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The Top Five Ways Jewish Law Justifies Killing Civilians; #3: Promoting Ethnic Cleansing (I)

(image by Carlos Latuff)

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, pages I, II, III, and IV

We have seen previously (see pages IIIIII, and IV) how Halakha permits collective punishment.  It is perhaps no surprise then that ethnic cleansing, the logical conclusion of collective punishment, is also facilitated.

When a Jewish army is about to attack a Gentile city, it must issue an ultimatum offering the besieged population three options: (1) flee, (2) subservience and tribute, or (3) war and death.  To this effect, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde cites the great Maimonides on p.20 of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition in a section entitled “The Civilian, the Siege, and the Standard of Conduct:”

Mamoinides states:

Joshua, before he entered the land of Israel, sent three letters to its inhabitants. The first one said that those that wish to flee [the oncoming army] should flee.  The second one said that those that wish to make peace should make peace.  The third letter said that those that want to fight a war should prepare to fight a war should prepare to fight a war.

As for the second option of “peace,” this is clarified on p.212:

Before undertaking the siege of a hostile city, offers of peace must be undertaken.  The terms are subservience and tribute.

Here, we come to understand an interesting Jewish war ethic: the prohibition to surround a city on all four sides.  Writes Broyde on pp.20-21:

Maimonides codifies a number of specific rules of military ethics, all based on Talmudic sources:

When one surrounds a city to lay siege to it, it is prohibited to surround it from four sides; only three sides are permissible.  One must leave a place for inhabitants to flee for all those who wish to abscond to save their life.

Broyde clarifies:

I would add, however, that I do not understand Maimonides’ words literally.  It is not surrounding the city on all four sides that is prohibited–rather, it is the preventing of the outflow of civilians or soldiers who are seeking to flee.  Of course, Jewish law would allow one to stop the inflow of supplies to a besieged city through this fourth side.

Sounds pretty ethical, right?  But here’s the rub: because Halakha commands the Jewish military to always allow civilians to flee the city, those civilians who fail to do so automatically forfeit their civilian status and are classified as combatants.  Writes R. Broyde on p.22:

This approach [allowing civilians to flee] solves another difficult problem according to Jewish law: the role of the “innocent” civilian in combat.  Since the Jewish tradition accepts that civilians (and soldiers who are surrendering) are always entitled to flee from the scene of the battle, it would logically follow that all who remain voluntarily are classified as combatants, since the opportunity to leave is continuously present.  Particularly in combination with Joshua’s practice of sending letters of warning in advance of combat, this legal approach limits greatly the role of the doctrine of “innocent civilian” in the Jewish tradition.  Essentially, the Jewish tradition feels that innocent civilians should do their very best to remove themselves from the battlefield, and those who remain are not so innocent.  If one voluntarily stays in a city that is under siege, one assumes the mantle of combatant. [90]

In footnote 90, Broyde says that “I would apply this rule in modern day combat situations to all civilians who remain voluntarily in the locale of the war in a way which facilitates combat.”  Translation: these Arab civilians who don’t flee for their lives when Israel invades them are “not so innocent” and “assume[] the mantle of combatant.”

This disturbing Jewish war ethic finds itself in the introduction of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, on p.xvii-xviii:

Of course, Jewish law sometimes demands overtures prior to declaring war to afford all who wish the opportunity to depart (known in Halakhah as the duty to surround on only three sides).  Those who remain, however–including sympathetic civilians–are no longer innocents, and their death, when militarily necessary, is according to Broyde unfortunate but halakhically proper.

The phrase “including sympathetic civilians” implies quite clearly that also included in this are those other than sympathetic civilians–anyone who “voluntarily” stays behind.  One wonders: do Israeli rockets stop before they detonate on Palestinian heads, and ask them: “Are you voluntarily staying behind or not?”  In reality, there is no way to know how who stays behind voluntarily or not–they are all licit to slaughter.  Of course, any civilian deaths are of course “unfortunate,” something that Palestinians take great solace in knowing.

