For much of history, Jews were without power, and looked to those who had power over us to use it responsibly and morally. Now that Jews have power over others as a sovereign state, we, like all democratic countries, must struggle with the moral challenges of exercising that power in a complex world. Israel’s challenges are exceptionally difficult in the face of asymmetrical warfare, with an enemy that embeds itself within a civilian population and in fact glorifies civilian casualties as a perverse kind of victory. In light of these challenges, the iEngage unit on war examines two core questions: What constitutes a just war? And, how do we fight a just war justly? In other words, a Jewish army must have a morality of war, and it must also exercise morality in war.
The core definition of a just war – both by contemporary international standards and according to sources from our tradition – is a war of self-defense. Two sample texts from the iEngage curriculum serve to illustrate this point:
1. Bemidbar Rabba 21:4:
Our tradition deems the right of self-defense to be an imperative, a moral responsibility – even if it must be exercised at the cost of another’s life. But at the same time, the need for self-preservation constitutes the only justification for killing. The rabbis seem troubled by the command for the Israelites to assail another nation, for they are quick to point to the verse that they feel justifies the commandment: they must engage in war only because they have been attacked.
2. The Spirit of the IDF (the Israeli army’s ethical code, studied by every soldier in basic training):
The IDF’s goal is to defend the existence of the State of Israel, its independence and the security of the citizens and residents of the state…. IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission [i.e. defense of the state and its citizens], only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat.
The definition of a just war as a war of self-defense, rather than a war of aggression, is built into the very name of the Israeli army – the Israel Defense Force – and her charter. Only as such – as a defense force – is the use of our army legitimate. When the IDF uses power for another purpose, it goes beyond its mandate, and moves from inflicting regrettable but necessary and justified harm to committing murder.
Through subsequent sources, the iEngage curriculum explores the substance of morality in war, identifying core principals such as: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants and never targeting the latter; the notion of proportionality – using only the amount of force that is necessary in order to achieve the goal of self-defense; and not abdicating one’s moral obligations on the battlefield even when one’s enemies abandon theirs.
The application of these principals is exceedingly difficult, and no country or army is infallible. But, the iEngage curriculum argues, we must nonetheless come together around the creation of a “new Torah” that combines international law, contemporary morality of war, and ancient principals of our tradition – which demand of us to honor the sanctity of life, both our own and our adversaries’, and to take life only when absolutely necessary for the purpose of self-defense.
Courtesy of Rabbi Julia Andelman, Director, Engaging Israel Project, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (and a Teaneck resident).