Monday, July 31, 2006

Can the IDF kill civilians?

My friends Chardal and Bluke insist that Jewish law does not recognize the concept of innocent civilians. They argue, therefore, that the IDF betrays Jewish morality when it takes steps to minimize the loss of civillian life, especially when those efforts put the lives of Jewish soldiers at risk. Again, and again they've called on Israel to regard the civilian areas of southern Lebanon in the same way that the US regarded Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not a single soldier should be endanged, they argue, if pockets of resistance can be anihilated from the air, even if this means civillians will be anihilated along with the militants.

As a general rule, Jewish law puts the preservation of life ahead of everything else and, as a general rule, a Jew may not participate in any life-threatening activities. But there are exceptions. Writing in Hilchos Melachim (5:1) the Rambam tell us a Jewish government is permitted to risk the life of its soldiers for optional wars, and optional goals. These include expanding the borders of Israel or increasing the country's greatness and reputation. Will these projects put the lives of soldiers at risk? Of course. Yet the government is nonethless permitted to pursue them.

There are good, pragmatic reasons to avoid killing civillians. If Israel were to carpet-bomb civilian areas, as Chardal wishes, American support would likely evaporate, and more serious enemies such as Syria and Iran might be provoked into war. And even if such a doomsday scenario can be avoided, there's still the danger that a war on civilians might send the Lebanese government running into Syria's waiting arms, and that residual anger and humilaition might one day lead to the creation of something even worse than Hizbollah.

If we're going to live according to Jewish morality, let's not go halfway. The same Rambam who tells us [Hilchos Melachim (6:5, 6:6)] that we are permitted to kill civilians with no restrictions, also tells us that war (and, therefore, the death of soldiers) is permitted for the sake of the country's greatness and reputation. The government which is permitted to kill civillians, is also permitted to put soldiers at risk for the sake of political goals, including nebulous objectives such as protecting the country's reputation.

Does this sound like I am being a bit cavalier with the lives of Jewish soldiers? Perhaps yes; but, unfortunately, as Chardal and his friends never tire of reminding us, Torah morality and Western morality don't always coincide.

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