What the rabbis teach about the ethics of war

We should do our utmost to minimise harm to civilians in Gaza


Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the Israeli-Gaza border, October 20, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** צבא עזה רחבות ברזל חרבות ברזל כוחות שטח כינוס

The presence of Hamas in Gaza is intolerable. There can be no military solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, without some sort of political process. And yet, there can be no political process with people who want to butcher us.

Since last May, Israel issued 18,500 permits for Gazans to enter for work; more than the total number of permits issued in the previous 14 years. It brought in upwards of £2million a day. These unilateral measures to improve life in Gaza didn’t stop the massacre on October 7.

We can’t make peace with Hamas. We also can’t make peace on our own. The only conclusion to draw is that Hamas must be eliminated, and replaced. We have to fight this war.

President Biden made a crucial observation: “What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life… If you give that up, then the terrorists win.”

If the way in which we fight undermines the values that set us apart from our enemies, we will have lost the war, even in winning it. What would a war look like if we fought it according to Jewish values?

Jewish law allows an army to restrict the flow of goods into a city only if it’s also allowing people to escape.

According to Nachmanides, this law doesn’t apply when fighting to establish our residence in the land of Israel. We cannot continue to live here, in the long-term, if Hamas continue to rule over Gaza. If that’s right, and I hate to say it, Jewish law might allow us to starve the whole of the Gaza strip into submission.

Thankfully, Maimonides disagrees. It doesn’t matter who you’re fighting, or why. You must always, and without exception, arrange a route by which people can flee. On this view, Israel must allow essential goods into Gaza, so long as we’re not able to facilitate people’s flight out of the strip.  But Maimonides makes this demand only of an army trying to conquer a city. What if we’re not trying to conquer Gaza? What if we’re only trying to wipe out its government and hand it over to the Palestinian Authority?

What if we’re fighting only to free our hostages, or repel, or deter, a future attack?

Perhaps in such situations — and once again, I hate to say it — we could starve, or bomb, the Gaza strip into submission.

But unlike some extremists in Israel, I refuse to believe that this could be the Jewish way.

Nachmanides argues that, were it not for the commandment to be holy, it would have been possible for a person to be a scoundrel, while technically obeying every law of the Torah. The religiously observant scoundrel, however, is also commanded by the Torah to be holy.

Likewise, Jewish laws of war lay down a minimum standard of conduct upon an army. They were initially calibrated for ancient wars, fought with different weapons, before any notion of Geneva Conventions or international law. Religious scoundrels do the bare minimum.

But what would holy people do? Paradoxically, Jewish law commands us to do more than what Jewish law demands.

Moses tells us that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16). Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (known as the Avnei Nezer) argued cogently that this halachah applies to non-Jewish children too.

Collateral damage in modern urban warfare is a tragic inevitability, even of a just war. The line between inevitable collateral damage, heightened by Hamas’s cynical use of human shields, on the one hand, and collective punishment, on the other, is thin, but we must be sure to stay on the right side of it.

Some argue that now is not the time to raise ethical questions. Now is the time to unite; to give our troops the encouragement they need to fight with resolve and courage. Raising ethical questions, they fear, will undermine that effort. I demure. What sets us apart from our enemies is precisely the fact that though we will fight with resolve and courage, we will do so with a keen sensitivity to the moral consequences of our actions.

It was wrong for Israel to cut electricity and water, indiscriminately, to the people of Gaza (who had no way of leaving the strip), even as leverage for the liberation of our hostages.  Now is precisely the time to raise such concerns because part of what winning looks like is doing it ethically. Thankfully, the water has been reconnected, at least in south Gaza.

People are eager to blame Israel for every catastrophe that Palestinian terrorists have brought upon their own people (such as the Al-Ahli hospital catastrophe). We cannot let their eagerness to blame us deter us.

Our cause is just. We have no choice but to fight.

When Hamas is no longer part of the equation, we can begin to dream again of a political process. But we must take every reasonable measure, in the interim, to minimise collateral damage.

Part of what it means to be a moral people is to be always willing to criticise — not the troops on the front line, who must not be expected to philosophise as they fight — but their commanders and our government. We must also turn to our Jewish heritage, not in order to be religious scoundrels, but to be inspired towards holiness.

May God forbid that we ever lose the human compassion that differentiates us from our enemies and makes our heart bleed for every innocent life lost in Gaza, as we fight a war that we cannot afford to lose.

Rabbi Lebens is associate professor of philosophy at Haifa University and author of A Guide for the Jewish Undecided

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