click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Civilian Casualties

Civilian Casualties

Jews and the ethics of war.


Attacked by a barrage of rockets from Gaza that killed several, injured many and terrorized millions, Israel responded with airstrikes against military targets in Gaza. Radar guided missiles attacked terror cells, rockets launchers, bomb factories and Hamas government installations.1

The difference between the terrorist attacks and the Israeli retaliation is that the terrorists deliberately aimed for civilian centers seeking to kill innocent people whereas Israeli planes dropped leaflets encouraging residents to vacate the area of their intended targets. The terrorists seek out innocents, Israel works to save them, but every so often a target is missed and an innocent civilian is killed.

The death of an innocent is tragic. The heart trembles at the sight of little children, bodies broken and lives snuffed out. The Israeli military doesn’t target women and children, but their death is an inescapable consequence of military action. There is no way to ensure the safety of civilians when the theater of war is a crowded city. Surely responsibility lies with the enemy who fights from behind cradle and skirt, but the question remains, is it ethical for an army to pursue a war in the presence of an innocent population?

Our hearts demand that we stop such wars, but our heads tell us that withdrawal would enable the terrorists to terrorize with impunity. We are torn between duty and empathy, compassion for our children and compassion for the enemies’ children. What to do?

Fear and Concern

We are not the first to worry about casualties in war. When Jacob was informed that Esau had raised an army and was marching against him, he feared and he worried. Our sages explained that he feared for his own life, but he worried about being forced into a war that would require him to take another’s life.2

Rabbinical commentary on this explanation abounds, but most agree that Jacob was not concerned with taking Esau’s life. Esau had forfeited his right to life by marching against his brother. Talmudic law is clear on this point, if someone rises against you, rise up and kill him first. If you threaten the life of another you forfeit your own right to life. Jacob was concerned about collateral damage. He worried that others might be killed in the heat of battle.3

That he worried tells us that our heritage bleeds for the loss of innocent life. That this concern did not deter him from preparing for war tells us that notwithstanding the horror of civilian casualties we must take up arms when war is foisted upon us. Otherwise, our own children are at risk.

This is not to say that enemy civilians are fair game in war. Those who don’t offer the enemy aid and succor are not our enemies and we must make every effort to spare them, but there is no religious or legal statute in the world that prohibits military activity likely to result in unintended, unavoidable and unforeseeable civilian casualties. That would render every war effort including defensive ones obsolete.4

In peacetime, the causation of collateral damage is a murderous and prosecutable offense. For example, we have peacetime license to kill those who pursue us with deadly intent, but we have no license to cause collateral damage by killing the innocent human shields behind whom the pursuer ducks.5 But wartime conditions are different; they don’t allow for peacetime luxury. If war could only be prosecuted with guarantees against civilian casualties, no country would be able to defend itself in time of war and all aggression would de facto be rewarded. The laws of war are not derived from the peacetime law of the pursuer, which is why Jacob went to war despite his vehement distaste.6

Grieving for Enemy Combatants

Abraham, whose heart melted with love at the sight of a stranger, went to war against a coalition of four countries to save his nephew Lot. When he returned from the war God appeared to him and said, “Fear not Abraham, I shall protect you, your reward is exceedingly great.” Our sages taught that Abraham feared that he had forfeited his virtue by prosecuting the war. He knew he was right to save Lot, but was he right to save him at the expense of human life?7

Abraham took this even further than Jacob. Jacob was only worried about killing innocent bystanders, Abraham worried about killing the enemy’s soldiers and God had to comfort and reassure him. Those whom you killed, God said, deserved to be killed. They forfeited their lives when they took up arms against Lot.8 As our sages put it, they are thorns in the king’s garden, the king would have hired laborers to weed out the thorns, now that you did it for him, you need not worry. On the contrary, your reward is exceedingly great for you saved the victim from their abusers.

Abraham was the first Jew to take up arms in a just cause. It broke his heart to do so and when he returned from war he mourned the loss of his innocence. He was devastated by what his enemies had made of him.

Today, the Vatican seeks to teach us moral values by admonishing Israel for killing babies.9 Cardinal Ravasi ought to remember who he is talking to. Jews are the people of the book, who taught the world about sanctity of life. To the Jew, every life is precious, even the lives of our enemies.

Jews don’t perpetuate war because life holds no value. Jews perpetuate war precisely because life has value and must be protected. When war is foisted on us, we cry every time our enemies make killers of us. Abraham was devastated by the death of his enemy. Jacob worried about killing innocents. Yet, when war was foisted upon them, they sprang into action without hesitation. God endorsed their actions even as He understood their concerns. “Fear not Abraham, I shall be your shield.”

We too tremble when life is lost on either side of war. Sadly, Jews know grief better than any other nation; we know what it means to lose a loved one. It is not for lack of love that we undertake war, but in spite of love. War is not pursued with intent to kill, but with intent to save. We don’t undertake war to kill innocents or even combatants. We undertake war to reduce bloodshed on all sides.

  1. On November 21, 2012, Egypt and the US brokered a cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas after eight days of hostilities.
  2. Genesis 32:8 as elucidated in Bereshit Rabbah 76:7 and quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the verse.
  3. See Sifsei Chachamim, Maskil Ledavid and Gur Aryeh ad loc.
  4. Contemporary Halachic Problems III, Rabbi J. David Bleich, p.277.
  5. This, with the caveat, that the human shield is not a willng accomplice. See Amud Hayemini, Rabbi Shaul Israeli, 16:3-4.
  6. Another difference is that though bystanders are required to kill the pursuer in peacetime they cannot be compelled to risk their lives in the act. In war however, countries have the right to draft young men and women and force them to risk their lives against their will.
  7. Genesis 15:1 elucidated in Yalkut Shimoni Lech Lecha 16 and quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the verse.
  8. See commentary of R. Ovadya Seforno and R. Meyer Malbim ad loc. See Gur Aryeh for a slightly different angle.
  9. On November 21, 2012, Cardinal Ravasi, president of the Vatican Council for Culture, condemned Israel for Killing Babies.

