as members of the RCA have always admired the unparalleled moral standards of Israel's armed forces in their military engagements, including sensitivity to the suffering of civilians and other innocents who find themselves caught up in the entanglements of war," said the RCA statement. "Today, however, there is at the very least, a need to discuss the response to an enemy such as Hizbullah." Most of the rabbis cited Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the most important halachic authorities in Jewish history, as proof that collateral damage, including civilian deaths, is permitted. Maimonides pointed out the obligation of a Jewish army to leave an enemy force an open route to retreat, even in an obligatory war like the one waged in the North. "Whoever wishes to escape must be allowed to escape... whoever wishes to make peace can make peace... whoever wishes to fight... is attacked until conquest is achieved," writes Maimonides in his Laws of Kings. Maimonides' ruling fits the IDF's policy of forewarning civilian populations of air attacks, thus giving them the chance to escape. However, once noncombatants have been warned, the IDF bears no moral responsibility for their lives if they are unintentionally killed along with terrorists, arms and ammunition stockpiles, according to Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitz, head of the Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva and an expert on Maimonides. This is true, says Rabinovitz, even when the civilians are held against their will by Hizbullah, as was the case in many incidents, especially in predominantly Christian Lebanese neighborhoods. "It is Hizbullah's fault if these people are killed, not ours," says Rabinovitz, echoing the vast majority of Religious Zionist rabbis. "Islam aspires to rule the world. Warfare is a means to this end. We are involved in a struggle for survival against radical Islam. That is the reality. A nation that ignores this reality and fails to do everything in its power to protect its own people runs the risk of extinction." The idea that Judaism advocates ruthless warfare, including the killing of non-combatants, is counterintuitive. For 2,000 years Jews were exiled among the nations of the world, the powerless subjects of their host countries. The Jews of the Diaspora may have been lettered in book knowledge, but they were devoid of an army to protect themselves. In fact, as Nietzsche cynically argued, Jews were accused of inventing morality so as to level the playing field in the battle for survival with the gentiles. Adolf Hitler, continuing Nietzsche's argument, stated that morality was the Jewish people's trick on humanity. The Jews managed to survive by convincing their enemies to act morally. It was Jewish morality that undermined the strength of the superior Aryan race. Jews preached compassion, justice and forgiveness not because they believed in these ideals, but because it was in their own best interest. The Nazis believed that by throwing off the shackles of Jewish morality they could realize their potential as a great, proud nation. After the Holocaust, many Orthodox rabbis continued to advocate passivism. They opposed the Zionist enterprise in part because it was seen as a rebellion against God. Divine providence had relegated Jews to Galut [Exile] for their sins, these rabbis believed. Jews must lovingly accept their sentence. It was blasphemy to forcibly settle the land of Israel and fight other nations before God had ushered in the Messianic era. Against this theological backdrop, therefore, it is not surprising that secular Zionists who had broken ties with Orthodoxy were the ones who led the establishment of the state of Israel. These Zionists rejected rabbinic Judaism, which was identified with weakness and exile, and embraced the Judaism of the Bible. The ruthless exploits of Joshua, Saul and David became the new models for military ethics. IT WAS not until the first Lebanese war that attitudes regarding the IDF's code of ethics began to change radically. For the first time Israel was confronted on a large scale with the moral dilemmas of conducting warfare among a civilian population. Soldiers were forced to either risk their lives to prevent the death of Lebanese civilians or kill innocent women and children. In part it was Israelis' inability to cope with this dilemma that fueled grassroots opposition that eventually forced the Begin government to end the war. Criticism of IDF military ethics even made it into the movies. In 1986, the Israeli film Ricochet [Shtei Etzbaot Mi'tzidon] was released. Ricochet was written and produced by the IDF to bring to the forefront the moral dilemmas faced by its soldiers in Lebanon. At the climax of the movie, Gadi, a self-declared humanist fresh out of officers' training school, leads the chase after an enemy soldier who manages to hide in the house of a Lebanese family. Gadi, who recalls his father's warning to always "do the right thing," refuses to blow up the house. Instead, he opts to go in after the terrorist. He breaks down a door and confronts a mother huddled with her children on a bed. Suddenly, out of a side closet, the terrorist surprises Gadi. Gadi kills the terrorist, but is killed himself in the exchange. Gadi pays with his life to protect the mother and her children. As sensitivity to the plight of the enemy's civilian population became an integral part of the IDF's post-Lebanon moral code, at the same time Orthodox rabbis were undergoing a reverse process, one that had began after the Six Day War. They were becoming more outspoken on the importance of overcoming the enemy at any cost, even if it meant inadvertent killing of civilians. In a surprising role-reversal the once pacifist Orthodox rabbis were now the ones calling for a more aggressive approach to warfare. The 1983 issue of Techumin, an influential journal of Jewish Law published by leading Religious Zionist rabbis, was devoted almost entirely to the subject of military morality. Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who was at the time the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, rejected the idea of proportionality. "When the danger is clear and present, one must not measure the number of our soldiers who are liable to get killed against the number of civilians who are liable to pay the price... Halacha says we must save every Jewish soldier," said Shapira. Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, now chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, quoted the first book of Samuel (15:6) as proof that collateral damage, including civilian deaths, is permitted after non-combatants are forewarned. "'Go, depart, go down from the Amaleki,' says Saul to the Keni nation, 'lest I destroy you with them.'" The implication from this verse, Ariel points out, is that if the Keni nation had not departed, it too would have been destroyed together with Amalek. This is true, adds Ariel, even though according to Jewish tradition, the Keni were the Jewish ancestors of Jethro who converted to Judaism. From a historical perspective, therefore, Religious Zionist rabbis' call during the second Lebanese war to destroy Hizbullah, even in population centers, is not surprising. NOT all Religious Zionist Jews have identified with the rabbis' stand. Moshe Tor-Paz, a Religious Zionist educator and former chairman of Ne'emanei Torah Ve'Avoda, a moderate Orthodox organization, lamented the calls of "public figures, rabbis, publicists and journalists" to indiscriminately wipe out Lebanon in an op-ed that appeared on Ma'ariv's NRG website. "Once 'purity of arms' was a source of pride and a synonym for the IDF's moral code," writes Tor-Paz. However, Tor-Paz is encouraged by eyewitness accounts from the front line. "My friend from the synagogue who served in a reserve artillery unit during the war told me that they barely responded to Katyusha fire that originated from population centers and it was completely prohibited to use heavy artillery. "That's the way it must be." Tor-Paz ends his op-ed with a teaching from Rabbi Yehuda Amital, his own rabbi, who founded and headed the Gush Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut. Amital, a Holocaust survivor, said that there is only one lesson he is willing to learn from his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. "Let the heavens and earth bear witness," said Amital. "If we had been given the choice [between being the murderers or the murdered] the Jewish people would have said: 'Better that we be among the murdered than be among those who murdered!'" Tor-Paz learns from Amital an important moral lesson: "The IDF will continue to be the most moral and the strongest army in the world and will continue to adhere to the principle of purity of arms. "We will not fire 155-millimeter cannons on populated villages, nor will we purposely bomb cities filled with civilians... and we will continue to endanger our lives to ensure that we achieve the desired results without compromising ourselves morally along the way." For Tor-Paz, being murdered is preferable if survival means moral corruption. To him, purity of arms means that there are times when the use of firepower is prohibited even when your own life and the lives of your people are in danger. MANY LIBERAL rabbis have also criticized the Orthodox rabbinic stand on human shields. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbi For Human Rights, agrees with Tor-Paz. Ascherman, a Reform rabbi and Harvard University graduate, cites the Babylonian Talmud as proof. A passage on page 74 of Sanhedrin discusses circumstances in which a Jew is required to give up his or her own life rather than transgress a commandment. One of those instances is a Jew who is told by the village strongman to kill another Jew. "Who says that your blood is redder than his blood?" asks the Talmud, and concludes that a Jew should be killed rather than agree to kill another Jew. Ascherman argues that from this passage we learn that IDF soldiers must risk their lives to protect non-combatants. He argues that the principle holds true for both Jewish and gentile non-combatants even in times of war. Although Ascherman admits that the analogy is not perfect since there was no "strong man" forcing IDF soldiers to kill Lebanese civilians, rather civilians were a byproduct of the war against Hizbullah, nevertheless, he is convinced Jewish morality demands the ultimate self-sacrifice. "I know it is a difficult standard to hold to," says Ascherman. "But that is where our tradition is leading us." Professor Asa Kasher, who has probably had more influence on IDF ethics than any single person, disagrees with Ascherman. "The killing of non-combatants is permitted in cases where there is clear and present danger to Israeli civilians or soldiers," says Kasher. Nowhere in The Spirit of the IDF, Israel's military code of ethics which Kasher co-authored, is an IDF soldier required to risk his own life to protect non-combatants on the enemy side. In 2003, Kasher together with Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, head of IDF intelligence, updated IDF military doctrine. "Under the international law of war, military necessity justifies almost everything," write Kasher and Yadlin. "Yet Israel has limited its right to invoke military necessity by requiring additional conditions, including: Purpose - that the action is really helping to defend our citizens; Intelligence and Proof - that what we are doing is really saving the lives of people in Israel; Effectiveness - that if there is going to be a lot of collateral damage we have to look for another alternative." But back from the recent war, assistant commander Nachmias is unimpressed with all the theoretical discussion. "When push comes to shove and you are forced to make a decision in a combat situation, things are never black and white. You have no time to think," says Nachmias. "How do I know that by the time I call in the coordinates to artillery or to air force and get a response that the terrorist won't be long gone with his portable launcher and the only casualties will be those poor kids? "Even if I know I can get an immediate response, I don't know for sure that the missiles being fired will hit any Israelis. Most of them land in empty fields," he says. Nachmias adds that even if he is ordered to blow up the building where the missile launcher is located he might not be mentally capable of following through. "When I am faced with a situation where I know that if I pull the trigger that baby boy is gonna die, my immediate reaction is, 'No way, I can't do this.'" Nachmias rejects the idea that soldiers can be inculcated with an ethic that condones the killing of civilians. "What is written in the IDF code of ethics or what the rabbis say I should do is the last thing on my mind when in combat. The ideals instilled in me by my parents and the person I am today is what determines how I will react under pressure. "Everything else is just a bunch of armchair moralizing."