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Justified killing versus murder – the lines are clear



Since ancient times, the Jewish people have witnessed tragic and unnecessary loss of life due to violence and combat. The very first story in the book of Bereishit following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden details the battle between Cain and Abel, resulting in the first biblically chronicled example of blood being spilled. Of course, the story took place long before the Torah had been given, and no legal format had been drafted to say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, Abel was still judged and punished for his actions.

The understanding that senseless murder is to be viewed as a punishable offense carries over into the story of Noah, where the text clearly states, “Whoever sheds human blood, by human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of G-d was humankind made.” From this, there’s no doubt that we can appreciate that humanity, being created in the image of G-d, mandates that we value human life and that spilling innocent blood is strictly forbidden. It’s that understanding which underlies the commandment of “Thou shall not murder”, and contributes to a universal human value that senseless killing is an action outside the border of ethical human behaviour.

Yet, in spite of this very clear prohibition, we know that the Bible is filled with stories of warfare and so much blood was indeed spilled throughout the years. From that, we learn that though murder is certainly prohibited, when it comes to a battle of good versus evil, not only is it to be understood that this prohibition isn’t valid, but there’s an actual positive commandment to engage in warfare that will defeat evil.

The Torah recognises this delicate moral distinction between murder and justified killing – how the chaos of battle can blur ethical boundaries.

It’s that thin line which is at the core of the “Just War Theory”, a school of thought which is at the heart of who we are as Israelis, thrust into all-too-many wars we didn’t start. In spite of what the world might want to think or portray, the people and army of Israel are steadfast in their commitment to minimising unnecessary loss of life and adhering to ethical standards and practice in every aspect of how they decide when and how to fight. The Israel Defense Forces directorate and all levels of commander and officer training stresses a position in which the rules of engagement are designed so that force is the last resort. And when force is necessary – as is the case so often in these deeply tragic days – we must do everything possible to limit the toll among non-combatants.

This is an ethos which has followed us through every war, every battle, and every engagement throughout the more than 75 years of our nation’s modern history. We fight with strength and bravery, but we don’t dismiss the immense responsibility to distinguish always between those who are intent on killing us and those who deserve to be protected.

This is who we are as a people and a military, yet it shouldn’t diminish our commitment to act in a way that will lead to a definitive defeat of our enemies. Wars must be designed to defeat evil so that it isn’t able to rise again, and this war is a clear representation of that reality.

We live in deeply complex times when truths likes these and the legitimacy of Israel’s overall mission and daily actions are being continuously overlooked or completely ignored. That ignorance led to a biased and shallow claim filed in The Hague alleging that Israel is committing genocide. The parties to that claim and those who support it are motivated by hatred, and an unwillingness to accept the rights of Jews to sovereignty and self-determination. It would therefore be impossible to convince our international opponents of our legitimate rights.

But in a world that advocates for human rights, it’s well worth remembering that the Jewish concept of humanity is inspired by the basic value that life is worth protecting. Those advocates must therefore remember that human rights demands protecting the innocent, and Israel is committed to that value. But human rights also demands that we fight wars that will ensure that days like 7 October, where brutality reigned and humanism was directly attacked, cannot happen again. That’s the true nature of a war guided by human rights, and it’s a war that Israel will fight without reservation until the day that, with G-d’s blessing, we’re ultimately victorious.

  • Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics.

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