“We don’t target civilians,” Israel’s leaders announce with great vigor.
Indeed, they don’t. But they have no moral obligation to pursue this policy. Indeed, they arguably have a moral obligation to abandon it as it often endangers the lives of Israeli soldiers.
Halakhic expert Rabbi Chaim Jachter writes, “Rav Shaul Yisraeli [who served on Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court] notes that ‘We do not find the obligation in war to distinguish between blood and blood (combatants and non-combatants). In the course of war, when laying siege to a city and the like, there is no obligation to make such distinctions.’”
True, the Sifri requires that we leave an escape route when besieging a city, but the Ramban notes that this rule only applies in optional wars. It doesn’t apply in obligatory wars such as the one we’re now fighting in Gaza.
In Contemporary Halakhic Problems (volume 3), prominent posek Rabbi J. David Bleich writes, “Not only does one search in vain for a ruling prohibiting military activity likely to result in the death of civilians, but to this writer’s knowledge, there exists no discussion in classical rabbinic sources that takes cognizance of the likelihood of causing civilian casualties in the course of hostilities legitimately undertaken as posing a halakhic or moral problem.”
Likewise, the Torah contains no record of Bnei Yisrael risking their lives to save those of enemy civilians. On the contrary, it records them fighting fiercely to achieve victory. And in doing so, they often targeted non-combatants (even if we leave aside their wars of extermination against Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations, which were waged on G-d’s explicit command).
When our ancestors fought against Midian, for example, they killed every man, every boy, and practically every woman (for seducing Jewish men). One cannot find any moral hand-wringing over this massacre among the classic Bible commentators.
Another example: In his last act on earth, the great Samson – his eyes gouged out by the enemy – committed what today would be considered a war crime; he killed “approximately 3,000 [Philistine] men and women” as vengeance “for one of [his] two eyes.” This story is recorded without a hint of opprobrium from the author of the Book of Judges or the classic Bible commentators.
Our ancestors weren’t even necessarily kind to each other in war. When 11 tribes joined battle against the tribe of Binyamin for the horrific rape and murder of a Gibeahite concubine, they killed both men and women. When they learned afterward that the men of Yavesh Gilad didn’t join the national assembly that preceded the war, the tribes massacred them too – and their wives. What did the women do wrong? The Ho’il Moshe (1821-1898) explains: “They should have tried convincing their husbands to go to the assembly.”
The Migdal Oz (1287-1330) provides a different answer. In explaining why the children and women of an ir hanidachas deserve to die according to the Rambam, he invokes the destruction of Yavesh Gilad and Korach’s assembly and argues that the women and children die because “they’re precious to the adults.” The Migdal Oz also suggests that children “cause” their parents to dwell where they do (which presumably makes them at least indirectly guilty). If not for the children, the Migdal Oz seems to be arguing, their parents wouldn’t have settled down and built an idolatrous society.
Perhaps the greatest example, though, of our ancestors killing “innocent civilians” is Levi and Shimon’s massacre of the men of Schechem. One man kidnapped Dinah. Why, then, did Levi and Shimon target the rest of the male population? The Rambam answers that every society is obligated to ensure that justice reigns in its midst. Thus, Shechem’s civilians should have punished their prince for kidnapping and raping a foreigner. Since they didn’t do so, they deserved to die. Are we not living in a parallel situation today?
The Maharal’s answer is even more “radical.” He explains, “Even though only one man sinned, he belonged to a larger nation…and therefore Levi and Shimon were permitted to take vengeance against all of them. The same is true of all the other wars [the Israelites] were in. For instance [G-d told Moses], ‘Vex the Midianites and smite them’ (Numbers 25:17). It makes no difference that many individual Midianites didn’t harm Israel. The nation they belonged to did…. And such is the case for all wars.”
War by its very nature is collective. It pits one society against another. Israel against Midian, Russia against Germany, America against Japan.
It also possesses its own set of moral rules. The Netziv writes that the Torah’s first interdiction against murder speaks of killing one’s “brother.” Why “brother”? Because G-d only holds us responsible for spilling blood during a time of brotherhood – i.e., peacetime. “During war and ‘a time to hate,’ however, it’s a time to kill and there is no punishment for [spilling blood] whatsoever. For that’s how the world was established.”
In a certain sense, war is terrible. That’s why, Napoleon said, it should be waged “with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.” But when Israel does fight, it should never forget that “the blood of the Israeli soldier is redder than the blood of the Arab whose brethren initiated violence against Israel,” writes Rabbi Jachter, “just as the blood of the American soldier was redder than the blood of Japanese civilians during World War Two.”
Let me conclude with one more quote from Rabbi Jachter:
“Rav Avraham Shapira (Techumin 4:182) and Rav Dov Lior (Techumin 4:186)…strongly disagree [with the position that Israel should take into consideration civilian casualties when making war plans]. Rav Lior writes, ‘In times of war, there surely exists firm Halakhic basis for any action done in order to insure that not even one soldier should be, G-d forbid, harmed.’ Rav [Hershel] Schachter [rosh kollel at Yeshiva University] told me…that he agrees with Rav Shapira and Rav Lior. In fact, he argues that Israel acted immorally when it risked its soldiers in Jenin and Lebanon in order to reduce civilian casualties. Rav Bleich…also told me that he agrees with Rav Shapira and Rav Lior. He agrees with Rav Schachter that it is forbidden to risk Israeli lives in order to save Arab civilians.”
Elliot Resnick, PhD, is the former chief editor of The Jewish Press, a podcast host, and the author and/or editor of seven books, including the recently-published “America First: The Story of Sol Bloom, the Most Powerful Jew in Congress During the Holocaust.”