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"Conscience & Combat" Discussion & Study Guide

A. Overview and Discussion
  1. I am writing about Israelis, Palestinians, and war in mid-April 2007. Please stay current on changing circumstances, modify the guide and add discussion questions as required. 
  2. This examination of Israel's military rules of engagement is about the knotty problem of its struggle to survive, not the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For a fuller understanding of this 60-year-old war, see Resources at the end of the guide. 
  3. You will find the discussion questions inserted throughout rather than in a separate section as in prior guides.

The topic is as timely as the daily news. For example, an AP story carried this headline: "Palestinians say Israelis used them as shields." The report continued: "For several years, Palestinians had complained about the army's use of human shields, but proof was difficult to come by. Then, in late February, Associated Press Television News captured footage of the incident…

"The video has prompted the army to launch a rare criminal investigation into whether its soldiers violated a landmark Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that barred the use of human shields." (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/12 /07, p. 2.)

The day after the AP story, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:

"Israel's army suspended a commander who allegedly used Palestinians as human barriers.

"Following the incident in which Israel Defense Forces [IDF] soldiers apparently made prohibited use of civilians, Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh ordered the suspension of the commander of the mission from all operational activity, in addition to the ongoing investigation into the matter," an army statement said Friday.

"Video footage showed troops patrolling the West Bank town of Nablus on Wednesday ordering youths to stand in front of their vehicle to keep it from being stoned. Israel's Supreme Court banned the practice in 2005.

"Associated Press Television News filmed a similar scene in February, leading the army to launch a criminal investigation." (JTA Daily Briefing 4/13/07)

DISCUSS: What do these events say about the civilian role in Israeli military matters? About military priorities? About the idea that ends justify means? What should governments do to assure "kinder wars" (as oxymoronic as that sounds) with regard to civilians? Which rule cited in Bernard Edinger’s article prompted the army investigation? Was the army's action appropriate? Explain.

Media numb our sensibilities with endless reports of child soldiers, rape and mayhem, civilian hostages and executions, terrorists targeting civilian public places, destruction of homes and other property. The AP article above notes: "International law, including the Geneva Conventions and Hague regulations, prohibits placing civilians in harm's way during military operations."

DISCUSS: Suppose there had not been an Israeli Supreme Court human shields ruling. What other than it and Geneva/Hague might deter this practice? Is it ever justified? Explain.

The 2006 Israeli-Lebanon conflict brought condemnation to Israel for bombing civilian areas, just as claims persist throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict that Israel mistreats Arab civilians and prisoners of war.

DISCUSS: How can nations equip their soldiers to make difficult choices under extreme circumstances? How does Israeli troop training deal with military ethics on the battlefield?

Over fifty years ago, Montagu, opposing Social Darwinism, proposed that "nature red in tooth and claw" does not apply to humans, whose behavior is better understood in a context of mutual aid. Ten years later, Lorenz showed that animals tend to control destructive, aggressive behavior in the interest of the species. Debate continues on whether violent behavior is learned or is attributable to brain function. Cause and control of violence might be a good mini topic, but our emphasis is on what steps nations-–especially Israel-–can take to protect combatants and civilians from unnecessary harm and suffering during war.

The ancient world knew aggression and war. Torah describes the third human, Cain, murdering the fourth, Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). God protected the murderer while dooming him to restless wandering (Genesis 4:13-16). Abraham declined to keep war booty (Genesis 14:12-24). God hurled the pursuing Egyptians into the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:30-31), yet a Midrash forbids the angels to rejoice over the drowning (Mekilta, B'shalach, Shirata, 2). On the other hand, God commanded the Israelites to blot out the Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) and destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 7:1-2), giving these conflicts a unique, "required wars" status.

DISCUSS: How might you reconcile these inconsistent views? In fact, the Amalekites did not disappear and the Canaanites survived in the land long after Israel's entry under Joshua. What, then, is the purpose of these biblical accounts?

An AP story: A German army-training video told recruits they are in the Bronx [NY] and encounter "'Three African-Americans…insulting your mother in the worst ways…Act.' The soldier fires a machine gun several times…" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/15/07, p. 12. The German army suspended the training officer two days later). Same edition (p. 15), also AP: After denying the deliberate killing of South Koreans, the [U.S.] Army acknowledged that "a high-level document said the military had a policy of shooting approaching civilians in South Korea."

DISCUSS: Both are instances of profiling, of painting all with one brush. Why is fighting easier if the enemy is stereotyped? How does point four in the sidebar, “War & Peace: A Jewish Religious Perspective,” apply to each episode? See also below.

Civilized nations from ancient days to ours claim to care about the behavior of their soldiers. Not all do something about it. This study explores where Israel stands, and why.

B. Summaries and Discussion

1. "Conscience & Combat" by Bernard Edinger 

Edinger's main points include:

  • Israel's combat code, part of a more comprehensive IDF code of ethics, precedes statehood. Its present, more comprehensive version draws on Israeli military traditions, democratic principles, the traditions of the Jewish people, and universal moral values. It covers the use of force, the authority to wage war, and acceptable means of waging war. Recent events place the code's Purity of Arms doctrine under scrutiny, especially because most IDF soldiers are young.

DISCUSS: Why might age be a factor in following the rules of engagement? Is there a remedy? Explain.