Israel routinely launches massive operations against Palestinians, often warning the civilians beforehand with leaflets and telephone calls.  By so warning, the Israelis absolve themselves of all culpability: the civilians who refuse to flee their homes are no longer innocent in Israeli eyes and become licit to kill.  Scores of Palestinians subsequently die and then the Israelis pat themselves on the back for being so moral: look at how moral and ethical we are that we actually warn civilians ahead of time that we are going to bomb them.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Broyde and other Jewish religious authorities indulge themselves in self-congratulatory awe about how immensely moral and ethical Halakha is in this regard: Jewish law has such a great emphasis on protecting civilians that we have an obligation to leave a fourth side open for them; we are so great and ethical.  Yet,  Nahmanides elaborates on this obligation in a way that clearly explains the moral rationale behind “leaving a fourth side open,” saying (as quoted on p.21 of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition):

God commanded us that when we lay siege to a city that we leave one of the sides without a siege so as to give them a place to flee to.  It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies at a time of war; in addition, by giving our enemies a place to flee to, they will not charge at us with as much force.

Rabbi Shaul Israeli, considered  “one of the most important rabbis of the Religious Zionist school of thought” and author of the influential monograph on civilians in the Jewish war ethic, noted that Maimonides [alternately known as Rambam] came to the same conclusion as Nahmanides did: the obligation to leave a fourth side open is of military benefit to the Jewish army.  Rabbi Gil Student writes:

[Rabbi Shaul Israeli] explains that according to the Rambam this rule is a military tactic, i.e. the best way to create a siege is to leave a side open so the fighters have an escape route and do not need to fight to the end.

This seems to be the real rationale for the rule obligating “a fourth side” open: it facilitates the speedy and efficient removal of a native population, the necessary component of ethnic cleansing.  “Humanitarian” concern seems to have very little to do with this, since the rule was derived from the Biblical Joshua, who slaughtered the inhabitants of a city when he conquered it.

It is true that Joshua offered some civilian populations the opportunity to flee before he invaded them (which he did by leaving open one side of the city).  But if this was done out of compassion for them, then why did Joshua kill the civilians within the city once he conquered it?  Therefore, it seems that this rule is a tactical maneuver to facilitate ethnic cleansing.

That this has very little to do with “humanitarian concern” can be gleaned from the fact that the rule to leave a side open is only to be enforced when it is beneficial from a tactical standpoint to do so.  Rabbi Shaul Israeli notes that “Rambam [said] this rule is a military tactic” but that also “this is a humanitarian law.” R. Israeli reconciles these two statements by saying: “Therefore, according to the Rambam this rule only applies when the tactic is [militarily] appropriate,” in which case it is understood to be humanitarian too.  How very convenient.

One sees this convenience in modern day Israel: during the illegal siege of Beirut (in Lebanon) by Israeli forces, a heated discussion took place about its legality from a Halakhic perspective.  The overwhelming opinion was that the action was permitted under Jewish law.  Rabbi Shaul Israeli argued that not only was the rule to leave a side open applicable only when it was tactically useful to do so, but also that the rule simply did not apply to “Obligatory wars,” a special class of war under Jewish law.  (There is widespread consensus that Israel’s wars today are considered Obligatory wars.)

Prof. Arye Edrei writes in Divine Spirit and Physical Power:

The message inherent in Rabbi [Shaul] Yisraeli’s argument is clear: the law to leave the fourth side open is not applicable today.

By linking the rule to tactical benefit, Jewish law is pliable enough to permit facilitation of “forced transfer of Palestinians” (Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing) when convenient–and massacre when desired.

Of note is that, for all their self-congratulatory awe at how immensely moral Jewish law is for demanding leaving a side of the city open for civilians, Religious Zionist rabbis are in the lead calling for more regressive methods against Palestinians.  It is certainly the rare exception that any of them would call the Israeli siege of Palestinians sinful or blameworthy.

Even Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who voiced the opposing view that it is imperative to leave a fourth side open in Obligatory wars, believed that “the Israeli army fulfilled this commandment in the siege of Beirut.”  Similarly, the vast majority of Israeli religious leaders gave their blessing to the Gaza blockade.

