Ask The Rabbi: Does Halacha permit demolition of terrorists’ homes?

Accordingly, it is hard to say that Jewish law gives a definitive answer to this dilemma.

Children descend the stairs of the home that belonged to convicted terrorist Muhammad al- Haroub, in Deir Samt, south of Hebron, after it was partially demolished by the IDF in February 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Children descend the stairs of the home that belonged to convicted terrorist Muhammad al- Haroub, in Deir Samt, south of Hebron, after it was partially demolished by the IDF in February 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since 2014, Israel has renewed its practice of demolishing or sealing off homes of terrorists who murdered Israeli citizens. The controversial practice aims to deter future murderers by showing them that their actions will harm those they love. It also seeks to give a strong incentive to family members or friends to report the harmful intentions of would-be terrorists.
Advocates of such demolitions argue that such deterrents are particularly necessary against a Palestinian society that incites violence and offers monthly payments to the families of “martyrs.”
Opponents to the practice, however, contend that such penalties are immoral forms of collective punishment that penalize family members who committed no crime. They further question whether, in practice, such actions are effective deterrents and cite a 2005 IDF commission that supported ending the procedure. Advocates, however, have rebutted that the committee’s recommendations were politically motivated, while further citing a 2015 article in The Journal of Politics, the best empirical study to date, which found that “punitive house demolitions” led to a 12% to 15% decrease in terrorist attacks in the subsequent months.
As for the morality of such actions, both advocates and defenders of the practice cite Jewish law and norms. Some of the best halachic perspectives on the topic have been penned by Justice Mishael Cheshin (in 1992 and 2006) and Justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Noam Solberg (in 2015) in various rulings of Israel’s High Court of Justice.
The notion that the righteous should not be punished for the sins of the wicked goes back to Abraham’s advocacy to save the city of Sodom.
“Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?... Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty so that innocent and guilty fare alike.”
Moses and Aaron make a similar claim when God threatens to destroy the nation after Korah’s rebellion.
“When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” According to one midrash, God responded by asserting that they are correct and He will only punish the evildoers. Such a sentiment was readily summarized toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents – a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” This sentiment was further emphasized by the prophets in the books of Kings and Ezekiel.
Yet as Prof. Nahum Rakover and Rabbi Meir Batist have noted, the Bible does also seem to include several cases of collective punishment, leading commentators to struggle how to harmonize these incidents with the above sentiments. Jacob’s sons, Levi and Simeon, destroy an entire city because Shechem abused their sister Dinah.
The mass destruction of the idolatrous “wayward city” and the family of Moloch child-sacrificers also seems to point to collective punishment. Most famously, within the Ten Commandments, we are told, “God will visit the guilt of the parents on the children – upon the third and fourth generation of those who reject Me.”
To resolve the tension between these sources, some commentators distinguished between divine punishment and human justice. While God may take retribution for generations, humans must only administer punishment to the actual evildoers.
Others assert that even God will only punish later generations if they continue in the ways of their forebears. The guiltless, however, will be spared.
For our purposes, a third approach may be particularly significant. It asserts that the collective only bears punishment when they incurred some form of ancillary guilt. This may include cases in which they could have protested the immoral behavior but failed to do so, or more actively encouraged or aided the action, even without actually taking part. Such a position may be particularly relevant under contemporary circumstances when the IDF cites incitement and encouragement from family members or neighbors in favor of terrorism and martyrdom. Conversely, when family members turn in wanted terrorists, the current attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has convincingly argued that the IDF may not destroy homes since the family have overtly distanced themselves from the actions of their child.
Justice Solberg has further noted that many sources condemning collective punishment dealt with physical harm, but may not be relevant for our current dilemma in which the government imposes financial or monetary penalties. For example, Lot may have been spared from Sodom’s destruction, but he was allowed to leave the city, according to the Talmud, with only the shirt on his back.
In post-talmudic sources, there are discussions about whether we can punish someone who has refused to obey communal norms by kicking their child out of a school, banning their wife from the synagogue, or refusing beit din services to their daughter. Indeed, I suspect that many readers of this column would be sympathetic to Prof. Aviad Hacohen’s proposal to impose financial penalties on family members who support or help relatives who are get-refusers (recalcitrant husbands/wives who refuse to grant a divorce to their spouse).
Ultimately, there is deep tension in these sources. On the one hand, Jewish law generally eschews collective punishment. Yet at the same time, it recognizes that punitive deterrents might be necessary to prevent the social mores that allow or even encourage social malaises like barbaric terrorism. Accordingly, it is hard to say that Jewish law gives a definitive answer to this dilemma. That said, it does provide the values that can form the ethical framework for army and government officials to find the right balance in this difficult dilemma of fighting terror.
■ The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.