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How Israelis Can Fight Terrorists Without Stooping To Their Level

In his new book, Ethics of Our Fighters, Shlomo Brody examines the debates over applying traditional Jewish moral thought to warfighting.


As Israel labored to dislodge Hamas terrorists from bunkers underneath the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, a peculiar photograph saturated newsfeeds otherwise filled with images of supposed Israeli atrocities: stacks of cardboard boxes labeled “Medical Supplies” that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were delivering to the hospital to alleviate suffering.

What kind of army supplies saline drips, infant formula, food, and fuel to an enemy population? What country provides its adversaries with advance notice of airstrikes to protect civilians controlled by its adversary? What type of people consistently far exceed their obligations under international law—even if doing so makes them no friends in a hostile world?

The IDF, Israel, and the Jewish people, that’s who. In Ethics of Our Fighters, a sober and penetrating analysis of how to apply traditional Jewish sources to warfighting, the ethicist and scholar Shlomo Brody skillfully engages with real-world examples of how we have grappled with and constructively implemented the wisdom of our forefathers.

Characterizing his book at “the first attempt in Hebrew or English to present a systematic Jewish perspective on military ethics,” Brody concedes that “classic Jewish sources do not speak at great length about the ethics of warfare.” (Disclosure: Brody is my friend and former schoolmate.) Instead, he begins his exploration by surveying the views of prominent early twentieth-century scholars whom the traumatic events of the Great War, Arab violence in Palestine, and the emerging Holocaust compelled to develop theories of waging war ethically.

Shuls of Thought

One school of thought, embodied by the Orthodox rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares, favored a Quaker-like pacifism, arguing that “the answering of evil with evil is questionable,” is “just as likely to aggravate the original evil,” and represents “only a short-lived palliative.” Yet Brody dismantles this approach, which never caught on widely, by observing that “it is both unreasonable and unfair to deny to victims of aggression the ability to protect their liberty through the use of counterforce.”

Others, like the liberal secular Zionist Martin Buber, reluctantly accepted the need for self-defense, especially in mandatory Palestine. He declared, “I do not want force. But if there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands.”

Yet others, like the Orthodox philosopher and rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who would later become chief rabbi of the Yishuv, contended in his treatise “Israel’s Mission and its Nationhood” that the time had come for the Jewish people “to conduct a nation without wickedness and barbarism.” (The term Yishuv refers to Jewish residents in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.) Kook’s ally and defender, Hayyim Hirschensohn, assumed a similar posture, urging the Jews of Palestine to strike alliances with their neighbors.

This mostly theoretical debate surged into the forefront of everyday politics in the Yishuv in the wake of the 1936 Arab revolt, which inspired the murder of hundreds of Jews. A fierce dispute erupted between establishment figures like David Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett, who insisted on restraint and purity of arms, and Revisionist leaders like Zeev Jabotinsky and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, a founder of religious Zionism. The latter argued for reprisals, respectively, by insisting “Jewish blood is not cheap,” and invoking the biblical story of Simeon and Levi who sacked Shechem and slayed its inhabitants after their sister Dinah was raped.

Attacks against Arab civilians launched by the Etzel, the Revisionists’ military arm, largely alienated the Yishuv, including most religious leaders. They refused to countenance the deliberate targeting of innocents. The same debate persisted once Israel was established as a state and endures today.

A ‘Jewish Multivalue Framework’

So how can and should policymakers reconcile these competing approaches? Should restraint or retribution guide their strategies? And what tactics may they justifiably use to execute them? Brody proposes a “Jewish multivalue framework” that takes into account nine key considerations: the dignity of mankind, the inherent wrong of illicit bloodshed, individual responsibility, a vision of world peace, warfare in pursuit of justice, the collectivity of warfare, national partiality, bravery and courage, and national honor.

Take the religiously and politically charged issue of whether Israel should conscript yeshiva students. Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the first chief rabbi of Israel, argued that the 1948 War of Independence, an existential war of self-defense par excellence, compelled universal participation.