November 24, 2012

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 11

(8) joe, November 30, 2012 11:05 PM


What a load of garbarge, It was Israel who broke the truce and this is not the first time either. The Rabbi is a liar as he must surely know peace is not iwhat Israel wants. The whole wrld knows that. Israel is the aggressor.

(7) ruth housman, November 29, 2012 4:41 PM

time for a new Chapter and a new set of Verses

This story is ancient, and so filled with sorrow, on both sides, as innocents do get killed, inadvertently, when caught in the crossfire, of all wars, even if that war seems to be the forcing of the hand of humane people, to protect others, for the greater good. And it is always costly in human terms, as no blood that is shed, is not a human being, a part of this vast Creation, and it is said, we're all here, for a reason. Divine Providence. That's a word that goes with, as I have learned, not just being Jewish but being Arab, because they teach, if not for Allah, even water would not form from hydrogen and oxygen. One God, many names. We must defend our children, and in defense of Israel, it's humane and deeply significant they leaflet to warn. I don't think any Jew who cares about humanity, doesn't suffer at the deaths of innocents, an inevitable consequence as you say, of WAR, RAW WAR. The wounds are painful, and wound is also a curious word because it's also as yarn to what is wound, and what is wrapped and unwrapped. As yarn is also to story. Did God write us all into a story, that is deeply about words? We have our ancient wheel of letters and weal for wounds. If so, I must believe ultimately this story is about LOVE. And angst, is the suffering of soul in searching for answers, and this, ultimately, for us all, a journey of soul, the path being in empathy itself. I believe there IS an answer, but we all, meaning all Arab nations must come to the table, and make this decision, together. It's a Solution based on words... as Solution is for irrigate, and a gate, that opens to the Paradise of another Eden. I have seen the desert in bloom.

(6) Allen Z. Hertz, November 28, 2012 6:12 PM

Proportionality and self-defense

"Proportionality" does not require a balance between Israel and Hamas dead or deeds of Hamas and Israel Rather, legally there must be proportionality between what the IDF actually does and what militarily would be reasonably required to stop the firing of Hamas rockets. For example, if the IDF would be reasonably able to stop the firing of Hamas rockets via measures short of carpet bombing, the IDF are lobliged to use those less drastic means. International law does not require Israel to accept the firing of rockets at its civilians and soldiers, because measures to prevent that firing would likely cause some collateral civilian injury and death in Gaza. Here the reasoning is obvious: Israel has to choose between (A) some Israel deaths (civilian and military) from Hamas missiles; and (B) some Hamas deaths (civilian and military) from Israel preventive measures. In this context, Israel has to opt for (B) to prevent (A). Any other decision would privilege the lives of Arabs in Gaza over those of civilians and soldiers in Israel. No rule of morality or law says that a State is precluded from using force in self-defense, which is truly a fundamental principle of morality, natural law, and public international law. The State has a moral and legal right to use force in self-defense, even though that recourse to force is likely to cause some collateral civilian injury and death. With respect to Gaza, Israel acts not by way of retaliation or punishment, but for prevention, i.e. to stop the Hamas missiles and thus to prevent more Israel civilians and soldiers from being killed. Nor can the Hamas war crime of intentionally targeting Israel civilians be justified by an alleged Palestinian right of "resistance," i.e. an alleged right to wage a war of national liberation against Israel. Even if we accept this false hypothesis, that right would not extend to the intentional, indiscriminate targeting of Israel's civilian population, which would still remain a war crime.

(5) Hanan, November 27, 2012 12:39 AM

Jewish History

I wonder what an internet post would look like 2000 years ago. Yes, Jews TODAY deliberately want to save innocent lives as much as possible, but was that always the way? Surely anyone of us can open up a Tanach and see the brutal wars by the Israelites against cities and had no problem decimating the population of innocent women and children. There is no attempt to spare a "living soul." Have we forget about psalm 137 that ends"...he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." What about Amalek? Sure you can make a case for the initial amalek and what they did, but what about their descendants? The Torah specifically makes the case that the punishment vetted to Amalek is what happened in the desert. This means that potential future generations of Amalek, including babies that had nothing to do with the initial crime are supposed to be punished. And here is where the rubber meats the road: It's one thing to have collateral damage when one is going after the enemy, it's quite another to purposely AIM for innocents. Objectively speaking, would we not consider the Israelites of the past as repulsive in their war tactics as Hamas is today? The question is this and I leave it up the readers. What is the TRUE Jewish value? Is it what Israel is doing now, — that may be more of an influence of westernized notions of morals — or, what our scripture has basically said we did in the past?

Rachel, November 28, 2012 7:23 PM

It is a Mitzvah to wipe out the memory of Amalek

The commandment to kill every last Amalekite was given directly by God during the time when we had prophets. We cannot compare our world view to Hashem's. The result of King Saul's misguided "compassion" for Amalekite King Agog was that Agog fathered the ancestor of Haman, who wanted to be the Hitler of his day. Israel has lost way too many soldiers who put their own lives in jeopardy trying to avoid killing the civilians behind whom the terrorists hide. It's the sponsibility of the Arab side to protect their own cilivians by not implanting rocket launchers in civilian areas and not cowering behind women and children. It is our responsibility to protect our people first. We are not targeting their civilians but we should not sacrifice Jewish lives to avoid collateral damage of their own making.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment