OpinionIsrael at War

How Jews should conduct themselves during wartime

The Torah’s teaching is that a law-abiding army must take steps to minimize civilian casualties, insofar as possible, while that army achieves its mission and defeats its enemy.

Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the border with Lebanon, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the border with Lebanon, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Jerome M. Marcus
Jerome M. Marcus
Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer in Philadelphia.

How must Jews conduct themselves in war? Exactly on time, the Torah readings for these days tell us. In those readings, the Torah demands something unique of the Jews: the obligation to hold in our minds two manifestly inconsistent things at the same time. We must defend our own; and we must take care not to injure innocents among our enemies.

Holding two inconsistent things in our minds is a duty of a Jew not only about this but about the most important thing of all—our relationship with God. The Torah commands us to love God, which means that we must desire to draw close, but at the same time also fear or be in awe of God, which means wanting to keep a safe distance away. Seek His face always, the Psalmist says. But Moses had already warned us that no one can see God’s face and live.

In Lech Lecha, last week’s Torah reading, Abraham’s nephew Lot is taken hostage; we read that portion while more than 200 Jews are held hostage in Gaza. Abraham goes into battle and saves his nephew out of a sense of family duty.

But after the war is over, God cautions Abraham not to be afraid, and God says that He will defend Abraham. The Midrash asks: What was Abraham afraid of, given that he had victoriously left the battlefield? And from what was he to be defended?

The Midrash answers that Abraham worried he had killed innocents while in combat; according to the Midrash, God assured Abraham this had not happened and that every one of his victims was morally meritless. The famous commentator Rashi, however, says otherwise, explaining that God made clear that there is indeed a punishment for killing an innocent on the battlefield, though God would defend Abraham from such punishment.

Rashi is telling us that it’s not so easy. In fact, he understands God to be telling Abraham: You did kill innocents, and that act is punishable. But you will not be punished.

Why?

The answer is in the next parshah, this week’s portion, Vayeira. Abraham is not punished because he understands two things at once—when the guilty must be destroyed, some innocents will necessarily be victims as well. But that is not a fact to be shrugged off as inevitable. It is a tragedy; indeed, it threatens a desecration of the world, one that is to be minimized as much as possible.

We proudly learn as Jewish children the story of Abraham bargaining with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to force God to save the evil majority for the sake of a righteous few. “It would be a desecration by You,” says Abraham to God “to do a thing like this, to kill the righteous with the evil. You would be equating the two. Will the judge of the entire world not do justice?”

In the bargaining, we all remember, Abraham starts at 50 righteous souls and “forces” God to agree that even for only 10 such people in all of Sodom and Gomorrah, those cities would be saved. Even as young children, when we learned this story we sensed in the back of our minds that God must have known all along that there would not be enough righteous people in this evil place to save it. It followed ineluctably that some innocents would indeed have to die unless they could be extracted, which is exactly why angels come to rescue Lot and his family. Some of those to be rescued refuse to leave. We know what happens to them.

The Torah’s teaching is the teaching of the Geneva Convention—that a law-abiding army must take steps to minimize civilian casualties, insofar as possible, while that army achieves its mission and defeats its enemy. The law-abiding soldier must do as Abraham did. He must first achieve his mission, but to the extent possible consistent with achievement of that mission, the law abiding soldier must strive to minimize civilian casualties.

It should go without saying, though it absolutely must be said, that Hamas flagrantly, publicly, proudly and constantly violates these rules. That must be said not because it confers a license on Israel’s law-abiding army to do likewise; it does not confer such a license. It must be said because it defines the danger whose elimination is the mission of Israel’s army. The risk of a repetition of the slaughter on Oct. 7 is the danger which the army of the Jewish state must confront and eliminate, and the magnitude of the danger of such a repetition defines the magnitude of the steps Israel’s army must take to eliminate that danger.

Consistent with the achievement of this mission—consistent with the elimination of Hamas’s capacity to do again what it did on Oct. 7—civilian casualties must be minimized. Thus says the Torah; thus says Rashi; and thus says the international law defining the law of war.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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