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Jewish Values and Ethics in War

January 16, 2024

by: Rebecca J. Brimmer, International President

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We often hear Israeli leaders claim that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is an ethical, moral army, motivated by Jewish values, while Israel’s enemy is far different. What do they mean?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ethics is defined as “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.” Values are beliefs that motivate people to act one way or another. Ethics, values and cultural mores define the worldview of any people. When there are basic disagreements about these, clashes occur. We sometimes hear the term “clash of cultures.” We are seeing such clashes all over the world in the political and general society. In the conflict between Israel and Hamas, there are huge cultural differences.IDF Spokesperson's Unit/wikimedia.org

Jewish people form the largest percentage of the Israeli population at roughly 80%, with Christians coming in at 3% and Muslims at 16%. Jewish values and beliefs have a profound impact on the nation, including on the IDF. What are these Jewish values? Even though as many as half of Jewish Israelis would define themselves as secular, their values come from the Torah (Gen.–Deut.). This value system is clearly exhibited in the IDF. Many Jewish soldiers carry a book of Psalms with them into battle. Rabbis are attached to the military to lead prayer sessions. It is common to see pictures of soldiers wearing their prayer shawls and petitioning the God of Israel to be with them as they fight for the security of their families, homes and country. A major teaching of Judaism is the idea that it is important that our lives and actions sanctify the name of God, or in other words, bring glory to His name.

The IDF website lists the following four fundamental values.

Defense of the State of Israel and its residents: The purpose of the IDF is to protect Israel and its independence and ensure the security of its residents.

Patriotism and loyalty to Israel: Patriotism and commitment and devotion to the State of Israel and its people are at the very core of service in the IDF.

Human dignity: The IDF and our soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every individual is of inherent value, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender or status.

Statehood: The IDF is the people’s army, the State of Israel’s military, subject to the law and government of the State of Israel. IDF soldiers will operate with their mission, the IDF’s values and the security of Israel as their priority. They will operate with integrity, practicality and presentably.

Life or Death

Israel is a nation that has a deep value for human life. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, a leading rabbi from Canada explains it as follows, “Because of what we learn in the Talmud [rabbinic commentary on Jewish traditions and the Hebrew Scriptures] (Sanhedrin 37a) ‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.’ Because we are created in God’s image. That means everyone—not just Jews.”

The concept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) motivates Israelis to save human life in the face of disasters around the world. I’ve seen them send IDF medical teams with full field hospitals to Japan, Haiti, Turkey, Ukraine and India. They are committed to saving lives because life is precious.IDF Spokesperson's Unit/wikimedia.org

When Israel arrests terrorists, they are imprisoned in a humane, civilized manner. These prisoners receive ample nutrition as well as medical and dental care. They are entitled to visits from their lawyers and family members, and security prisoners are allowed Red Cross visits. Israeli medical personnel even treated Hamas terrorists who were wounded while slaughtering and torturing Israeli civilians during the October 7 massacre.

Contrast this with Hamas and other radical Islamic groups, who teach their children to hate, glorify martyrdom and rejoice over the loss of civilian life, the savage rape of women and torture of innocents. The hostages that Hamas took during the October 7 massacre were denied basic human rights, weren’t given enough food and were denied adequate medical care. Visits from the Red Cross were not allowed. Hamas glorified death—and doesn’t even seem to care about the lives of their own people.

Adherence to International Standards

According to Stand with Us, an international education group based in Jerusalem, “Today, militaries are supposed to be constrained by the Law of Armed Conflict or International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which exist in large part to protect civilians during times of war. IHL requires armed forces to act only to achieve legitimate military objectives, to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to avoid causing disproportionate damage to civilians who may be near a legitimate military target.” Israel acts in strict agreement with IHL. The IDF is an army committed to acting with integrity.

Israel has been forced to fight Hamas in urban areas. To limit civilian casualties, the IDF warn civilians in Gaza via phone calls, leaflets, text messages and the knock-on-the-roof approach, which entails dropping a light explosive on the roof of the building as a warning. Even though this means that the IDF exposes their strategies to the terror group they are fighting, they persist in advance warnings to civilians so that they can flee to safety.

In contrast, Hamas deliberately fires from civilian areas, places their weapon caches and operational centers in and under hospitals, schools and mosques while using civilians as human shields. When Israel provided humanitarian corridors and limited war activity for specified hours every day to help civilians reach safety, Hamas did everything they could to stop civilians from escaping the fighting.

The Contrast

Unlike her enemies, Israel is not bloodthirsty. The deepest desire of all Israelis is lasting peace. If the Arab residents of Gaza and Judea and Samaria would lay down their weapons and reach out a hand of true peace, the Arab–Israeli conflict would end immediately. The Palestinians have had multiple opportunities to live in peace with Israel. The fact is that they won’t do that, because they are not motivated by a desire for a quality life. Instead, many are motivated by religious fervor. Hamas will not be satisfied until Israel ceases to exist. Their genocidal war cry: “From the river to the sea,” which advocates for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—thus the entire Israel—states their desire very clearly. Israel will not accept this option. Instead, their cry is “Am Israel Chai” (the nation of Israel lives). It comes down to this: Israel cherishes life while her enemies glorify death.

Photo Credit: Click on photo for photo credit

Photo License: A soldier praying before battle

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