Parshat Shoftim: Morality in war

‘When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall first call out to it for peace’ (Deuteronomy 20:10)

Parshat Shoftim (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Parshat Shoftim
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
“When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, ‘I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,’ you shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother... so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17: 14-20).
The winds of war emanating from Operation Protective Edge have barely subsided, but we still hear loud and clear the raucous shouts of the United Nations, of European leaders and even of top leadership in the US condemning Israel’s “extreme and disproportionate military activity” during the cycle of violence, and condemning the fact that so many more Palestinians were killed than Israelis.
Our erstwhile friends have barely taken note of the ugly truth that there never was a “cycle of violence”; there were only brutal Hamas terrorist kidnappings and missile attacks effected from heavily populated areas in Gaza against Israeli civilian population, missiles from UNRWA-run hospitals and schools, to which we were forced to respond if we were to protect our soldiers and citizens within Israel.
If the death count was disproportionate, it was not because of the sensitivity of our enemies; it was only because of the superior ability of our Iron Dome missile system to foil the evil desires of the Hamas terrorists, who willfully target only Israeli civilians and who cynically use the Gaza citizenry as human shields in order to win the sympathy of a hypocritical and often diabolical world opinion.
Where were the European voices against Hamas, against the terrorists who used billions of dollars which were given to help the supposedly poverty-stricken Gazans and instead built underground tunnels to murder innocent Israelis? Where is President Obama’s voice against UNRWA, which received billions of American dollars for schools and hospitals which apparently cooperated with the terrorists in providing incitement education and in becoming military launching pads against Israel? And all of this after we left the settlements in Gaza unilaterally in 2005.
As we see from our opening quotation, our Bible insists that we never wage war, even a defensive war, without first asking for peace – and both Maimonides and Nahmanides maintain that this includes an acceptance of the Seven Noahide Laws of Morality (especially “thou shalt not murder”) and includes the Seven Nations of Canaan.
Nevertheless, the Bible does prescribe that if the enemy refuses peace “You must not leave any living being alive; you must utterly destroy them” (Deuteronomy 20:16, 17). This would seem to include women and children.
Is this compassion? In order to compound our question and add to it a nuance of complexity, only two verses after the command “to utterly destroy” appear the following curious – and exquisitely sensitive – Divine charge (Deuteronomy 20:19) “When you lay siege to a city… to wage war against it and capture it, you may not destroy a fruit tree to lift an axe against it; after all… the human being derives his sustenance from it” or as alternatively rendered, “Is the tree of the field a human being, who is capable of escaping a siege?” Can it be that our Torah cares more about a fruit tree than innocent women and children? One might very well argue that a fruit tree which gives human beings nutrition, the wherewithal to live, is of greater benefit than individuals who tragically are making it possible for terrorists hell-bent on obliterating every free society to triumph! Such individuals are lower than apples because they are part of a process which will remove goodness from the world.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (end of the19th century), dean of Yeshivat Volozhin, in his masterful commentary on the Bible known as Ha’amek Davar, provides a key to our understanding. He insists that when the Bible ordains that we “utterly destroy” even the women and children (as it also commands in Deuteronomy 7:1, 2) this is limited “to those women and children who are also gathered against us in battle….”
It is almost as though this great yeshiva head saw the kind of war we are being forced to wage in Protective Edge. To rephrase Golda Meir, “I do not hate Hamas for trying to drive us out of our homeland; but I do hate Hamas for causing us to kill innocent Gazans.”
Let no one be under any illusions: war stinks! But when a callous and cruel terrorist organization uses its own citizenry as human shields, we have no choice but to fight back. Michael Walzer in his classic work Just and Unjust Wars maintains that a soldier’s life is not worth less than an innocent victim’s life. We must add to this moral insight: If the innocent victim has bought into the evil of the enemy by continuing to support that enemy’s rule and by enabling that enemy to build tunnels to destroy innocent Israelis, or if the enemy is a terrorist purposely waging war from the thick of residential areas because that is the way they can defeat us and stop us from fighting back, then logical morality insists that we dare not allow them to gain the edge, that we dare not allow evil to triumph.
Yes, we must try as much as possible to wage a moral war; but the highest morality is never allowing immorality to triumph. Our Sages correctly teach: “Those who are compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate.” And we can be justly proud of our IDF, which continues to do everything possible to protect innocents in warfare.
Shabbat shalom
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commentary was recently published by Koren Publishers.