General Topics

Ethical Warfare


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine raises important moral issues about warfare. Some people believe that all violence is wrong under all circumstances. Pacifism has a long tradition in religions and cultures both in the West and in the East. Judaism on the other hand takes a pragmatic standpoint. As Russia defies every moral standard in Ukraine, what does Judaism have to say about warfare? And as we have just celebrated Israeli Independence and seventy-four years of constant existential threat, how do we match up?

We who are privileged not to live in a war zone are struggling to cope with the pictures we see of the cruelty of invasion of civilian territory, the murder, rape, kidnapping, and needless destruction perpetrated by people who may masquerade as humans but in fact, do not deserve that appellation. All this has been going on continuously in some part of the world or another. The sheer evil is staggering and the suffering overwhelming.

The moral issues of warfare are complex and continue to be debated. Under what conditions must one fight? When can one refuse orders? Can we allow pre-emptive strikes, targeting assassinations, dealing with human shields, weapons hidden in civilian buildings, unwarranted destruction of property and supplies, landmines, and missiles, not to mention the use of poison gas and nuclear weapons? All these are issues that continue to be debated around the world and have not been resolved. Of course, we deplore all this but how are we to deal with situations such as the Israeli battle to survive where no negotiated peace has been agreed upon? Should we just give up to avoid conflict regardless of the consequences? Should we allow Putin to destroy Ukraine? Or Hamas, Iran, or Hezbollah to destroy Israel? I do not believe so.   But of course, we should be very careful to wage war as humanely as possible.

All attempts to get the world to accept rules of warfare have failed. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 were adopted by members of the United Nations. The Conventions were expanded and supplemented by the Additional Protocol of 1977, relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts. But like the UN itself, they have been completely ignored time and time again by evil and corrupt regimes all around the world.

When one looks at the Bible, it is clear that certain obligations to go to war were temporary or abstractions. The oft-quoted campaign to get rid of Canaanites has to be taken as an exception. The Canaanites were not all killed when the Israelites invaded and went on coexisting with the Israelites for hundreds of years. The rabbis of the Talmud agreed that such laws were temporary and became obsolete. Even the optional wars used by Israelite kings to expand their territories were so hemmed in by restrictions, both physical and spiritual that they became inapplicable for two and a half thousand years. One might even say that we have been fortunate not to have become an aggressive evangelical imperialist religion like Christianity and Islam that saw warfare as a way of spreading their religions. 

The Bible expresses its abhorrence of violence in many ways. The altar in the Tabernacle Temple was built without the use of metal tools because of their association with violence. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because of his war-like career. The dream of the prophets was to beat swords into plowshares and never more teach war (Isaiah 2:4).

We differentiate between wars. The Mishna War of Obligation, Milchemet Mitzvah, is contrasted to an optional one Milchemet Reshut. The War of Obligation was essentially one of defense. A matter of existential survival. Every single citizen was obliged to participate in one way or another, either by fighting or by providing ancillary support. Otherwise, providing ancillary services and support for those fighting, was an obligation too. 

“Because the Lord your God walks amid your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that there should be nothing immoral or corrupt among you” (Deut. 23:15). Nachmanides in his commentary on that verse, explains that because moral restraints are loosened at the time of war, we must be extra vigilant and humane.

Amongst specific laws laid down regarding warfare are “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, you should offer peace to it”(Deut.20:10). “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them, but you may eat of them.” (Deut. 20:19). ). You must respect treaties and not lie (Maimonides Hilchot Melakhim 6:3). There must be a way left open out of besieged cities to allow civilians to escape (Ibid 6:7). There is a prohibition against the destruction of property in general ( ibid 6:8).

Since the struggle for the establishment of Israel, we have had to address these issues of warfare and the moral constraints on warfare in modern terms. How are we to deal with a situation today where no permanent peace has been agreed upon with the Palestinians, seventy-four years after the Arab world declared war and invaded, and still violence continues? How do we deal when one part of an enemy population has not made peace, while others encourage violence? What actions can we take to discourage attacks?  How do we deal with an enemy that uses human shields or locates weapons in civilian properties while sending rockets against our civilians? Who can we trust to make peace? These are issues that are debated militarily and in the Judiciary. And often there are conflicting opinions.

Despite the constant threats the Israeli Army has strict rules of engagement and important principles of moral warfare. “The Purity of Arms” is a core principle of the army. “The IDF servicemen and women will act judiciously and safely in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat, they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.” It is a source of pride that we have such a concept. And it is constantly being revised and challenged in the Supreme Court. IDF policy and the IDF Doctrine Statement is not a religious document, but its underlying religious basis was established and published by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917–1994), who had served in the IDF as both paratrooper and chief chaplain.

Of course, there have been disastrous mistakes, poor decisions, and rogue soldiers who have ignored the rules. Mitigating circumstances are the constant threats to life and pressures that can easily lead to excesses. Some military tribunals have poor decisions, some commanding officers have exceeded their remits and politicians have failed to grasp some opportunities and squandered others. But unless one lives under such constant threat to life and limb, the constant fear of losing a loved one it is hard to pass unbiased judgment. As a general rule the standards of Israel’s army, especially when compared to every other military, are really impressive.

There are, naturally, different rabbinic points of view in Israel across the spectrum from right to left.  Should one allow collective punishment? Can one demolish the houses of a terrorist? Is there a halakhic obligation to allow the enemy an avenue of escape if they may return to the offensive? Contemporary halakhic authorities disagreed as to whether the Israeli army should allow terrorists to escape during a siege. Should one shoot, wound, or kill a threat? Others believe that there is justification for harming a civilian population that supports the enemy forces and voluntarily assists them, or that when the enemy forces are embedded in a civil population one may have no option but to kill non-combatants.

I advocate compassion, humanity, and reconciliation. At the same time, I believe that one has to understand that some people react very badly under duress and stress and there are always bad apples. Despite occasional lapses, I am inordinately proud of the Israeli army for all its faults which does more to avoid casualties than any other.  But in the end, as the Talmud says, “ When someone arises to kill you, kill that person first!”

There comes a moment when survival trumps other considerations. The mere fact that Israel constantly debates these issues is a compliment, both to Israel’s legal system and our overwhelmingly humane religion and society.