The Ethics of Jewish War

Few traditional sources discuss the ethics of fighting noncombatants, but some Jewish laws of war do display a moral genesis.

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This article discusses, among other things, the Israeli notion of "purity of arms." The specifics of this doctrine are as follows: "The Israel Defense Force 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. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity, and property." The following article is excerpted and reprinted with permission from "War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition," in The Ethics of War and Peace, edited by Terry Nardin and published by Princeton University Press.

The Zionist political leaders and publicists who defended tohar haneshek, purity of arms, claimed to be drawing upon the ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition as a whole.war quiz

But when they argued that the use of force was only "pure" if it was directed specifically and exclusively against armed enemies, it was Philo [the first century philosopher], too Hellenistic and too philosophical to play much of a part in the tradition, whose work they were echoing.

Few Jewish Armies, Few Ethical Dilemmas

The rabbis themselves have no such (explicit) doctrine. Why is it that we think them committed to humanitarian restraint? Why were the modern theorists of "purity of arms" so sure that theirs was the natural, with‑the‑grain reading of the tradition?

In fact, the tradition is rather thin, for the usual reason: there were no Jewish soldiers who needed to know what they could and could not do in battle. The law against murder would no doubt rule out direct attacks upon civilians, but the issue does not seem to have arisen (after the biblical period) until very recent times. Indirect attacks and unintended or incidental civilian deaths figure even less in the tradition. The only extended discussion by a major figure comes from the hand of Judah Loew of Prague, writing in the sixteenth century about the biblical encounter of Jacob and Esau (Gur Aryeh on Genesis 32:18).

Jewish warThe argument begins from rabbinic interpretation of a biblical doubling [of similar terms]: "'Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.' Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Ilai said: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that [Jacob] was afraid lest he should be slain and distressed lest he should slay [others]."

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Dr. Michael Walzer

Dr. Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.