The morality of the war in Gaza is crystal clear, says philosopher-rabbi

Rabbi Shlomo Brody expresses horror over global reaction to Israel’s hostage rescue operation


“I found it astonishing and horrifying how many people around the world raised ethical qualms about the hostage rescue operation,” says Shlomo Brody, a rabbi with a PHD in Law and an MA in Jewish philosophy, as he reflects on the Israel Defence Forces’ stunning raid in central Gaza earlier this month.

“One of the things that they’ve lost sight of is when Hamas uses civilian structures and civilians as part of their armed attack, those people, those buildings, become military targets. That’s a basic of military ethics and international law.”

Brody says the building could be a hospital, a school or, as in this case, a civilian apartment block that is turned into a place holding hostages, and when civilians are hired to do so they become combatants on a legal level.

“If you don’t want us to do raids that kill people, then don’t keep our hostages, and don’t keep them in apartment buildings.”

International law is clear that both sides of warfare are obliged to minimise civilian casualties. Brody stresses that includes the defending side, which should therefore not be fighting within civilian territory. “So in this circumstance, the blame for all the civilian deaths really lies with Hamas.

“It’s quite clear.” Brody finds it “astonishing” that people accused Israel of carrying out an “aggressive” rescue. “What are they supposed to do? Let their hostages die?”

Criticism was also directed at the IDF for the subterfuge method of extracting the hostages. One BBC presenter even asked a former IDF spokesperson why the Israelis did not warn the Gazans that a raid was imminent.

“Of course we didn’t forewarn the civilians, that’s the whole point of clandestine operations,” says Brody. “It’s funny to me that a whole culture that’s grown up on James Bond movies would think that. It’s not just a matter of national interest to save our hostages and to save our people. It’s a moral imperative. Every good country sees it as a moral imperative to protect their own people; the Brits do, the Americans do. Israelis do as well.” At the beginning of the year, Brody – who has long studied the intersection of Jewish thought and practical ethics – published a book on Jewish ethics when it comes to war, Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality. Little did he know when he started writing it, long before October 7, just how relevant it would be. Jewish values encompass the dignity of mankind, pursuit of justice, national honour and vision of world peace, but applying them to warfare does pose some dilemmas, not least the loss of life.

“How do you balance these values?” says Brody. “One of the questions was, we respect the inherent dignity of all human beings, who were created in the image of God, which means we want to minimise bloodshed. We have a vision of world peace that we want to lead towards, but we also recognise the importance and the moral imperative of self-defence, which we learned after many years of not having the tools of self-defence, and we also understand we have to defend our own people.”

The dilemmas become still more acute when the war being fought is against terrorist groups that do not play by rules.

The IDF provides ethical training for its forces and in particular its commanders, and works to instil what’s known as the IDF code of ethics, which teaches principles under the “Purity of Arms” (Taharat Ha-Neshek).

The concept emerged before the state of Israel was founded so that a standard moral principle would stand when fighting any war. In addition, a team of lawyers ensures that the IDF complies with international law and maintains these standards of ethical conduct in warfare.

Mistakes are a sad inevitability for any army, he adds. The number of IDF casualties from friendly fire is the most obvious example of mistakes being made, but also the seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen (WCK) killed in an air strike in Gaza in April. Brody says that you can’t judge an army based on such tragic incidents.

“It’s a terrible mistake, very upsetting. But you don’t judge an army in eight months of fighting based on one or two incidents, or even ten incidents. You have to look at the general ethics, and you have to look at the process of how they try to implement these values. And I think in that respect, the IDF has been amazing.”

He says it is important to note that non-Israeli and non-Jewish analysts such as John Spencer, an expert in urban warfare, have pointed out that the numbers of non-combatants who have been killed or wounded in Israel during this war are “astoundingly low”. “That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been a lot killed, but relative to the number of combatants killed and relative to the environment that we’re fighting in, it is a tremendous accomplishment.”

Social media paints a different picture. “You see children dead, you see bodies blown around, you say ‘whoever did this must be terrible people.’ But did it tell you anything about what actually happened or why that happened? It doesn’t tell you about moral responsibility.”

That is why hasbara – explaining why Israel is fighting and how it’s fighting – is essential, says Brody.

“The importance of thinking seriously is urgent, because even if there’s a Gaza ceasefire, you’ve got Hezbollah, Iran, the Houthis.

“I hope that the book helps strengthen people’s moral fortitude.”

Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View on War and Morality by Rabbi Shlomo Brody (March 7, 2024) is available on Amazon

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