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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Maimonides also proposes a general rule against the sorts of violence that commonly follow upon a successful siege. Anyone "who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food…transgresses the command Thou shalt not destroy." This sort of thing the tradition is fairly clear about, and the clarity may help, again, to account for its reputation. What is missing is any analysis of underlying principles (like Philo's distinction between individuals whose life is one of hostility and all others) and any casuistic applications.

These discussions have no cases‑‑even the biblical cases are largely unmentioned. What, for example, would Maimonides have said about the prophet Elishah's call for an all‑out war against Moab (2 Kings 3:19), "And ye shall smite every fenced city…and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones"? This sounds like an easy case, except that Elishah's advice could not easily be denounced. And how would besieged civilians fare when really hard choices had to be made, when the capture of the city was held to be militarily urgent or necessary?

Maybe It's Okay to Fight Noncombatants

Debate about such questions in contemporary Israel has not yet produced a major theoretical statement. A number of rabbis have criticized the official "purity of arms" doctrine, writing as if it were an alien ideology (secular, Kantian, absolutist) and demanding a relaxation of its ban on the killing of enemy civilians.

The critics do not argue that enemy lives are worth less than Jewish lives, for at least with regard to protection against murder, the tradition is basically egalitarian. Their argument seems to follow instead from a deep suspicion, learned in the centuries of exile and probably better remembered among religious than secular Jews, about the extent of the enmity of the others. Nor is the enmity‑‑this is the concrete fear that goes with the generalized suspicion‑-reliably confined to soldiers. Civilians, too, wait and plan to do us harm.

But if this argument has traditionalist roots, it is also very close to all the (secular, anti‑Kantian, permissive) arguments that have been worked out in every contemporary nation whose soldiers have fought anti-guerrilla or counterinsurgency wars. The guerrilla is hidden among the people, who thus become complicitous in his struggle, or he hides himself and is thus responsible for the civilian deaths we cause when we try to find and attack him.

Anyway, war is hell, "for that is the nature of war," wrote Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli after the Kibiyeh incident in 1954 [in which 69 Jordanian civilians were killed by Israeli forces], "that in it the innocent are destroyed with the wicked." There exist both secular and religious responses to these arguments, but none of them seems to me specifically or in any strong sense Jewish. The resources of the tradition have not yet been fully mobilized and brought to bear in this (highly politicized) debate.

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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.