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Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Rabbis' Letter

9 September 2004

According to numerous on-line reports, a group of prominent Rabbis in Israel has recently written a letter to Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Unfortunately, I did not manage to locate the full text of the letter itself, and for that reason will have to rely on the following Al-Jazeera, Haaretz and InsraelInsider reports.

According to IsraelInsider,
"Should the IDF fight the enemy, if civilians [on the other side] will be killed, or should the IDF refrain from fighting, and thus endanger our civilians?" the rabbis asked in their letter. In response to the rhetorical question, the rabbis quoted the sage Rabbi Akiva who said that "Our lives come first."
At the first glance it may appear that the letter is essentially calling for military planners not to feel restrained in incurring massive civilian casualties on the enemy side in case these casualties appear to save the lives of Israeli soldiers. This position, according to this analysis by Anthony Gregory, is contrary to the laws and customs of war and provides a justification for state terrorism. Addressing the nuclear strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gregory writes,
People still defend Harry Truman’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on pragmatic grounds. Truman’s defenders say that the bombings saved far more lives than they extinguished. They concede that the bombing was an act of targeting civilians, but insist that it was for the worthy goal of ending the war.

Before even examining the plausibility of this argument, we have to acknowledge the argument’s essence. In effect, to rationalize the targeting of noncombatants as the best method of bringing about a greater good is to make excuses for state terrorism. Terrorism, if it means anything, is a method by which civilians are the targets of violence for the purpose of achieving political goals. Having Imperial Japan surrender, even if a worthy goal, was nevertheless a political one, and the targeting of innocents to achieve that goal was an act of terrorism.

Indeed, it was terrorism on an incredibly large scale. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese were instantaneously wiped off the earth on August 6 and August 9, 1945. Many more died in the following years from the radioactive climate left behind by the bombings.
But this part of the rabbis' argument can be interpreted two-fold,- one can say that they simply are calling on the army not to flinch and to do its job even if, tragic as it is, civilians have to die due to the military activity. They are saying, one might argue, that this is a harsh reality of war, and they are just calling for the army to see it for what it is.

However there are details in this letter that make it difficult to read it quite that way. According to the Al Jazeera report,
In a letter to the Israeli defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, published on Tuesday, the rabbis said killing enemy civilians is "normal" during the time of war and that the Israeli occupation army should never hesitate to kill non-Jewish civilians in order to save Jewish lives.
However, the task of the IDF is not to protect Jews per se but rather to protect Israel and its citizens, 25% of whom are non-Jewish. If for example an IDF unit discovers an enemy mortar crew preparing to fire on a target in Israel the actions expected of them are the same whether the transgressors are Arab, Chinese or Jewish. Nor are all the members of the IDF Jewish as there are Druze, non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and others serving in that force.

The rabbis' letter appears to be a highly racist document. And Jewish racism is a serious problem,- in my opinion, one of the major stumbling blocks on the road to the resolution of the crisis in Israel. The overall racist perception of the issues involved is clearly in line with some Orthodox rabbis' views of the world such as those like Rabbi Dov Lior who certainly appears to classify the humanity strictly along the Jewish vs non-Jewish lines. The Al Jazeera report states,
...a few months ago a prominent rabbi in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arbaa near Hebron issued an edict stating that non-Jewish civilians may be killed to save Jewish lives, soldiers and civilians alike.

The rabbi, Dov Lior, argued that non-Jewish lives had no sanctity, especially during the time of war.

Lior has publicly praised and eulogised Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish settler who in 1994 mowed down 29 Arab worshippers who were praying at Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque.

Calling Goldstein a "great saint", he said a "thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail".
While little can probably be done to alter the views of an individual extremist, I think the best path for Israel to overcome this problem is by passing a Constitution declaring it a secular democracy of, for and by all of its citizens. That would drastically diminish the influence of such extremist rabbis and allow the society to easier disregard their hateful rhetoric.

Originally published here.

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