The battleground

The battlezone

This week, JTS hosted a panel with Arnold Eisen and Dr. Moshe Halbertal on modern issues with the Israeli Defense Force, its Code of Ethics, and where they stand in Gaza. Max Rettig (GS/JTS ’17) shares the discussion. 

As a student in the Joint Program between GS and JTS, I am incredibly privileged to explore my intellectual interests at both institutions. JTS, perhaps the foremost school of Jewish scholarship in the United States, regularly brings in notable scholars and distinguished professional leaders with Jewish backgrounds to discuss important issues of our time. Such was the case Thursday night, when JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and Dr. Moshe Halbertal talked about the problems surrounding this past summer’s conflict in Gaza in relation to the code of ethics that governs how the Israel Defense Forces operates.

Halbertal, of Israeli descent, is a professor of law at NYU, of Jewish thought and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has taught visiting stints at both Harvard and Yale law schools. In 2000, Halbertal was part of the team that created the IDF’s current code of ethics. Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS since 2007, is a leading scholar of American Jewry and a professor of Jewish thought at JTS. At around 7:32 pm on Thursday night, both sat down to talk about the very real issues the Israeli army faced during its operation in Gaza this past summer, and how those issues shaped how the IDF approached the operation from an ethical standpoint.

He delved into three main ethical principles that directly affect how the IDF approaches wars: Purpose of Arms (Matarah), Distinction (Havchanah) and Responsibility (Achriut).

Let’s start with Purpose of Arms; simply put, Israeli soldiers are to use force on only those objectives involved in completing the mission. Soldiers raiding a house can’t break a household object that doesn’t interfere with capturing their target. With respect to distinction, there are three aspects of the principle that soldiers must take into account; first, anyone on the opposition side who makes him/herself a part of the causal chain of action purposely is a valid target. Second, IDF soldiers MUST, under all circumstances, differentiate militants from civilians, even if civilians are being used as human shields. Third, soldiers must aim fire ONLY at those who represent an immediate threat. The third principle, Responsibility (Achriut), also dictates two things; first, due to the nature of war, there will be civilian casualties. However, IDF soldiers must do absolutely everything in their power to minimize those casualties.

Halbertal then introduced a fourth principle, one very interrelated to Responsibility. Because of the inevitability of civilian loss, IDF soldiers must also account for what is called proportionality. He painted this picture: There is an opposition soldier on the top of a building housing many innocent civilians, and there is no way to hit the target other than to fire a missile at the building, risking the deaths of the civilians in that location. Is the number of civilian casualties proportionate to the value of eliminating that one target?

Soldiers must memorize all of these principles, among the rest of the code; the idea is that they ask themselves all four questions before acting in any way on a mission. Eisen then raised an interesting point: It seems impossible to expect the soldiers (often between 18 and 22) to carry out that analysis every time and not render themselves defenseless. Halbertal answered that the IDF trains soldiers in as close to a real-life situation as is possible via simulation.

He added, “It would be a moral betrayal of your soldiers if you didn’t train them morally and then put them in situations where they are either paralyzed or act in a way they would look back on and regret.”

Halbertal then rattled off some statistics from this past summer’s conflict in Gaza in an effort to examine if the aforementioned principles were upheld. According to him, for every militant in Gaza, there are 60 civilians. He emphasized that Hamas fighters are better protected than the close-to-2 million civilians and that Hamas leaders actively disencourage civilians from relocating, running directly antithetical to Israel’s warnings. Halbertal also discussed homes as being the most targeted object in Israeli operations, but warned that they are usually not legitimate targets and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in order to minimize collateral harm.

Halbertal and Eisen concluded with the requisite JTS reference to Judaic scholarship when Eisen asked if Jewish tradition mattered at all in situations like a war in Gaza. Halbertal replied, “The law does not apply to all of life. In those situations where there the law doesn’t work, as Maimonides said, ‘You must do what is right and what is good.'”

 Map of Gaza Strip via Shutterstock