* Please make sure to read my disclaimer Why Religious Zionism, Not Judaism, Is The Problem wherein I clarify that “Jewish law” here is not meant to be understood in a blanket way. Certainly, there exist alternative, more compassionate understandings of Halakha. I understand that many readers are deeply uncomfortable with characterizing “Jewish law” in such a sweeping manner as we have done in this “thought exercise”–but that’s the point of the article series: if you refuse to generalize Halakha, then why do you do it to Sharia?
Read the Introduction: Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?
Previous: #4 TERRORISM!
Israel recently agreed to release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 1 captive Israeli soldier. The soldier’s name is Gilad Shalit: he is neither a high-ranking military official or anyone of national importance. Then, why did Israel agree to ransom him with over a thousand men? Why is he worth so much?
CNN ran with the headline “Shalit swap based on ‘ultimate value of human life,’ rabbis say”:
“Judaism places ultimate value on human life. Therefore in the Jewish tradition, in Jewish law, redeeming captives trumps just about everything else,” said Ascherman, of Rabbis for Human Rights. “It takes priority over anything else you can possibly do.”
So, it is just that Israelis value life so much? Are they just that superbly moral? I have seen such discussion on the internet and in the media, with pro-Israeli apologists comparing this “ultimate value of human life” with the “culture of death” that Palestinians (and Arabs/Muslims) supposedly have.
Yet, the CNN article is misleading, as it implies that Judaism* values human life, when in fact Jewish law* places the ultimate value on Jewish life only. The mitzvah (religious obligation) to redeem prisoners is limited to fellow Jews. It does not apply to Gentiles. Had the prisoner been Christian or Muslim (ha!), Israel would never have made such a trade.
There is a deeply racial underpinning here: according to Jewish law*, Jews and Jewish life are always considered superior to Gentiles and Gentile life. Prof. Israel Shahak, an Israeli human rights activist, documented the background for this racist religious dogma in his book Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. For example, he quotes Rabbi Abraham Kook, largely considered “the ultimate father figure” of Religious Zionism, who stated that “the difference between a Jewish soul and the souls of non-Jews…is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle.”
Admittedly, such beliefs are not unfamiliar to Radical and Ultra-Conservative Muslims, who argue that “the worst Muslim is better than the best non-Muslim.” Similar statements can be heard from fundamentalist Christians. Yet, Religious Zionists take this bigoted idea much further, using it to justify the killing of civilians: to save one Jewish life, killing any number of Gentiles is acceptable. Not only can one exchange 1,000 Gentile prisoners for 1 Jewish prisoner, but one can also kill 1,000 Gentiles to save 1 Jewish prisoner (or as revenge and deterrence in the case of a Jewish soldier who was killed).
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde asks rhetorically on p.4 of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition (a book written under the auspices of the world’s leading Orthodox Jewish minds):
If the government can rescue a soldier only by killing a dozen innocent infants in the enemy camp, may it do that?
Broyde argues in the affirmative, noting that “enemy civilians” are “less sacred than one’s own soldiers.” Even if it were otherwise, Broyde argues, Jewish law* allows for a “presumptive hora’at sha’ah (temporary edict/suspension of law) that would permit such[.]” He goes on to say:
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for example, permits the sacrifice of oneself as a form of hora’at sha’ah [temporary edict/suspension of law] that is allowed by Jewish law to save the community. While the voluntary act of heroic self-sacrifice and the killing of an unwilling victim are not parallel, I think that one who would permit a Jewish soldier to kill himself to save the community, would permit the killing of “less innocent” enemy soldiers or even civilians in such situations as well. In grave times of national war, every battle and every encounter raises to such a level, I suspect.
In “every battle and every encounter,” it is permitted to kill “even civilians.”
Broyde raises a very odd argument, rhetorically asking:
If a government can choose as a matter of policy to engage in retaliatory military action that risks the lives of its own soldiers and civilians in a time of war, does it not follow that it may do so with enemy soldiers and civilians as well?
Rabbi Norman Lamm asks on p.238:
To use the Talmudic phraseology, is the blood of Israeli soldiers any less red than that of enemy Arab civilians?
The bottom line is that the Jewish military can kill enemy civilians to “save its soldiers.” Prof. David Shatz writes on p.xix of the introduction to War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition:
It would be morally acceptable, and perhaps even required, to cause civilian deaths in order to save your own combatants.
