This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9.
The winds of war emanating from last summer’s Operation Protective Edge have subsided, but we still hear loud and clear the raucous shouts at the United Nations, of European leaders and even of top leadership in the United States condemning Israel’s “extreme and disproportionate military activity” during the “cycle of violence,” and condemning the fact that so many more Palestinians were killed than Israelis.
Our erstwhile friends have barely taken note of the ugly truth that there never was a “cycle of violence.” There were only Hamas terrorist kidnappings and missile attacks launched from heavily populated areas in Gaza against the Israeli civilian population, missiles from UNRWA-run hospitals and schools, to which we were forced to respond if we were to protect our soldiers and citizens within Israel.
If the death count was disproportionate, it was not because of the sensitivity of our enemies; it was only because of the superior ability of our Iron Dome missile system to foil the evil desires of the Hamas terrorists, who willfully target Israeli civilians and who cynically use the Gaza citizenry as human shields.
Where were the European voices against Hamas, against the terrorists who used billions of dollars which were given to help the supposedly poverty-stricken Gazans and instead were used to build underground tunnels to infiltrate Israel and murder innocent Israelis? Where is President Barack Obama’s voice against UNRWA, which received billions of American dollars for schools and hospitals which apparently cooperated with the terrorists in providing incitement education and in becoming military launching pads against Israel?
The parsha this week insists that we never wage war, even a defensive war, without first asking for peace Deut. 20:10). Both Maimonides and Nahmanides maintain that accepting a peace treaty includes the acceptance of the Seven Noahide Laws of Morality and includes the Seven Nations of Canaan.
Nevertheless, the Torah does prescribe that if the enemy refuses peace, “You must not leave any living being alive; you must utterly destroy them” (Deut. 20:16, 17). This would seem to include women and children.
Is this compassion? In order to compound our question and add to it a nuance of complexity, only two verses after the command “to utterly destroy” appear: the following curious — and exquisitely sensitive — divine charge (Deut. 20:19) “When you lay siege to a city… to wage war against it and capture it, you may not destroy a fruit tree to lift an axe against it; after all… the human being derives his sustenance from it.”
One might argue that a fruit tree which gives human beings nutrition is of greater benefit than individuals who tragically are making it possible for terrorists to triumph. Such individuals are lower than apples. They are part of a process which will remove goodness from the world.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, dean of Yeshivat Volozhin at the end of the 19th century, provides a key to our understanding. He insists that when the Bible ordains that we “utterly destroy” even the women and children (as it also commands in Deut. 7:1, 2) this is limited “to those women and children who are also gathered against us in battle. …”
To rephrase Golda Meir, “I do not hate Hamas for trying to drive us out of our homeland; but I do hate Hamas for causing us to kill innocent Gazans.”
When a callous and cruel terrorist organization uses its own citizenry as human shields, we have no choice but to fight back. Yes, we must try as much as possible to wage a moral war; the highest morality is never allowing immorality to triumph. Our sages correctly teach: “Those who are compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat.