OpinionIsrael at War

Who are our enemies?

The Jewish people are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek—men, women, children, even livestock.

Balconies with Israeli flags in a hotel in the Dead Sea in southern Israel, Nov. 9, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Balconies with Israeli flags in a hotel in the Dead Sea in southern Israel, Nov. 9, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Rabbi Hayim Leiter. Credit: Courtesy.
Rav Hayim Leiter
Hayim Leiter is a rabbi, mohel, wedding officiant and member of a private beit din in Israel. He founded Magen HaBrit, an organization that protects the ceremony of brit milah and the children who undergo it. He lives in Efrat and can be reached on X.

At a recent rally, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) voiced her astonishment that any faith leaders, even rabbis, would not call for a ceasefire in the present Israel and Hamas conflict. She claimed that it is the responsibility of all faith leaders to oppose violence.

Having no background or knowledge of the inner workings of Jewish law, halachah, how can Omar come to such a conclusion? (In addition, this is quite a statement coming from a devout Muslim whose core text has been used by her own faith leaders as the basis for calls of extermination of all non-believers.) These calls for a ceasefire, especially those from Jewish leaders, demand a response rooted in text.

Just to be clear, there was a ceasefire that the entirety of the Jewish people and the Western world supported. It was broken by Hamas on Oct. 7—the bloodiest day for the Jewish people since World War II and the Holocaust. Israel did not want this war, and it still doesn’t want it. The conflict was thrust upon us by a genocidal, jihadist regime that actively seeks the destruction of Israel. For the protection of our sovereign state and the rest of the world, we must fight.

When it comes to Jewish values, the Torah commands us to choose life. If a situation ever arises where the value of life is contradicted by any other Torah command, life is always the trump card. Take, for example, the observance of Shabbat. If one happens upon a collapsed building and there is any inkling that a person is trapped below the rubble, the prohibition against digging is superseded by the command to save a life. The rabbis ruled that we break one Shabbat so the person we’re saving can keep many more in the future.

That may lead one to the false conclusion that all life is of paramount value, and that we should sacrifice our own when under attack. But that is not the case. It is clear in both Torah law and Rabbinic law that if someone breaks into my home and their intentions are unknown—whether it’s theft or murder—I’m permitted to kill the person to save my own life and the life of my family.

The same applies to Hamas. When it comes to a terror group that has openly vowed to annihilate the Jewish people, there is no ambiguity. They intend to kill us; therefore, we are permitted to defend ourselves.

Jewish law requires that before any war, we must first extend our hand in peace to our enemy. As has been the case since the establishment of the state, Israel has attempted peace negotiations with our neighbors time and again to no avail. The disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 was one such significant attempt. The hope was that if we left the region, it would lead to peace negotiations in the future. Unfortunately, as all of the rocket fire since then and the massacre of Oct. 7 indicate that the exact opposite occurred.

As much as we have permission to wage this war, there are certain instances where we’re actually required to do so. The Amalekites have been the sworn enemy of B’nei Yisrael since the times of the exodus from Egypt. During our 40 years in the desert, they attacked us from behind, killing women and children alike. The question has arisen since the time of Mordechai and Esther, does the seed of Amalek still exist? Are those who call for the destruction of the Jewish people or carry out such acts considered the modern-day Amalek?

This may seem like semantics, but the legal ramifications, on a practical level, are significant. The Jewish people are commanded to wipe out even the memory of Amalek—men, women, children, even livestock.

It seems clear that Hamas and all other jihadist groups fall into this category. Their founding charters state such goals explicitly. Therefore, Israel’s declaration of war is more than justified on a halachic level.

The question becomes more complex and unnerving when we investigate how far reaching the category applies. There are those who ask if all Arabs—not just terror groups—should be classified as Amalekites. If we were to answer in the affirmative and applied the ruling practically, then the result would be collective punishment.

When faced with such questions, I look to the father of all modern religions for leadership. Very little is known about Abraham’s life. We know that he heeded God’s call to leave his homeland. We know that he amassed many disciples and fought the three kings to save his brother, just to name a few events. But the most famous anecdote is his moral debate with The Creator.

When God was headed to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy all its inhabitants, Avraham didn’t sit idly by. He argued with God that He shouldn’t punish the innocent with the guilty. They bartered from 50 righteous people down to 10. When God indicated that not even 10 righteous remained, He proceeded to the destruction of the region.

My problem with arguing that all of our neighbors are our enemies is that we know it is not the case. We know that there are at least 10 righteous living among all those who seek our demise. And that small contingent must not be wiped away because of the sins of the many.

But at the same time, it is not true that Hamas represents just a few bad apples, and the vast majority of the Gazan people seek peace with Israel. The problem Israel faces the day after the war ends is this: A sizable number of these people not only danced in the streets on Oct. 7, but many crossed over into Israel to partake in the massacre. I have no idea how we are meant to solve this problem.

Just prior to writing this piece, I was discussing the categorization of Amalek with an acquaintance. We both attended a lesson where the rabbi argued that all Arabs are the modern-day Amalek. We debated back and forth; he sided with the rabbi while I insisted that there must be at least 10 among them worth saving. It was not an easy discussion.

As I walked away from the conversion, my phone displayed news of a terror attack mere kilometers away from where we were—on the same road we all use to travel from Efrat to Jerusalem. Three terrorists had opened fire on cars waiting at a checkpoint. Five people were injured, and the terrorists were neutralized. The soldier who was injured later succumbed to his wounds. As it turned out, my brother-in-law was a few hundred meters from the attack. Thank God, he was not hurt.

Though Hamas took credit for the attack, it occurred nowhere near Gaza. So I ask you Ilhan Omar—and all who support a ceasefire—what would you tell us to do?

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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