Shelach 5766 — Rules of War

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Shelach 5766 By Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff Nevertheless the people, who live in the land, are strong, and the cities are walled, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there.    …Numbers 13:28 How many Palestinian children’s lives are worth one Jewish Israeli soldier’s life?  How many Iraqi children’s lives are worth one American soldier’s life? These are difficult questions.  But they are very real questions.  They are part of a broader question of what are the rules of engagement in war.  When we go to war, how are we to conduct ourselves? War is a scary business.  The Jewish people have historically been reluctant to go to war.  This is demonstrated by this week’s Torah reading, Shelach.  In this week’s parsha, the time is about two years after leaving Egypt.  God has already brought the Jewish people out of Egypt, gave them the Ten Commandments, and has been guiding them through the desert ever since.  The first two years of wandering around the desert may have been like a desert boot camp, getting the former slaves ready to go and conquer the land of Israel. At the outset of this week’s reading, it would appear that the time to go and conquer the land is at hand.  God tells Moses to send spies to check out the land—although as the version of the story in Deuteronomy tells it, sending spies was Moses’ idea, not God’s.  Whoever’s idea it was, everyone agreed it was time to make preparations to go into Israel.  It was time to make preparations to go to war. The first preparation for war, then and now, is to collect intelligence.  To understand the battlefield conditions is essential.  So Moses sent 12 spies and over forty days they walked the length of Israel and came back and reported it’s a great land, but we’ll never succeed in conquering it.  The spies reported “there are giants there, we’re like grasshoppers by comparison.”  The two “good spies,” Joshua and Calev tried to argue that the Israelites would prevail, but to no avail.  They couldn’t convince the people to ignore the advice of the other 10, so the people refused to go to war to conquer the land. In this particular case, we see that was a bad call.  God wanted them to go to war, and they refused.  So they were punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert, with credit given for the two years they had already been there.  So we see that from the time of the very first war we were called into, the Jewish people have been reluctant to go to war. Our failure to go to war at the proper time was not caused by faulty intelligence—rather it was caused by a faulty interpretation of intelligence.  They had the facts right – it was a great land, flowing with milk and honey, and there were some powerful people living there.  But their interpretation was all wrong because they didn’t appreciate their secret weapon – that God was on their side and ready to lend assistance. The Midrash gives us a caution on interpreting intelligence information correctly.  In this week’s reading the spies are charged to “see the land, what it is; and the people who live in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many; And what the land is that they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what sort of cities they live in, whether in tents, or in fortresses.”  Go see whether the people live in tents or in fortresses.  Good advice.  We would presume if they live in tents they’ll be much easier to conquer than if they live in fortified cities. But the Midrash tells us otherwise.  The Midrash asks “How can you tell their strength?  If they dwell in camps, they are strong, for they rely on their own strength. If they dwell in strongholds they are feeble and their hearts are timid.”  The exact opposite of what we would have expected…but clearly psychological factors are very important in determining the eventual outcome of a battle.  The Midrash tells us fierce warriors living in tents are more to be feared than wimps living behind tall walls.  The Arabs have lost several wars because they mis-read Jewish psychology.  They underestimated the Jews’ determination to hold on to this little tiny piece of land that God has given us. Our past experiences also color the way we interpret intelligence.  When the spies came back from their journey, they started recounting the strategic situation by saying that Amalek was dwelling in the land.  The Midrash asks “What reason did they see for commencing with Amalek?”  They commenced with Amalek because they were afraid of Amalek.  The Midrash brings a story to explain why.  “The case is like that of a child who misbehaved and was beaten with a strap. Whenever people wanted to frighten him they used to remind him of the strap with which he had been beaten. In the same way Amalek was Israel’s evil strap.”  Amalek had attacked the people when they first left Egypt.  Amalek were terrorists—they intentionally attacked from the rear, attacking women and children.  So now Amalek was deemed scary and given prominent attention.  The people figured they knew what Amalek could do.  The US government probably had a similar response to Saddam Hussein.  Saddam in the past did have an active nuclear program—so when he refused to be completely cooperative with UN inspectors, it was easy for the US to see “the evil strap of Amalek” and assume the worst. The world of intelligence has come a long way since the days of the Torah.  No longer do we rely only on sending people out to scout out the situation.  Not only do we continue to use human spies, but we have spy planes, spy satellites, and all sorts of electronic interception.  When I was in the US Army at the end of the Vietnam era, I served in the Army Security Agency as a Electronic Warfare Intercept Operator, listening to the other side’s Morse Code and typing it into a teletype.  Needless to say, today such work is highly automated and technology intensive. But for all that high degree of computing and technological sophistication used in intelligence gathering today, once all the intelligence is in, we still have the same problem that faced our ancestors who were wandering around the desert. What do we do with the information?  There are big picture questions that we try to answer with intelligence.  Just as our ancestors had to decide whether or not to go to war, sometimes we use intelligence to decide whether or not to go to war.  But in an ongoing struggle, intelligence information gets used to make very specific decisions.  Should we try to stop a particular terrorist?  Should we stop him with a missile?  A bomb?  Send in troops? The war on terrorism provides us with a unique ethical quandary.  The enemy seems to care nothing for the lives of non-combatants.  They specifically target our innocent civilians.  They hide among their own civilians, hoping we’ll be discouraged from using deadly force that would of necessity result in collateral damage—the death of civilians.  Whereas we—Israel and the United States—never intentionally target civilians, and we keep our military personnel as far as possible away from civilians, as we believe protecting our non-combatants is an important value. So when a report comes in giving us the location of a known terrorist, what do we do with that information?  What if the terrorist is in an apartment building, where many innocent people could be killed if we destroy it with bombs?  Should we go in on foot, at much greater risk to our soldiers?  Is there some sort of acceptable ratio of deaths of their innocent civilians to our soldiers that we should come up with? To its great credit, Israel is very sensitive to these issues.  Despite the bad press Israel gets, Israel is actually far more sensitive to this than the United Sta