*  *  *  *  *

From its birth to the present day, Israel has used this warped mentality to facilitate ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of civilians.  During the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948-1949, Zionist forces efficiently emptied over four-hundred Palestinian villages and cities.  Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes on p.101 of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that Jewish forces “tried to force a swift departure” of the indigenous Palestinian population “by issuing an ultimatum to the people to leave their homes.”  On p.133, Prof. Pappe writes:

The [Jewish] brigade usually closed in on villages from three flanks, tactically creating an ‘open gate’ on the fourth flank through which they could drive the people out.

This rule (of “leaving the fourth side open”) and its important corollary (whoever refuses to leave “assumes the mantle of combatant”) continue to be exploited by Israel today.  Palestinians who refuse to flee are accused of willingly converting themselves into “human shields.”

Such views are articulated by leading Israeli intellectuals, such as Prof. Asa Kasher (author of the much touted Code of Conduct of the Israel Defense Forces).  Nadene Goldfoot summarizes Prof. Asa Kasher’s views: “If people don’t leave the combat zone they become a human shield for the terrorists and thus becomes part of the war.”  Kasher’s quote can be found in the Jewish Post, in which he accuses a civilian who “doesn’t want to leave” of “turn[ing] into the human shield of the terrorist.”

What could possibly be more morbid than placing the blame on the victim?  But this is exactly what Israel’s apologists do.  To add another layer to the absurdity, they then revel at their own magnificence, at how morally superior they are–how they have The Most Moral Army in the World™.

Is it really any surprise that the Jewish tradition promotes ethnic cleansing, considering that this is an overwhelmingly prevalent theme throughout the Bible?   (See parts 123456-i6-ii6-iii6-iv789-i, and 9-ii of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series.)  But always remember: Islam is uniquely violent.

Note: The next page of “Promoting Ethnic Cleansing” will be published shortly.

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  • Nur Alia


    If it was a rule that all nations recognise Palistine as a ‘state’, then Israel would not be recognised as a state either, nor any nation that does not belong to the UN.

    The nation I live in does not recognize Israel as a state, but does recognise Palistine. We do not ignore that Israel is ‘there’…but as it was explained to me, in the country where I live, Israel is much like the Chinese neighbourhood I live in in relation to the city I live in…which means, this is a defacto (because it is like this) Chinese neighbourhood, but de jure (by law) part of the city.

    Let us understand that the ‘state’ cant grant you your God given right to be free, they can, however, take it away, which is what happens in the occupied Palistinian lands…Israelis take the rights away from the citizens. Even the UN cant recognise a power to supercede the right of an individual to exist…so the notion of ‘recognising Israel’ is…again, a false Israeli notion…as, we can’t recognise a power that takes away the rights of an indivudual.

    The UN can’t grant a ‘state’ the right to exist, nor the right to be independant. The UN, under the laws, rules, regulations, oversight, and justice system can grant a state the right to be protected under those things. This is what Palistine is asking for…not for the right to become a state (the Israeli narrative) but the right to have protections, oversight, legal parity, and a say in world affairs, just like Israel and everyone else.

    So…anyone who is against the petition of Palistine to be given full UN member status is actually against the Palistinian right to be protected, and have a peaceful, legal way to resolve thier grievences with thier neighbours.

    The Palistninans understand that…in order for them to have peace, they must have justice…and there is no such thing as ‘negotiation’ with an occupier, and no such thing as peace imposed on you by someone else.

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  • Nur Alia

    I want to correct something…I seem to be correcting all the time.

    In the case of the Palistinian petition in the UN…it is NOT that they are seeking to be recognized as a ‘state’ because, many nations already recognize the Palistinians as a state. This is the Israeli narrative, and should not be repeated.

    What Palistine wants is…to be a full member of the UN, just like Israel and the United States. They want to have the same protections, rules, oversite, and legal parity that everyone else enjoys in the world that promotes peace and unity.

    The Palistinians want to be able to bring thier grievences and concerns to the UN, rather than use violence. They want to be able to defend thier right to exist, just like the Israelis demand from them…excpet they want to do it in a peaceful, legal, civilised setting.

    This is actually what the US and Israel do not want to give the Palistinians…the right protest and bring thier grievences…especially concerning Israel to a legal forum where they have parity guarunteed under UN law.

  • Just Stopping By


    1. Oops. I said “Sharam ash-Sherif” when I meant Haram. I think that I was too preoccupied trying to get the “the” right and it threw me off.