Herzog’s contemporary, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, whose father’s views we examined above, rooted his demand for enlisting all able-bodied men in the commandment to conquer the Land of Israel. Both scholars arrived at the same conclusion in 1948, but the same principles—defense and conquest—conflicted in future Israeli dilemmas, including the debate over territorial compromise. Brody reckons that Herzog’s superior “model recognizes the need to take into account multiple values.”

Applying his framework to the suicidal strategy employed at Masada and in the Warsaw Ghetto—two classic instances where Jewish resistance was futile and death assured, but which legendarily inspired generations of Jews—Brody observes that suicide should only be sanctioned in the rarest of circumstances. He invoked former IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren, who distinguished between the warrior ethic in the diaspora, where we might indulge a given strategy’s low probability of success, and in Israel, where we cannot afford to.

“To achieve genuine national honor,” Brody writes, “one needs the nation to live.” Or, to quote Patton, “No son of a b-tch ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb son of a b-tch die for his.”

On the Ethics of Preemptive Attack

Then, too, Brody’s multivalue approach favors launching a preemptive attack when facing an imminent, credible, and grave threat, as Israel did in both 1967 and 1973. “A country’s leadership should act on that moral obligation,” he argues, “even if, in the misguided eyes of international bodies, they will be legally deemed the aggressors.” In support, he cites numerous medieval rabbis who defined preemptive strikes as “obligatory wars” necessitating action.

Even preventative attacks like the 1956 Suez Campaign can be justified, according to Talmudic authorities, when designed to inhibit intermittent attacks, like those the fedayeen launched against Israeli civilians from the then-Egyptian Gaza Strip. In the Suez Campaign, Israel seized an opportunity to capture the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt before American pressure forced an ignominious withdrawal.

On the other hand, Israel’s bungling of the First Lebanon War in 1982, where political and military leaders badly executed conflicting and incompletely disclosed strategies, undermined its justifications for initiating the campaign. In all cases, Brody astutely notes, “discretionary choices need to be made in a world of uncertainty.”

Other aspects of military engagement benefit from applying the Jewish multivalue framework. For instance, traditional sources require an army besieging a hostile city to allow a route of escape for noncombatants, even though customary international law mandates no such practice. Israel duly adhered to this standard in Beirut in the 1980s and has reprised this merciful tactic in its current engagement in Gaza.

So, too, must an army weigh the value of protecting its soldiers against avoiding egregious harm to enemy civilians, who, too, are imbued with dignity. Such is illustrated by Israel’s perilous dilemma in Beirut, Gaza, and elsewhere, where they must choose between aerial bombing and house-to-house fighting. Also, the traditional notion of the rodef, or “pursuer,” furnishes guidance in the thorny and fraught process of distinguishing between fighters and noncombatants in urban warfare.

Brother Over ‘Other’

Finally, the doctrines of proportionality and double effect can and should be informed by a values-based approach. In ascertaining how heavily to attack, say, an apartment block commandeered by Hamas, military decision-makers must take into account the terrorists’ illegal and immoral exploitation of civilian infrastructure.

They must also be unafraid to prioritize the lives of their citizens over those of the enemy, of “brother” over “other.” “For the West to win just wars,” Brody contends, “it must internalize the following lesson: body counts are not a moral barometer, and extensive casualties do not indicate excessive behavior.”

Ethics of Our Fighters also incorporates warfighting wisdom from leading exponents of just-war theory, including Winston Churchill; Franz Lieber, who codified military norms in 1863 at the behest of Abraham Lincoln; Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who prosecuted Nazi war criminal at Nuremberg; the esteemed military historian John Keegan; and the decorated political philosopher Michael Walzer, with whom Brody has debated military ethics in real time.

Brody also trains a justifiably skeptical eye on international institutions, such as the much-maligned League of Nations, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations writ large, which are putatively responsible for keeping the peace but more often become mired in the same geopolitical conflicts they seek to resolve, to say nothing of the corruption and pernicious anti-Western bias that infects their very existence.

“When you deploy with your company to confront your enemies,” Deuteronomy enjoins us, “take care to avoid doing evil.” Brody provides helpful and hard-headed guidance for how the young Israeli men and women currently endangering their lives to fight evil can effectively do so while not succumbing to it.

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