Please make sure to read my disclaimer: Why Religious Zionism, Not Judaism, Is The Problem.
Read the Introduction: Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?
Previous: #2 Collective Punishment is Kosher (I)
In The Treatment of Hostile Civilian Populations: The Contemporary Halakhic Discussion in Israel, Prof. Ya’acov Blidstein cites Rabbi Yoezer Ariel’s opinion that the Israeli government–but not the Israeli citizen–is permitted to target and kill civilians in order to incur a collective punishment on the enemy population. Blidstein notes that this is accepted as the “moderate” opinion–and the mainstream one–in Religious Zionism. It is moderate in relation to the more extreme view taken by the Jewish Underground, which permits individual Israeli citizens to take the law into their own hands.
Blidstein writes that Rabbi Yoezer Ariel’s view allowed
for the deliberate killing of citizens in times of war. However, the term “at times of war” is itself critical. According to Rabbi Ariel, war may only be conducted by “a king or by the public, whose authority is like that of a king,” a condition already hinted at in the words of Rabbi H. D. Halevi. There is no state of war without such an authorized decision [from the king or its equivalent]; hence, “an individual may not declare war [on his own].” Rabbi Ariel interprets Maimonides’s references to the event [of Dina] in a similar way.
On the whole, then, the thrust of [Rabbi Yoezer] Ariel’s article is pragmatic, not principled. The killing of civilians is acceptable, provided it is initiated by sovereign authority, not by individuals taking the law (quite literally) in their own hands.
What is more disturbing is that the great Maimonides does not restrict this permission to the government; writes Blidstein:
Rabbi [Yoezer] Ariel admits that this approach is not shared by all the medieval authorities. It does not reflect, for example, the Maimonidean attitude toward the subject; Maimonides allows–and even encourages–the individual to act. However, Ariel argues, the vast majority of the rishonim did not concur with this view, recognizing as legitimate such action only on the part of the state, and not the individual. This is true even if study of the sources which he cites indicates a more complex study.
So, we have an accepted, minority view–held by Maimonides no less–that individuals (such as Israeli settlers) are permitted to kill civilians as a form of collective punishment. Meanwhile, the so-called “moderate,” mainstream opinion is that this right rests with the Israeli state alone. (Note, however, that Blidstein is hesitant to agree with Ariel’s claim that “the vast majority of the rishonim [the "classical" halakhic authorities] did not concur with this view,” arguing that the reality is much more “complex.” What one can glean from this is that there were other rabbinical authorities of the past who permitted individual Jews to kill non-Jews, who can be quoted by the Jewish Underground types.)
It should also be pointed out in The Orthodox Forum’s annual book War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde rejects Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s view that collective punishment (even against babies) is prohibited. Indeed, Prof. Ya’akov Blidstein notes that Goren’s view was not taken seriously by other Religious Zionist rabbis because it “is not based upon Talmudic sources,” which “naturally weakens its halakhic impact and authority.”
Rabbi Shlomo Goren was the first Chief Rabbi of the IDF. Although he had some very extreme views (such as calling it a “tragedy” that Jews did not “blow up” the Dome of the Rock Mosque and Al-Aqsa Mosque–a view held by the Jewish Underground), with regard to “collective punishment” he held the non-Talmudic view.
Yet, by Operation Cast Lead (the Gaza War) in 2009, the IDF rabbinate had shifted to the right. The new Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Avichai Rontzki, issued statements in line with the majority view among Religious Zionists, commanding soldiers that “no mercy should be shown” to the enemy (the Gazan population). An “IDF rabbinate publication” quoted the works of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner saying “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers.” To make it very clear that “the enemy” referred to here was the civilian population, the IDF publication likened the Palestinians to the Bible’s Philistines, who were exterminated to clear the land for the Jews.
When an Israeli human rights group cried foul at this IDF publication, the Israeli government scrambled to do damage control. Naturally, their “investigation” claimed that the publication was distributed only in a few isolates places and had not been properly vetted. Western news outlets reassured us that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner was just an “ultra-nationalist,” a fringe, radical element in Israel.
