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Israel, War, And Innocent Civilians

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“We won,” Prime Minister Olmert declared after the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza six weeks ago. Hamas was “surprised and badly beaten,” he boasted. And many Israelis believed him.

But as rockets continue to land on Israel’s southern cities, more and more people are beginning to ask, “Is this victory?” Although the IDF fought valiantly, Hamas appears far from crippled. “What happened?” many are wondering.

I propose a simple answer, the core of which is two words: innocent civilians. I submit that ever since the invention of planes and missiles, a country cannot possibly achieve victory in war unless its leaders are willing to kill innocent civilians – lots of them. Because Israel shied from doing so, it lost in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.

Many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of killing innocent civilians. This discomfort is understandable and, from a certain perspective, laudable. But in the long run, those who desist from killing innocents are causing the deaths of their own countrymen.

Furthermore, those who object to killing innocents forget that wars are fought between collective entities, not individuals. Individual Americans did not declare war on individual Germans in 1941. Rather, America, the country, declared war on Germany, the country. And when a collective entity makes a decision, for better or for worse, all the members of that entity suffer the consequences.

Indeed, God often judges the world in this manner. For example, ancient Egypt almost certainly contained citizens who disapproved of Pharaoh’s Jewish policy. And yet God did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty when he afflicted Egypt with ten plagues. The nation suffered as one.

In the Book of Genesis, Levi and Shimon famously engage in collective punishment when they massacre the men of Shechem in reaction to their sister’s rape.

Their father Jacob castigated them, but he did so on utilitarian, not moral, grounds. And on his deathbed Jacob cursed their anger, not their deed. In fact, according to one Midrash, a depiction of Shechem adorned the flag of Shimon’s tribe in the desert, which implies God’s – or at least Moses’s – approval.

Commentators offer various explanations to justify this slaughter of innocents. The Maharal of Prague, however, offers the simplest answer. He writes,


Even though only one man sinned, he belonged to a larger nation … and therefore Levi and Shimon were permitted to take vengeance against all of them. The same is true in similar circumstances. For instance [God told Moses], ‘Vex the Midianites and smite them’ (Numbers 25:17). It is immaterial that many individual Midianites did not harm Israel. The nation they belonged to did…. And such is the case for all wars.


This logic also explains why God gave Samson strength, in his final act on earth, to kill thousands of Philistines, including many women, by toppling a building on top of them. It also clarifies why Mordechai in the Book of Esther drafts a letter for King Achashverosh which permits the Jews of the Persian Empire “to destroy, kill and annihilate every armed force of any people or province that would assault them, along with their children and women.”

Taking revenge on innocent civilians may strike some as cruel, but, in truth, most civilians are far from innocent. Civilians comprise the home front. Many of them provide material aid (food, clothing, ammunition etc.), and just as important, they provide moral support. Very few soldiers would fight if they knew their wives, children, and fellow citizens back home weren’t supporting them.

If ordinary civilians, then, are not generally innocent, how much less so are the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank. In fact, one can hardly point to a less innocent population in history. Among how many other innocent populations in history were little children taught to say the equivalent of, “When I grow up I want to be a suicide bomber?” In how many other innocent populations did mothers and teachers regale in such declarations?

Readers still concerned about the killing of civilians generally regarded as innocent should note that the United States and England killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Germans and Japanese during World War II. Those killed by the atom bomb, which ended the war and was applauded by America’s Greatest Generation, were almost exclusively civilians.

Realize further that if a newly belligerent Moscow dropped a nuclear bomb on Washington tomorrow, America would unhesitatingly retaliate by dropping a nuclear bomb on Moscow even though the average Moscow resident harbors no hatred for the United States.

Finally, know that when Arab terrorists murdered hundreds of Jews in Palestine in the late 1930s, the underground Irgun organization retaliated by killing innocent Arabs. Many Jews supported the Irgun and just recently Jewish Americans gushed with pride when they discovered that the father of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, belonged to that organization.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Irgun’s head, hesitated before permitting these retaliatory attacks. But ultimately he could not tolerate a situation “in which everything is forbidden the Jew and everything permitted the Arab, a situation in which the Jew can be compared to a terrified mouse, while the Arab feels at home everywhere.”

Jabotinsky then asked a question that still resonates all these decades later: “Is this a moral situation?”

Israel cannot and will not win its future wars unless it kills many innocent civilians. This may sound horribly cruel, but war has already famously been described as hell. Either innocent Arabs will die or innocent Israelis will die. No third option exists.

The biblical commentator Ramban wrote, “Because of the mercy of fools, all justice is lost.” Let us not be fools.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).

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