    2. I note that you don’t dispute what I said about the Olmert offer. I take that as a victory!

    3. With regard to Camp David, you claim an American’s view and a statement by an Israeli (stating that the offer was not sufficient for the Palestinians) and I claim another American’s view and a statement by a Saudi (saying that the offer was generous to the Palestinians). To me that sounds like the offer was in the ballpark. Ultimately, you are arguing based on what you think is legally correct and I am arguing based on what I think is realistic politically. I admire and respect your position as one of principle, though it does lead to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that because territory should not change hands due to war you want an outcome that is based on the cease-fire lines following the change of territory in an earlier war. You, of course, also run the risk that you get some panel that contains someone with unreported Dershowitz-like views who rules against the Palestinians. But I assume you recognize the pros and cons of your view and, as I said, I think it is principled but I think that unless both sides agree to it (which I do not see happening), you may wind up with a brilliant ruling worthy of framing but no actual Palestinian state.

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  • Danios

    @ Just Stopping By:

    As for the viable offer, US diplomat Dennis Ross wrote that Saudi Prince Bandar said of the 2000 offer, “If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be a crime.” That seems to make it at least viable…

    Please click here to listen to Dr. Norman Finkelstein’s debate with Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, in which he responds to what you just said. He refutes “the Dennis Ross interpretation” starting at 7:12, although you should listen to it from the beginning of the clip. Please note that because of the 10 minute limit on YouTube, the video continues in part 3. During this debate, the Former Israeli Foreign Minister admits: “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David,” a quote that is certainly more relevant than that of the Saudi despot and lackey to America.

  • Fox news

    I think this series as well as the other understanding jihad series should have a index page that puts all links into one. It looks messy to quote so many different links to simply bring to the attention a series or share it with others.

    And i fully agree that this method of showing how a huge log is sticking in the eye of islamophobes is very important. The islamophobes spend their jobless lives 24/7 to whine over Islam this and Islam that. By bringing attention of audience to the log in their eyes, it in one shot explains their hypocritical methodology and standards, prevents Islamophobes from again making these arguments as they quite know that they would by using that idiotic argument open themselves to barrage of questions that they themselves have to defend and would take away their time from their stinking lives in removing the huge log in their own eyes. Muslims dont have to spend their entire lives defending & deconstructing attacks while Islamophobes quite happily keep throwing rocks and manufacturing fancy slogans and lies fearing no consequences. When the islamophobes realise they are in glass house they themselves will think twice before throwing rocks and even if they throw the rocks they only end up breaking their own house.

  • Just Stopping By

    @Danios (and @Géji):

    I wouldn’t insist (had I any power) that the two sides work it out themselves. If they were willing to abide by the ruling of some international court or other body, that’s fine with me. However, I think that if such a body declares its own opinion without both sides’ agreement then that result will probably simply be another piece of paper because at least one side won’t abide by it and no one will make them do so. I also think that even if they were forced to do so, there would be enough resentment on at least one side that the result would not hold.

    I agree that the Arabs shouldn’t have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that the Israelis do have to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, including having their own independent state if that is what they wish.

    Would I have the Palestinians negotiate with the 22% they have or hope to have? I’m not sure that it matters where one starts as long as everyone agrees at the end point. If it’s easiest to start with the 1967 lines, fine with me. Ultimately, I think that because the Palestinians are the ones most likely to be be resentful at the result, there is a need for the final agreement to be generous to them, meaning weighted in their favor. I have no firm position on what that means in practice other than the Palestinians have to feel that they received a good deal.

    Danios says, “Surely, you can see why I’d be concerned with the Palestinian leadership being put under immense pressure to accept ‘peace’ terms.” And that’s why I started by saying neither side should be under military or other pressure.