tes.  In 2002 Israel had information that there were a number of terrorists holed up in a refugee camp in Jenin.  The typical US response would have been “bombs away” as it was in Fallujah, where hundreds of Iraqi civilians were killed in an intense bombing attack which was part of an initiative to retake the city from insurgents.  Instead, Israel sent in ground troops, who walked into a trap, resulting in the deaths of 23 soldiers, including the son of some acquaintances of mine. In 2003 Israel received intelligence that Sheik Yassin, the “spiritual leader” of Hamas was in a meeting.  They scrambled a jet and dropped a 500-lb. bomb.  Yassin escaped with minor injuries.  The IDF has much bigger and more powerful bombs – but they were concerned if they dropped a 1,000 lb. bomb there would have been many more civilian deaths.  In 2004 Israel got another chance, and killed Yassin with a missile attack – at the same time killing his two bodyguards and six other bystanders. The first question that comes to mind is whether such targeted assassinations are permitted at all.  Israel generally relies on what they call the “ticking bomb” criteria.  If someone is planning to make an attack against Israelis, he is a “ticking bomb,” and killing him is an act of self-defense, which the Jewish tradition permits.  Based on a passage in the Torah which tells us there is no blood guilt for killing someone who is sneaking into your home at night, the rabbis in the Talmud tell us that if someone is coming to kill you, you should rise up and kill them first. But besides the target, six other people were killed.  How do we analyze that price?  Is it OK that six people were killed who weren’t the target?  Should we have tried to take him out some other way that would not have resulted in so many extra deaths?  There are conflicting messages we can derive from the Jewish tradition.  We place a high value on human life – all human life, not just Jews.  The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin tells us that someone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.  The Torah tells us if someone murders someone, there can be no taking of a ransom – a monetary value cannot be put on a life, the murderer must pay with his own life.  The Mishnah in Sanhedrin tells us “But a single man (Adam) was created for the sake of peace among mankind, that none should say to his fellow, "My father was greater than your father." So if the value of human life is infinite, and the lives of non-Jews are as important as the lives of Jews, how could we justify intentionally accepting any civilian deaths in war? The Torah itself shows us that it is understood that there is collateral damage in war.  One of the most troubling aspects of the Exodus from Egypt is the plague of the first born.  Surely not every first born in Egypt was guilty of abusing Hebrew slaves?  Where is the justice in God killing all the first born sons of the Egyptians to get Pharaoh to relent? I try to make peace with this issue by seeing those first borns as representing collateral damage.  They may not have been combatants – but it was impossible to get at the real combatant, Pharaoh, without going through these innocent others.  The value of life is infinite – every life.  Yet we accept collateral damage as part of the downside of war.  To me that suggests that the appropriate policy should always be to absolutely minimize the loss of life to non-combatants, while accepting some loss as part of the horror of war. In recent months, Palestinian terrorist have started shooting Kassam rockets at the Israel town of Sderot, very close to the border with Gaza.  So far no one in Israel has been killed – the rockets are notoriously inaccurate – but as you can imagine life gets very disrupted when you have to worry about whether a rocket is going to kill your child while he’s playing in the school yard. The Israeli government has been under intense pressure from Israelis to do something to stop the rocket attacks.  So they have.  But since the IDF has pulled out of Gaza, the only option is air strikes. The vaunted Israeli Air Force seems to be in desperate need of more target practice: in recent weeks there have been four incidents of IDF attacks in Gaza that resulted in 14 civilian deaths.  Most of the civilian dead are children. The UK, the UN, and Russia have all harshly condemned these civilian deaths.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes British Foreign Secretay Margaret Beckett as saying "The killing of innocent civilians, and particularly children, is completely unacceptable.  The continuing violence on both sides, and the tragic death of a number of children and civilians in Gaza and West Bank in recent weeks, is making the prospect of a negotiated, peaceful resolution more distant." Killing children is not only unethical, it is also very counterproductive.  At the funeral of some of the children, one of the distraught parents said he wanted to go kill Israelis.  A militant cried out “should we accept a ceasefire?”  And the crowd yelled “no!”  I can sympathize – if my children were killed as “collateral damage” I could understand feeling such rage I would want to take revenge. According to Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the IDF has clear instructions to call off an attack if innocent people are endangered.  Yet somehow in the last month there have been four IDF missions that resulted in the deaths of civilians instead of the deaths of terrorists.  The IDF Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, has ordered what the paper calls a “comprehensive investigation” of the recent rash of failed strikes. British Foreign Secretary Beckett also said “We strongly urge maximum restraint by the Israeli military to avoid further escalation of an already very tense situation.  We call on the Israeli authorities to respect their obligations under international law and ensure that civilians, particularly children, are not harmed. In addition we call for an immediate halt to all rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Israeli targets.” At least Beckett recognizes that the real problem is the rocket fire from Gaza.  If the terrorists stopped shooting rockets at innocent Israelis, the IDF would not need to try and stop the terrorists with missiles.  And Beckett is also right that Israel should practice restraint, at least for now.  Israel’s recent problem does not seem to be a failure of intelligence.  It appears to be a failure of execution.  Israel should refrain from targeted missile attacks until it figures out what has gone wrong this last month.  We cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say “too bad” to a rising civilian death toll—especially when we miss the target.  The Talmud tells us you cannot intentionally kill an innocent person to save your own life.  The Talmud asks “who says your blood is redder than his?  Perhaps his blood is redder than yours!” The Israeli Air Force needs more target practice before they go shooting missiles at terrorists. Shabbat Shalom

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