Yet, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is not some fringe, radical element in Israel. Instead, he is a well-respected rabbi of Modern Orthodox Judaism in Israel. As the Jerusalem Post notes, R. Aviner “is considered one of the spiritual leaders of the Religious Zionist movement.” The Jewish Daily Forward calls him “one of the leading Religious Zionist rabbis.” Ynetnews, the English website of Israel’s most-read newspaper, calls him “one of Religious Zionism’s leading rabbis.” Haaretz calls him “a leading Yesha rabbi” and “one of religious Zionism’s most influential rabbis.” Israel National News, part of Arutz Sheva (an Israeli media network aligned with Religious Zionism), calls Aviner “a well-respected rabbinical authority within much of the religious-Zionist sector.”
TorahMusings.com, an extremely popular blog supervised by Orthodox rabbis, says:
To place R. [Shlomo] Aviner into contemporary society, he is on the left wing of right wing Religious Zionists.
Left wing? One can only imagine what the right wing is. In other words, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is perfectly in the mainstream of Religious Zionism–nay, he is one of its “spiritual leaders.”
R. Aviner is well-respected in Orthodox circles. He has written articles that appear on many mainstream Jewish and mainstream Orthodox Jewish websites, including The Jerusalem Post, Orthodox Union website (ou.com), Israel Nation News, and TorahMusings.
Aside from this, of course, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, a Religious Zionist Talmudic academy in Jerusalem that fundraisers in the United States. It is the same institution where Rabbi Abraham Kook, the “main ideologue of modern religious Zionism,” sent his son to study. Shlomo Aviner is also the Chief Rabbi of Beit El. He can hardly be considered a fringe character.
Indeed, R. Shlomo Aviner moves in the same circles as the Modern Orthodox rabbis of The Orthodox Forum and the authors of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition. On TorahMusing’s website, we find that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner shared the same podium in New York state with none other than Rabbi Michael J. Broyde and Rabbi Norman Lamm.
Yet, when this controversy broke about the IDF’s chief rabbi using a publication with quotes from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Israel’s defenders in the West tried to portray R. Aviner as some “ultra-nationalist” fringe lunatic. Yet, this is clearly misleading. One should hardly be surprised, considering that I have found virtually the exact same views in the book written by The Orthodox Forum, which is the combined work of Orthodox Jewish experts from around the world. The only difference, of course, is that (1) R. Aviner’s wording is more direct and frank, whereas The Orthodox Forum says the same thing but in a more “sophisticated,” intellectual way; (2) Aviner was unfortunate enough to catch the media’s attention during the Gaza controversy. It is the latter reason that forced Israeli apologists to throw him under the bus and take one for the team.
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What then does Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the “left-wing” of the Religious Zionist right, argue? He argues that “Purity of Arms” applies only to Jewish civilians. He says on his very own website (emphasis added):
We are all for “Purity of Arms” and for saving citizen lives. But which civilians? Our civilians
Aviner concludes by saying: “They are guilty, we are not.” He also extends “purity of arms” to Jewish soldiers (but not to Palestinian civilians). In a question and answer section, Rabbi Aviner argues that “purity of arms” refers to protecting the lives of Jewish soldiers, not to Palestinians. He warns: “Don’t tarnish the purity of arms with the blood of our own soldiers.”
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner writes:
The Mechilta (halachic midrash) says “The best of the non-Jews should be killed.”
He clarifies that “this statement refers to a time of war,” at which time “even a ‘pleasant’-seeming non-Jew is killed.” He justifies carpet bombing civilian populations, saying “it is permissible according to the Halachah based on the law of ‘rodef.'” The entire civilian population, including children and babies, acquires the title of “rodefim” and is thus licit to kill.
Where have we heard all this before? In fact, it is the exact same argument heard in “the contemporary halakhic discussion in Israel.” Is it not misleading then to categorize Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s views on this subject to be the rantings of some fringe “ultra-nationalist” extremist? R. Aviner did not make this view out of thin air; rather, he points out that “this is also the ruling of Ha-Rav Shaul Yisraeli in the book ‘Amud Ha-Yemini’ at the end of chap. 16.” He is here citing the tract written by Rabbi Shaul Israeli, who justified the Qibya Massacre in 1953, in which two-thirds of the victims were women and children. R. Israeli’s influential tract has been used to justify killing civilians from the early years following Israel’s birth all the way to the Gaza Massacre in 2008-2009.