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Purity of arms: the ethical guide for the Israel Defense Forces

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot (front, at right) with U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2015. Credit: Department of Defense Photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot (front, at right) with U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2015. Credit: Department of Defense Photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released.

By Noam Zion/

Current and vituperative disputes in Israel over whether or not the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is temperate enough in its response to Palestinian attacks underscore the need to step back from the day’s headlines in order to understand why and how the IDF acts as it does—and also how it doesn’t act.

The roots of today’s military doctrines in Israel, officially titled “The Spirit of the IDF,” predate the state’s establishment. In the face of terror against civilians during the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate (1936-1939), Zionist thinkers like Berl Katznelson developed an amorphous standard of moral warfare called “purity of arms” (a religious neologism), in order to create a modernized biblical notion of ethical sanctity.

For Katznelson, the motivating force for this doctrine was loyalty to historic Jewish values as our true self, not only universal ethics as human beings. The use of weapons is sacred, he wrote, because “we resist those who come to attack us,” in order to preserve our own lives from guilty assailants.

Since Jews for almost 2,000 years had rarely been able to defend themselves from their attackers by constructing their own militias, learning the art of self-defense was a revolution in values, and one which had sacred overtones.

With the establishment of Israel, the IDF adopted the pre-state doctrine of purity of arms, and to this day it teaches the original doctrine, while integrating it with new international and Western legal doctrines, such as minimizing collateral damage, and also with select biblical and rabbinic traditions. The combination reflects the commitment of Israel to its identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

The army teaches that the presence of power over those who are vulnerable, in liminal situations, without normal mechanisms of repression, brings out impulses that may lead to inhumane treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) and sometimes enemy civilians. But the assumption of the study guide the IDF has constructed is that Israeli soldiers can master those evil impulses, especially if they understand them.

In a famous letter to soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon War, the IDF’s chief education officer wrote, “Moral principles lie at the root of our Jewish tradition. Even in war, it is appropriate that relationship of human to human should be humane—not like that of a wolf.”

The IDF study guide defines its message unequivocally. A singular principle of morality applies to all human beings, whether they are Israelis or noncombatant enemy civilians: human dignity and human life. “The Spirit of IDF derives directly from the value of Human Dignity,” states the guide. “It is the highest moral value, and it is supposed to guide IDF soldiers in their activities.”

It is not only the life of one’s comrades that must be saved, but also the lives and the honor of enemy civilians.

“IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat,” the guide says.

Going beyond Katznelson’s original formulation and international law, the IDF makes a unique demand, according to law professor Moshe Halbertal, one of the framers of the IDF Code, when it states that soldiers must do their utmost to avoid the harming of civilians.

“This principle states that it is not enough not to intend to kill civilians while attacking legitimate targets. A deliberate effort has to be made not to harm them,” Halbertal has written. “For such efforts surely must include the expectation that soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing the deaths of civilians.”

The IDF also insists on the principles of proportionality and limitation, stating, “In this kind of warfare which has been forced upon us, the obligation to focus and limit our force is not less important than the obligation to exercise force. Use of force that is unnecessary to the mission is a moral error and an error in execution of the mission.”

This tradition and practice helps to contextualize IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s recent comment that he doesn’t want a soldier “to empty a magazine on a girl holding scissors.”

Further, a 1977 protocol requires the military to warn civilian populations of attacks that may affect them, when circumstances permit. That practice stems from an ancient rabbinic military law which commanded that when soldiers besiege a city, one of the sides must be left open, so that if enemies want to flee, there will be an escape route.

In official army speeches and study guides, the language of hate and vengeance has been removed from the IDF’s rationale for fighting its enemies. Rather, those feelings have been identified as emotional weakness, understandable after fellow soldiers have been killed by the enemy, but not acknowledged as a justification for indiscriminate violence against enemy civilians identified with enemy combatants who have inflicted losses on the IDF.

Instead, the IDF invokes Jewish tradition by citing the verse, “If your enemy falls, do not celebrate; if he falls, let not your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). It would be naive to assume that Jewish and Israeli culture has no place for joy at the downfall of an enemy, but the attempt to identify and control feelings of vengeance is central to the ethical education of the IDF.

The Spirit of the IDF, while patriotic, appears to avoid the fanaticism of militarism and chauvinist nationalism. Surprisingly, an army—whose purpose is to kill and whose ethos is a willingness to risk one’s life to perform one’s mission—defines the highest value as human life.

Noam Zion is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This article is adapted from “Purity of Arms: Educating Ethical Warriors in the Israeli Army,” an analysis of the Israeli training manual for teaching purity of arms and “The Spirit of the IDF,” presented at a conference in Tokyo.

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