Jewish Tradition and War
Some societies, such as the Quakers, do not approve of war under any circumstances. On the other hand, "ancient Roman religions valorized warriors as heroes"1. Jewish tradition, for its part, "lies somewhere in between these stances"2.
Every major prayer in Jewish liturgy ends with a prayer for peace. Yet, in Deuteronomy 20:10, the Jewish people are instructed on how to conduct war. This Jus in bello or "Law in Waging War" includes what is a legitimate target and how much force is to be used. Thus, discrimination and proportionality issues are involved. Self-defense is demanded, and the criteria for acceptable military conduct in war are enumerated. This differs from Jus ad bellum, which refers to "the Right to War," relating to the criteria used before engaging in war to see if the war is permissible and is, in fact, a just war.
The notion of protecting civilians under war conditions was valued by classical Jewish philosophers and commentators such as Maimonides and Nachmanides. Thus, in the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Wars and Kings 6:1, 7, 8, one reads:
When you come near a city to wage war against it, call to it for peace.
When laying siege to a city, one does not surround it on all four sides, but only on three sides, and one leaves a place for those who escape and those who run for their lives.
One does not chop down fruit-bearing trees outside the city and one does not deny them water so that they wither[.]3
Thus, during anticipated battle, a call for peace is the first step, but if war is not averted through peace overtures, the (enemy) civilians must be offered the opportunity for escape in advance of the attacking army. Finally, if the enemy nation declines the first two offers, it is told to prepare for war.
Obligatory wars refer to a specific biblical commandment, such as the obligation to destroy the tribe of Amalek. Though not phrased in the Talmud as such, in modern parlance, an obligatory war would be to deliver Israel from an enemy who has attacked it. On the other hand, authorized wars are undertaken to increase territory.
Intrinsic to either an obligatory or authorized war, one must "initially seek a negotiated settlement of the cause of the war[,]" and the "goal of the war [must] be communicated to one's opponents." Thus, opponents may evaluate the costs of the war and seek a rationale for peace4.
Faced with the existential threat of obliteration, present-day Israel has had to endure war from its inception. Yet, regularly, in an effort to achieve peace, Israel has given up land and property to the enemy. Ironically, the very desert that was returned to Egypt after having been captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 is now the launching pad for attacks from Egypt, as the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is being abrogated. In 2011, Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf "said a peace deal with Israel was not 'sacred' and could be changed[.]"
A key concept within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is the doctrine of tohar ha-neshek, literally "purity of arms." Originally "coined following an address given at the 21st Zionist Congress in August 1939 by Berl Katzenelson[,]" it was to inform the Jewish community not to respond in kind to the anti-Jewish terrorism perpetrated by the Arab revolts that took place from 1936 to 1939.
Katzenelson spoke about havlaga, or "self-restraint," and cautioned that the Jewish fighters needed to "learn to use arms, we must bear arms, we must defend ourselves against whoever attacks us. But we do not want our arms to be stained by innocent blood."
Even in the face of the Arab riots and heinous massacres of Jews in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936, the Zionist leadership in Palestine maintained this policy of self-restraint.
Nonetheless, the concept of purity of arms does not rule out offensive action, and "preemptive action can be justified as self-defense if it is a response to a reasonable apprehension of imminent danger from a credible threat5.
Shalom E. Lamm, in his article "Purity of Arms: A Critical Evaluation" from the Journal of International Security Affairs (Spring 2005), inquires whether this concept of Purity of Arms] "indeed represents a higher morality as its proponents presume" or whether, in fact, the destruction of the enemy's war-making ability, "[including] attacking its civilian and industrial infrastructure, would speed the end of a conflict and ultimately save lives[.]"
Was it moral to unleash the slaughter of civilians with the annihilation of Hamburg, Germany in 1943, Dresden in 1945, and Tokyo in 1945? The devastation was brutal. There are those who justify that such wholesale slaughter brought World War II to an end more quickly. Consequently, more U.S. and Allied soldiers' lives were saved, and millions of Japanese lives were spared because an invasion of the Japanese home islands was avoided.
The Spirit of the IDF expresses the values of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Concerning the Purity of Arms:
The IDF serviceman will use force of arms only for the purpose of subduing the enemy to the necessary extent and will limit his use of force so as to prevent unnecessary harm to human life and limb, dignity and property.
The IDF servicemen's purity of arms is their self-control in use of armed force. They will use their arms only for the purpose of achieving their mission, without inflicting unnecessary injury to human life or limb; dignity or property, of both soldiers and civilians, with special consideration for the defenseless, whether in wartime, or during routine security operations, or in the absence of combat, or times of peace.
Notwithstanding the high ideals of the IDF, Lamm asks if it is "moral to put one's own soldiers/civilians in harm's way in order to spare the enemy civilian[.]" He cites the Jenin operation of March 2002, where Israel decided against the use of deadly efficient aircraft and instead used the far more difficult and dangerous route of ground troops engaged in urban warfare.
Consequently, in accordance with the ethical standards of the IDF, Israel lost many brave young soldiers. Furthermore, one needs to ask whether the "civilians saved [were, in fact,] innocent or ... complicit in the hiding of terrorists in its midst." And while Israel did warn the residents of Jenin of the impending attack, the world roundly condemned the country's actions.
Though Israel seeks to diminish enemy civilian loss, the enemy culture has no such equivalent moral vantage point. And most pointedly, the jihadists of whatever group have no compunction to spare their own people.
According to the Talmud (Shavuout 35b), there is an explicit prohibition of waging war in a situation where the casualty rate exceeds a sixth of the population. Therefore, this vital limitation of the law of self-defense clearly makes the use of nuclear weaponry very problematic in Jewish law.
The Jewish view "on war and peace [has] always been rooted in the ethics of serving and preserving human life. Normative Judaism has always abhorred both pacifism and unjustified warfare"6. In 2011, Herbert London wrote that there are "250 million Arabs in 22 Arab and Muslim countries who want to destroy [Israel]. But Israeli leaders do not modify their moral code one iota. As the commander of a training session for IDF entrants at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem noted, '[i]f we altered our approach, what effect would it have on soldiers when they leave military service?' One fights not only to save a nation, but to save values."
How appalling it is that the world has permitted the scourge of genocidal leaders for so long that Israel has to, once again, invoke "Ein Breira," or "There is No Choice."
Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices - War and National Security. Edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010. p. xi
3Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices - War and National Security. Edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010. p. 83-84.
5Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010. pp. 93-94.
6Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010, p. 39.