How many civilian deaths? Certainly, “killing a dozen innocent infants in the enemy camp” to save 1 Jewish soldier is not unreasonable. The 1-to-1,000 ratio is also acceptable. Mordechai Eliyahu, the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, bellowed:
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.
He went on to say:
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.
The Sephardi Chief Rabbi called for carpet bombing the Palestinians instead of “risk[ing] the lives of Jews.” The Jerusalem Post reported in an article entitled “Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing Gaza: Says there is no moral prohibition against killing civilians to save Jews“:
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.
Similarly did Rabbi Yaakov Perin famously state that “one million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”
One of Israel’s justifications for the 2006 Lebanon War, which killed over a thousand Lebanese (mostly civilians), was to recover two IDF soldiers. Does it seem reasonable to kill over a thousand people to recapture two soldiers?
During the conflict in Gaza, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, former Rabbi of the Beit She’an Valley in Northern Israel, opined that “the Halacha (Jewish law) countenances the killing of non-combatants in times of war,” and that “there is no excuse for endangering our own citizens or soldiers to protect the lives of civilians on the other side.” This is an argument for Israel relying on carpet bombing against a civilian population instead of sending in ground troops to fight in “hand-to-hand combat.”
Far from being the views of some radical, fringe element in Israel, these are the mainstream beliefs of Religious Zionism. These attitudes are reflected in Israeli society as a whole, with “more than 70 per cent support for bombing Gaza–but just 20 per cent support for a ground invasion.” It is no surprise then that indiscriminate killing–accepted by international law as “equally” criminal compared to targeting civilians–is thus the norm of Israeli war policy.
Surely, a dozen or a thousand Palestinian infants (who will grow up to be terrorists anyways) are not worth the life of one brave Israeli soldier.
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This racist line of thinking reaches its logical conclusion by encouraging the slaughter of civilians to “protect” Jewish soldiers. A Jewish soldier’s life is so much more precious than the lives of enemy civilians that this trade-off is acceptable. On pp.65-67 of Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Prof. Israeli Shahak documents a Q&A between an Israeli soldier and Rabbi Shim’on Weiser (a conversation originally published in the yearbook of one of Israel’s prestigious religious institutions, Midrashiyyat No’am). In it, the soldier asks the rabbi:
[Am I] permitted to put myself in danger by allowing a woman to stay alive? For there have been cases when women threw hand grenades.
Rabbi Weiser responds by saying:
The rule “Whoever comes to kill you, kill him first” applies to a Jew…[but] it only applies to him if there is [actual] ground to fear that he is coming to kill you. But a Gentile [non-Jew] during wartime is usually presumed so, except when it is quite clear that he has no evil intent.
In other words, Jews are considered innocent by default, whereas Arabs are guilty until proven innocent. If there is any doubt as to the innocence of the Arab civilian, such a person should be killed just to be on the safe side. The Israeli soldier responds by restating the Rabbi’s position:
As for [your] letter [to me], I have understood it as follows:
In wartime I am not merely permitted, but enjoined to kill every Arab man and woman I chance upon, if there is a reason to fear that they help in the war against us, directly or indirectly.
In the current climate, there is such a high level of paranoia in Israeli society that almost every Palestinian is seen as a threat, constituting “a reason to fear.”
* * * * *
Similar arguments are raised by many of Israel’s ardent defenders to justify killing civilians. Former IDF soldier and full-time Israeli propagandist Cori Chascione of Jewcy opines:
Individual [Israeli] soldiers are not permitted to risk their own lives in order to avoid collateral damage or to save civilians…a soldier’s life comes before a civilian in enemy territory
Ted Belman of Israpundit.com writes:
As a numbers game, is it moral to cause one of your own to be killed to avoid killing ten of them? What about one hundred of them. In the last few days we killed 100 of them and lost 2 of ours. To my mind that is moral.
How similar is this rhetorical questioning; we saw it in the sober, serious, and scholarly book written by the leading Orthodox Jewish luminaries of the world (see above).
With views such as these emanating from mainstream Orthodox Judaism, it is only natural that others would take this paranoid worldview even further, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira who declared that it would be licit to kill [Palestinian] children if there was a fear that they would “grow up to become enemies of the Jewish people.”
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As I have repeated over and over again, I am not trying to categorize all of Judaism, all interpretations of Jewish law, or all Jews as one way or another. I am simply establishing that extremist views such as these exist in no short supply. So why this overwhelming focus on Islam, Islamic law, and Muslims?