Over the course of the last month, since attending a teach-in about the war on Gaza at the University of Pennsylvania, I have followed with growing horror news accounts of the circumstances under which some members of the Israeli military killed Palestinian civilians. The question that has haunted me is this: How do you raise children in an ethical and moral tradition inspired by belief in a compassionate God, and then send them out at the age of 18 to kill their neighbors on God's behalf? We know that the Christian Crusaders in the Middle Ages, like young Americans North and South during our own Civil War, marched into battle convinced that God was on their side and that religion compelled them to act as they did. We have also heard a great deal in the last decade about the ways the term "jihad," based on the Islamic concept of a spiritual struggle to be close to God and a physical struggle to defend one's religious community from attack, has been turned by radical Muslim preachers into an admonition to kill noncombatants. We now learn that the chief Rabbi of the IDF -- as well as the religious leaders of a number of theological schools supplying soldiers to the Israeli forces -- admonished the troops in Gaza to think of the Palestinians residing there as deserving the same treatment accorded the biblical inhabitants of the lands promised by God to the children of Moses: the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Amalekites. In the latter case, we learn from numerous references in the Old Testament, King David's forces were told not merely to defeat Amalek but to exterminate his people. According to recent news reports in The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and The New York Times, some Israeli forces were not only admonished to consider the example of the fate of Amalek as they dealt with the citizens of Gaza, but also to bear specifically in mind their duty not to show mercy:
Those who oppose the religious right have been
especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig.
Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very
active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the
He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi. At the time, in January, Avshalom Vilan, then a leftist member of Parliament, accused the rabbi of having “turned the Israeli military’s activity from fighting out of necessity into a holy war.” (Retrieved from The New York Times, March 22, 2009)