You probably know Israel’s army as the Israel Defense Forces, but the IDF has a more controversial name for itself: the “moral army.” For those unused to this rhetoric, hearing it at a time when Israel is engaged in cross-border fighting can spark everything from confusion to outrage – especially in the midst of horrifying reports of civilian casualties in Gaza from Operation Protective Edge.
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There are a number of reasons to be wary of the title of “moral army” (it normalizes violence and discourages accountability, for example), but the most important issue is whether the IDF’s conduct upholds its commitments.
The IDF claims that it aspires to respect secular and Jewish ethics in its operations, but especially when evaluated under the principle of “pikuakh nefesh” - the Biblical insistence that we prioritize the preservation of human life above all else - the IDF doesn't seem to be meeting the Jewish ethical standard for a "moral army."
In Gaza today, the ethical question the “moral army” must answer is this: When the IDF has good reason to believe there are civilians in a targeted area – or can even see them – should it strike anyway?
In the scope of this month’s fighting, the crux of how we evaluate the IDF’s claim to be a “moral army” lies in what its behavior reveals about its approach to this dilemma. From the information that’s publicly available, the verdict seems less horrifying than Israel’s staunchest opponents would have it, but far more damning than Israel’s rhetoric – or its ostensible moral aspirations – admits.
On one hand, there’s little evidence that the IDF is knowingly and deliberately killing civilians in Gaza, and some evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths. Media reports confirm that the IDF is – in at least some cases – taking actions to prevent civilian casualties: warning the residents and neighbors of targeted buildings and giving civilians time to evacuate. It is also clear that at least some in Hamas are calling for innocent people to act as human shields, and there is evidence that suggests some are heeding those calls – complicating the IDF’s efforts to avoid harming noncombatants.
On the other hand, Palestinian civilians make up the majority of those killed or wounded in the recent conflict: more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and more than 1,100 wounded, along with one Israeli fatality, several dozen wounded and many more treated for shock. According to a UN report, nearly 80 percent of the Palestinians killed by the IDF in this operation were civilians. Others estimate it to be about half, depending on how they define terrorists. Some of these civilian casualties may be the results of tragic accidents in which the IDF could not reasonably have foreseen the presence of noncombatants and could not see any when it initiated a strike. But it’s quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.
If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.
To save a life
Unless you’re a staunch consequentialist – someone who believes that whether an action is right or wrong should be judged entirely by its consequences – it’s fairly easy to see why deliberately killing civilians is wrong, even when doing so is necessary to hitting a legitimate target.
Imagine this scene, familiar from a host of movies: After a long chase, the heroic cop has finally cornered the villain, a terrorist who has killed and vowed to kill again. Our hero has his gun to his enemy, and he’s ready to bring him in. Suddenly, the terrorist pulls a nearby innocent person in front of him. If our hero tries to shoot the terrorist, he’ll also kill the human shield. What should he do?
When the hero can’t make a shot that miraculously hits the terrorist without hitting the hostage, he grits his teeth and lets the terrorist get away. It’s a frustrating outcome, but he knows he has no choice; it would be wrong to kill an innocent person, or even risk doing so. There’s no hero who resolves this dilemma by shrugging, shooting the innocent person, and then returning his sights to the villain. We have a strong moral intuition that doing so displays an unacceptable disregard for human life.
Alternatively, consider the question from the perspective of Jewish ethics. The Torah issues strong injunctions to respect the sanctity of life. “Pikuakh nefesh,” saving a life, is so important that we must do almost everything necessary to respect life – even when doing so entails violating other commandments. Self-defense is permitted, on this account, because it represents one way of saving a life - your own. As such, killing innocent people could never be a legitimate means of self-defense; taking a life to preserve your own is just a selfish substitution of another life for yours. Referring to Leviticus 18:5, the rabbis of the Talmud say, "he shall live by [the commandments], and not that he shall die by them." (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)
As the Lord says to His people in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou may live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” The lives of others matter just as much as our own: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)
What the Torah emphasizes here is that in doing the right thing by others, we’re also generally doing what’s truly best for ourselves. We must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live. The obligation is practical as well as moral, as much for our sakes as for those we live amongst.
In Israel’s case, having an army worthy of the “moral” title really would serve its security interests; the possible short-term reduction in hit targets would be justified by long-term gains in the trust and respect of the international community. As international protests against Operation Protective Edge should remind us, Israel's military operations have a major impact on how it is perceived by its neighbors, allies, and enemies. Moral military conduct could defuse the dangers posed by widespread international distrust of Israel’s behavior, not the least of which is the anger aroused by the deaths of innocent Palestinians at Israeli hands. That anger is relevant to Israel’s security; it imperils Israelis from the West Bank to around the globe.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands during this year’s peace negotiations indicate, Israel also has a major interest in global acceptance of its own identity narrative. If Israel wants to be understood as a beleaguered Jewish democracy in a hostile region doing what it must to defend itself, its military cannot afford to act unjustly.
Deliberately firing rockets at civilians, as Hamas does, is deeply wrong. However far we can go in understanding Hamas’s actions as expressions of resistance, we cannot condone them: they are crimes. However, if Israel is not careful to respond justly, with due respect for all human life, Israel may compound Hamas’ unjust actions with its own. To its credit, the IDF is trying to avoid killing civilians, but when it comes to life and death, trying is not enough. Being relatively “more moral” than neighboring armies isn’t enough either.
For the sake of those who now live under rocket fire and (even more so) for that of those who live under air strikes, we must hope Israel’s government soon comes to recognize that killing civilians protects no one – not even those the “moral army” claims to serve. As the Torah suggests, only those willing to affirm the sanctity of all lives - of neighbor and stranger alike - deserve to flourish in the land of Israel.
Michael Mitchell is a writer living in Tel Aviv. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review.