The Debate Over Ethics and Slogans

Thursday, February 18, 2016 |  Tsvi Sadan

Speaking to high schoolers on Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said that the Talmudic dictum "when someone comes to kill you, kill him first" is a slogan not suitable for the complex reality in which we live. 

Eizenkot was answering a student who expressed concern that the present IDF "open-fire" orders endanger the lives of soldiers.

In response, Eizenkot said that "there were incidents in which 13-year-old girls holding scissors or a knife, and where a barrier stood between them and the soldiers, I wouldn't want to see a soldier open fire and empty a magazine on such girls, even when they are committing a serious offense, but instead should exercise the needed amount of force to complete his mission." 

The IDF, he continued, "can't be consumed by slogans like 'when someone comes to kill you [– kill him first]'."

Strict "open fire" orders is an issue that has troubled Israelis for many years. Many believe that the IDF's restrictions stem from skewed ethical standards that result in ineffective military responses that unjustifiably endanger the lives of our soldiers. 

Eizenkot's response could be seen in light of recent statements by prominent rabbis who urged Israeli civilians to act according to this Talmudic dictum. Just last week, Rabbi Meir Mazuz ruled that there is an "obligation for Jews to kill terrorists before they kill us. When faced with a cruel enemy, they must be treated in like manner. We cannot pity them, because they will not pity us.”

The criticism of religious leaders toward the ethical code of the IDF demonstrates the divide between the secular and the religious worldviews on morality. The sharpest critic of them all is perhaps the popular teacher Rabbi Uri Sherki, who lost his son to a terror attack just a few months ago. Sherki was asked whether the modern approach that prohibits "descending to the level of your enemy" is morally acceptable.

Of course not, he said. "Anyone who behaves like an animal – you descend to his level and treat him like an animal." 

Echoing Eizenkot, Sherki quoted another IDF officer who said: "We are living in a complex reality in which we must navigate between morality and security." But in Sherki's opinion, "this is a moral bankruptcy which teaches that to defend your child is not moral."

As with almost everything else, whether every terrorist with a pair of scissors should be killed or not is turning to a "dialogue of the deaf" between the Left and Right in Israel. 

However, the IDF chief's careful wording does provide a reasonable argument and middle ground. If there was some kind of barrier between the child terrorist and her would-be victims, then she didn't post an immediate threat to life, and, according to the Talmud, should not be killed.

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