For purity of arms

The Jewish army should be willing to take greater risks to protect enemy civilians.

idf soldier lebanon 298  (photo credit: AP)
idf soldier lebanon 298
(photo credit: AP)
On August 21, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an association of Orthodox rabbis, had called on Israel to reevaluate its military rules of war in light of Hizbullah's "unconscionable use of civilians, hospitals, ambulances, mosques and the like as human shields, cannon fodder and weapons of asymmetric warfare." Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice-president of the RCA, was quoted as saying, "Our traditional sensibilities tell us that it is not right to risk the lives of our soldiers to minimize civilian deaths on the other side." We beg to differ. Surely Rabbi Herring is not suggesting that we should have carpet-bombed southern Lebanon and killed tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians to avoid the Israeli casualties that go with sending troops in on the ground? There are some who would counter with the opposite position. They ask whether the damage inflicted on Lebanon was excessive - and whether the IDF sufficiently followed its code of ethics. All Jews should be proud of those Israeli rules - even those sitting in the Diaspora. The basic principle of "purity of arms" says: "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." The Post also quoted Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed as saying: "Our corrupt military morality, which tells us that our soldiers must endanger their lives to protect enemy civilians, is the reason we lost the war." Another Orthodox rabbi from the North, Rabbi Tzefania Drori of Kiryat Shmona, said, "Anti-Semites demand that we use Christian morality while our enemies act like barbarians." As if this gratuitous reference to "Christian morality" isn't bad enough, he went on and said we should follow "Jewish morality," which dictates that "he who gets up to kill you, get up yourself and kill him first." YES, JEWISH morality does allow for a preemptive strike. But preventing civilian deaths is not "Christian morality" - or if it is, they got it from the Jews! The Talmud (Sanhedrin 57a and 74a) commands us not to use excessive force. The Talmud says that if you kill someone who is coming after you when you could have stopped him with lesser force, like maiming a limb, you have committed a capital offense. Maimonides codified as law that Jews must avoid civilian deaths by leaving an "escape route" for anyone who wants to flee. We are told we cannot besiege a city on all four sides; we must only encircle it on three sides, leaving non-combatants a way to escape. The IDF's dropping of leaflets before bombing was an attempt to fulfill this mitzva, even if it meant some of our enemies were also given a warning to leave. Not only are we to allow people to escape, but the Torah commands us not to engage in gratuitous destruction. Deuteronomy 20:19 forbids Jews to destroy fruit trees to make siege engines in a time of war - a passage which later authorities (like Maimonides) extended to the principle of bal taschit, forbidding any kind of unnecessary destruction of property, whether in times of war or peace, whether it's your property or someone else's property. YES, IT is painful when more of our soldiers die because we try to minimize civilian deaths by sending in ground troops rather than dropping bombs. But this also comes from the wisdom of our tradition. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) tells us that you cannot kill an innocent person to save your own life. Raba said, "Let him rather slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder." There will be times when innocent people will perish in a war. There will be times when an enemy is hiding behind a human shield, and those will be excruciating moments for our soldiers. We must both defend ourselves, and we must avoid unnecessary loss of innocent life. The real decisions, shoot or don't shoot, are not easy. But we must make those difficult decisions. The Prophet Isaiah charges us with being a "light to the nations." We are supposed to show the world how God wants all human beings to behave. Just because there are Islamists who cut the heads off innocent people they kidnap does not mean we should emulate them. War is ugly. The other side doesn't always fight fair. That's no reason to throw our values, morals and Torah principles out the window. When our enemies act badly is exactly the time we need a code of ethics to remind us not to allow ourselves to become as debased as those we fight. We Jews are here on Earth to raise the bar, not to lower it. Instead of calling on the IDF to rethink its code of war we commend them for remaining committed to it, and we urge everyone in the military establishment, from the generals to the foot soldiers, to always keep it in mind. The author is a member of the Executive Board of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America, and he is the spiritual leader for Congregation B'nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio. He and his family plan to make aliya next year.