  • The 1987 and 2000 intifadas (Arab attacks within Israel, targeting primarily civilians) increased the frequency of army-Arab confrontations and raised the anger level of many soldiers seeking revenge for civilian deaths.

DISCUSS: Is it justified to profile Israeli Arabs on Israeli streets, presuming that an Arab is a potential suicide bomber? Explain. What about at a Gaza crossing point or on the West Bank?

  • The IDF dismisses officer candidates with no second chance if they fail to master the code's requirements, or if they do not learn how to teach their soldiers to carry the "very reasonable set of principles" into battle.

DISCUSS: How might conditions in the field make it difficult to uphold Purity of Arms? For example, Abekassis distinguishes between "a small rock" and “a Molotov cocktail." Would a soldier have time to judge a harmless rock from a large, potentially harmful stone, or a grenade? How would you respond in that situation? Explain.

  • The army investigates many reports of Purity of Arms violations. Prosecutions are few.

DISCUSS: Is the reason the army gives for lack of prosecutions reasonable? Would prosecutions make a difference? Explain.

  • Code implementation emphasizes prevention, not punishment.

DISCUSS: Would you agree that prevention is the priority? Explain. What does the Israeli army do to help prevent code violations? Is it enough? Explain.

  • Pilots are careful to minimize civilian damage in Gaza Strip targeted killings. The IDF sustained casualties in 2006 Lebanon by not bombarding areas before entering where Hezbollah fighters hid among civilians.

DISCUSS: The killing of enemy or Israeli lives? How would you choose? Debate which of these two Talmud teachings you prefer: "Let [the king] kill you, but do not [obey an order to] kill. What makes you see that your blood is redder than his? God wants you to save your own life…but your neighbor's life is as dear…Hence, you must not kill in order to save life. But if someone comes to murder you…self-defense is mandatory" (Moed, Yoma 25b & footnote 1). "If a man comes to kill you, rise up early and kill him first" (Zeraim, Berachot 58a, derived from Exodus 22:1).

2. "War & Peace: A Jewish Religious Perspective," excerpts from "Resolution on the War in Iraq 2007," Union for Reform Judaism Executive Committee, March 12, 2007 (complete text: Section III has the full text of "Jewish Values Regarding Rules for War").

(Note: “Combat and Conscience” and “War & Peace: A Jewish Religious Perspective” pertain to one theme: How Israel expects its fighters to wage war under its combat code—and the ethics of engaging in war from the perspective of Jewish tradition. The full Resolution is about Iraq, and should not deflect from your focus on military complications in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A. Jewish tradition, recognizing war's reality, differentiates among "required wars" (noted above, applying only to those eight nations); "obligatory wars," including wars of self-defense; and "permitted wars," including offensive and preemptive strikes. More stringent rules of engagement apply to permitted wars than to obligatory wars.

DISCUSS: Why do permitted wars carry more rigorous rules of engagement than obligatory wars? Was Israel's 2006 attack on Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers an obligatory or a permitted war? Explain.

B. Efforts to resolve differences peacefully must precede war even if a threat is imminent. Moreover, force must carry a reasonable presumption of success.

DISCUSS: How long should one negotiate before resorting to war (see "rise up early" above)? Under what conditions might you apply deadly force without a guarantee of its success? Explain. How much collateral damage is acceptable to defend the nation?

C. Judaism requires "just means" of combat that will allow a return to normal civilian life, protect innocent civilians, and preserve the safety and dignity of captives.

DISCUSS: Which military actions might violate each of these goals? Which might justify violations? Explain.

D. The military must protect innocent people in warfare.

DISCUSS: How can Israeli soldiers tell innocents from terrorists (see above on "profiling”)? If you know that an ambulance has transported weapons, should you thereafter search all ambulances? What if you find a sick Arab inside?

E. Captives are entitled to dignity and humane treatment.

DISCUSS: This classic dilemma, forcefully raised by the Iraq war, is especially important to Israel, which cannot afford to lose even one war: What's the higher priority, protecting a prisoner's dignity or perhaps obtaining information that might save thousands? Explain.

C. Resources

1. Related to "Conscience & Combat"

Edwin C. Goldberg. Swords and Plowshares: Jewish Views of War and Peace. NY: URJ Press, 2006

Yoram Hazony. The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul. NY: Basic Books, 2001

Konrad Lorenz. On Aggression. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, 1966

Ashley Montagu. Darwin: Competition and Cooperation. NY: Schuman, 1952

Daniel Landes, ed. Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1991

Liza M. Wiemer & Benay Katz. Waiting for Peace: How Israelis Live with Terrorism. Jerusalem, NY: Gefen, 2005

Ze'ev Schiff & Ehud Yaari. Israel's Lebanon War. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990

2. Related to the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Mitchell D. Bard. Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Chevy Chase, MD: AICE, 2002

Meron Benvenisti. Intimate Enemies: Jews and Arabs in a Shared Land. CA: University of California Press, 1995

Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre. O Jerusalem. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972. (See my review at urj.organd follow links to Significant Jewish Books/Full Archive.)

Anton La Guardia. War Without End: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for a Promised Land. NY: St. Martin's Press, 2001

Martin Gilbert. Israel: A History. NY: William Morrow & Co., 1998

Michael Oren. Six Days of War: June 1967and the Making of the Modern Middle East. NY: Oxford University Press, 2002

Ze'ev Schiff & Ehud Yaari. Intifada. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990