The Gaza War and the Supreme Moral Standards of the Israeli Army

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 27 oktober 2023

In the weeks ahead, Israel will be facing one of the hardest tests a nation ever has to face, and it isn’t what we might think. The test is not to stay strong under the threat of rockets fired at our population centers, nor of repelling vicious incursions from across our borders, nor even of standing against the hatred of the nations when we fight back. We’ve faced all these things, and though we know we’ll pay a price, we also know that we are equal to the challenge.

But the war now facing the State of Israel poses a greater challenge, and that is to hold on to the high moral standards that have sustained us since Israel’s founding. We must ensure that we do not become the very thing that we are fighting against.

Facing the sheer depravity and cruelty of last week’s attacks on our civilians, and the horrible thought of what is happening to our people held captive in Gaza, it can be very hard to fight the desire for revenge. There’s no shame in this; it’s the natural reaction to atrocities against those we love.

And it’s because this is our natural reaction that our Torah warns us against acting according to blind instinct.

This coming Shabbat we will read Parashat Noah. Our sages see in this parashah the beginning of human legislation. In fact, the Talmud offers two different derivations of “Noachide Law” – laws which are meant to be binding on all human beings. Noachide Law is “natural law”, the sort of rules that are required for human beings to live together in peace. Hints of such law are provided by the Covenant of Noah, in which God promises natural stability to allow human beings to fulfill their destinies. In exchange, Noah is presented with a fundamental rule:

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the Image of God did He make man.”

The institutionalization of human responses
It is significant that not only is society allowed to kill the murderer but it is required to do so! We are not allowed to turn a blind eye to the danger to human life by letting a murderer go unpunished. In fact, the Hebrew text makes it very clear that there is a kind of natural cause and effect at work here: shofekh (sheds) dam (blood) ha’adam (of man), ba’adam (by man) damo (his blood) yishafekh (will be shed).

This mirrored (chiastic) structure makes it clear that retribution for murder is the mirror image of murder. There is in this a hint of the way actions necessarily provoke a reaction, a sense that this is built into the universe – just as it is built into the text.

But more, by making this rule universal, the commandment to Noah makes it clear that no human being is “more equal” than others. While in the past, family members might have avenged the murder of one of their own, from now on, they are obligated to do the same even for strangers. Law is thus the extension of “family rules” into the universal realm; we are to treat all human beings as if they were our family.

The Torah gives us ways to channel our natural passions, in particular when dealing with issues where our moral sense recoils. For example, the law of the beautiful woman captured in war, who must be married and supported for the rest of her life. In these cases, the Torah seems to be saying: “You want revenge? You want to satisfy your lust? Sure, but not so fast! There are procedures that must be satisfied first!”

And in the course of fulfilling these bureaucratic requirements, tempers cool, lust subsides, sanity prevails.

The test of statehood
Do we still need such procedures?

To see exactly what happens when a society is built on lawlessness, we need look no farther than Gaza. Honor killings, abuse of women and gays, and the persecution of Christians and other minorities are not just tolerated there, but actively encouraged by the Hamas regime. From sanctifying violence as a means to rid the Middle East of Jews, Hamas has moved to sanctifying violence for its own sake.

Once the market for violence has been created, one must continue to produce the product or go bankrupt. If one group is no longer providing the level of violence for which they have built a "market", other – even more radical – groups will step in to fill the void. And so we see with last night’s tragic “own goal” by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in which a rocket fired at Israel fell on a local hospital, killing 300 people.

This is the state of society that our Torah warns us against. Ironically, the Hebrew term is חָמָֽס – hamas – meaning violent lawlessness. Hamas, in both senses of the word, is the antithesis of what the Torah asks of us.

The laws of war
Calls to pay Hamas back in the same coinage are natural enough. But we have seen where following these urges might bring us. After all, what has the brutality of the countries around us bought them? What sort of “victory” have they won? Failed states with millions of hungry people on the streets. Civil wars that have left millions dead and tens of millions homeless.

Israel, by contrast, is a democracy, and will use whatever force it deems necessary to protect its citizens. Here too, Israel will hold true to the rule of law. The laws of war include two rules that are of particular importance in our situation: these are the rules of Distinction and Proportionality. “Distinction” requires that combatants make a good-faith effort to direct their fire only at enemy combatant targets. “Proportionality” means using only so much force as is necessary to thwart future attacks. It has nothing to do with the amount of damage caused by the attack to which one is responding.

As always, the Israeli army will hold true to its doctrine of “purity of arms”, doing everything possible to minimize as far as possible collateral damage among civilians. But it must destroy its murderous enemies. The destruction of Hamas will not only prevent future attacks on Israeli citizens, but will also free the citizens of Gaza from a brutal dictatorship that has impoverished and terrorized them for more many years. Any mercy shown to Hamas will only lead to more brutal violence in years to come.

May the Israeli army succeed, for the sake of all citizens in the Middle East.

Yael Shahar (member of the Nathan Lopes Cardozo's Writers Quilt)

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