Please make sure to read my disclaimer: Why Religious Zionism, Not Judaism, Is The Problem.
Read the Introduction: Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?
Previous: #2 Collective Punishment is Kosher (II)
Far from teaching an ethos of forgiveness, Jewish law–as understood by Orthodox Judaism in Israel–encourages revenge and retaliation. In this vein did Chief Rabbi of Safed in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, call for “state-sanctioned revenge” against Arabs. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported:
The chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, is calling on the government to carry out “state-sanctioned revenge” against Arabs in order to, in his words, restore Israel’s deterrence.
Rabbi Eliyahu bellowed:
It’s time to call the child by its name: Revenge, revenge, revenge. We mustn’t forget. We have to take horrible revenge for the terrorist attack at Mercaz Harav yeshiva.
He said this was necessary because the Arabs “understand very well the language of revenge.” It is, of course, a widely held (racist) belief in Israel that Arabs understand only one language: violence.
Once again, the urge of pro-Israeli apologists in the United States is to claim that Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu is some fringe, radical element. And once again, this would be misleading. Not only does Eliyahu hold the position of Chief Rabbi in Safed, a city in the Northern District of Israel, but he is widely recognized as one of the leaders of Religious Zionism. Israel National News, part of Arutz Sheva (an Israeli media network aligned with Religious Zionism), refers to Eliyahu as one of the “top rabbis in the religious-Zionist camp.” Ynetnews, the English website of Israel’s most-read newspaper, calls him “a prominent religious Zionism leader.” Haaretz refers to R. Eliyahu as one of a group of “prominent rabbis.” And TorahMusings.com finds him prominent enough to reference for religious guidance.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu argued for a policy of ”hanging the children of the terrorist who carried out the attack in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva from a tree.” (How much different is this than official Israeli policy of destroying the homes of (alleged) terrorists, with their children in it?)
R. Eliyahu went further and called for carpet bombing against civilian populations, saying:
And if they do not stop after 1,000 [deaths] then we must kill 10,000. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, voiced similar views, arguing in a letter that “all civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty.” He further argued that “there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza…” R. Mordechai Eliyahu opined:
According to Jewish war ethics, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.
The late Mordechai Eliyahu (1929-2010) was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was the religious head of the entire Sephardic Jewish population in the country. Would our opponents claim that he too was a marginal fringe, radical character?
This highly-esteemed Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel had this to say about “revenge:”
Even when we seek revenge, it is important to make one thing clear – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs. The Talmud states that if gentiles rob Israel of silver they will pay it back in gold, and all that is taken will be paid back in folds, but in cases like these there is nothing to pay back, since as I said – the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of 1,000 Arabs.
An article in the Jerusalem Post summarizes these abhorrent views [formatting note: I have broken up the article into paragraphs to make it more readable and less of an eyesore]:
Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing Gaza
Says there is no moral prohibition against killing civilians to save Jews.
All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.
The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides’ commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.
According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.
The former chief rabbi also said it was forbidden to risk the lives of Jews in Sderot or the lives of IDF soldiers for fear of injuring or killing Palestinian noncombatants living in Gaza. Eliyahu could not be reached for an interview.
However, Eliyahu’s son, Shmuel Eliyahu, who is chief rabbi of Safed, said his father opposed a ground troop incursion into Gaza that would endanger IDF soldiers. Rather, he advocated carpet bombing the general area from which the Kassams were launched, regardless of the price in Palestinian life.
“If they don’t stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand,” said Shmuel Eliyahu. “And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop.”
In the letter, Eliyahu quoted from Psalms. “I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them.” Eliyahu wrote that “This is a message to all leaders of the Jewish people not to be compassionate with those who shoot [rockets] at civilians in their houses.”
As we have seen, these views are held by mainstream Modern Orthodox Judaism, enshrined in War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, that notable work produced by the leading Orthodox Jewish luminaries from all over the world. Controversy surrounded Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu’s statements only because of the way he expressed them: too directly and too bluntly; more importantly, he was unfortunate enough to catch media attention in a time Israel was on the receiving end of international criticism.
R. Eliyahu clarified his position, saying:
I’m not talking about individual people in particular [to take revenge], I’m talking about the state.
This clarification makes it clear that Eliyahu’s stance lines up properly with Jewish orthodoxy. Prof. Gerald J. Blidstein writes in The Treatment of Hostile Civilian Populations: The Contemporary Halakhic Discussion in Israel:
The killing of civilians is acceptable, provided it is initiated by sovereign authority [the Israeli government], not by individuals taking the law (quite literally) into their own hands.
Mainstream Orthodoxy does not differ with the “Jewish Underground” in principle over the killing of Arab civilians. Instead, the difference is only in that the latter permits the individual to carry out these acts, whereas the former restricts that “right” to the government.
Certainly, revenge in war is something accepted by Religious Zionism. Rabbi Moshe Zemer writes in Evolving Halakhah:
Rabbi [Shaul] Yisraeli’s summary leaves no room for doubt: It follows that there is a place for reprisal actions and revenge against the enemies of Israel and that such action falls into the category of an Obligatory War.
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, like Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, justifies collective punishment by invoking Biblical narratives. In one particular story, seven innocents are killed in retaliation for an injustice. Writes Broyde on pp.5-6 of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition:
The Talmud makes no mention of the fact that the underlying act [of retaliation]–the murder of seven absolutely innocent people as an act of retaliation–violates the Jewish rules of murder. The reason that is so is clear. This retaliatory conduct in wartime does not violate any such prohibition.
Broyde concludes that “retaliation when done to teach a lesson is not a general violation of Jewish law.” Rabbi Norman Lamm adds helpfully (on p.235):
In contemporary society, vengeance is considered morally objectionable. Recently, however, scientists have discovered revenge can be quite “normal” and often plays a positive role in human relations.
This “positive role” includes the merciless slaughter of innocent civilians.