    As for the viable offer, US diplomat Dennis Ross wrote that Saudi Prince Bandar said of the 2000 offer, “If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be a crime.” That seems to make it at least viable. If the offer was as Ross describes it (contiguous Palestinian state within the West Bank plus Gaza, Palestinian sovereignty over the above-ground area of the Temple Mount / Sharam ash-Sharif with Israeli sovereignty below, Palestinians give up 7 to 8% of their territory in return for an area equivalent to 2% of their territory), that’s at least a viable starting point. The later Olmert offer was supposedly even more generous to the Palestinians, with the area of the land swaps being identical in at least some reporting. My baseline would be a one-for-one land swap, but I think that the Palestinians should have publicly said that they would accept the 2000 offer and/or the Olmert offer if the land swaps were simply made identical (and based on mutually agreed upon areas to be swapped). If it came down to a public battle over whether the Palestinians should get the 22% they sort-of have now only 21%, I think the pressure on Israel to concede would have been huge. Based on what has been reported about the Olmert offer being one-for-one, that would seem to have been viable.

  • Géji

    “So, it cannot possibly be said that the Palestinians turned down a “viable offer.” Can you cite an example of a “viable offer” that the Palestinians refused?”

    I was about to ask @Just Stopping BY that very same question.

  • Danios

    @ Just Stopping By:

    I agree with you that the best course is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement. I would support whatever they agree to, as long as neither side is doing so under military or other pressure.

    I may be reading too much into your comment (and correct me if I am wrong) but it seems that you are insisting that the two sides “work it out among themselves” instead of referring the matter to the international community in order to settle the matter according to international law (“other pressure”?).

    For peace to be attained, all that is needed is to use the yardstick of international law: this would involve Israel ending its illegal occupation and completely withdrawing from the Occupied Territories, including the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The refugees must be granted the right of return or compensated

    Yes, the Arabs must recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist–not this new bull**** demand for it to be accepted as a “Jewish State.” Furthermore, the Arabs have to recognize Israel’s right to live in peace and security with its neighbors. Here, however, I’d point out that everyone always falls over themselves trying to strike some moral equivalence between the Israelis (the occupiers) and the Palestinians (the occupied). So it’s always phrased “Israelis must do this…and Palestinians have to do this…” This, even though Palestine has a “right to live in peace and security” just as much Israel has the “right to live in peace and security.” This, even though Israel denies a Palestinian state, while the Israeli state exists. This even though three times as many Palestinian civilians are killed than Israeli civilians….So yes, Arabs must respect the right of Israelis to live in peace and security, but Israelis need to understand this too.

    The idea of the two sides working it out “for themselves” is an Israeli ploy to ensure that it is the weak, oppressed Palestinians negotiating with the powerful, occupying power. Palestinians should not be forced to give up anything more than they already have. Every single inch of Palestine was theirs, until the Zionists came and stole the land. Now, the Palestinians are desperately struggling for the last 22% of the land that their ancestors lived on. Would you have them negotiate with the remaining 22% they have now have a hope of obtaining?

    From your statement about East Jerusalem, you probably don’t think so….but certainly you can see the problem with supporting “whatever they agree to.” Surely, you can see why I’d be concerned with the Palestinian leadership being put under immense pressure to accept “peace” terms. This has already occurred on numerous occasions, and the Palestinian Papers reveal that the Palestinian leadership has been ready to sell out its people.

    As for why it has not happened, I have my own views but mostly I blame both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership for each turning down viable offers from the other,

    I have enjoyed your respective feedback on this site, so I say this with due respect to you: I do find it a bit troubling that you strike a moral equivalence between occupier and occupied. What Israel needs to offer is what I have outlined above. It has never done so. So, it cannot possibly be said that the Palestinians turned down a “viable offer.” Can you cite an example of a “viable offer” that the Palestinians refused?

    I am critical of the Palestinian leadership, but NOT for the conventional Israeli/American wisdom that they turned down legitimate offers of peace, but rather the exact opposite: they have been selling out the rights of their people, thereby serving the function of any lackey-to-a-colonial-power government.

    The situation of the Palestinians and Israelis is exactly analogous to the American Indians and the European settlers. Looking back, one would be (rightfully) scorned for striking any moral equivalence between the occupied (the American Indians) and the occupier (European settlers). The same should be the case here.

    * * * * *

    Here are some relevant words from Dr. Norman Finkelstein:

    There has been, since roughly the mid 1970s, you could say for the past three decades, there’s been a consensus in the international community on how to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. And the consensus, I suspect, is familiar to everybody in this room — it’s called the Two-State Settlement. It’s not two States anywhere and of any shape. The two States have very specific meaning under international law. A fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, as anchored in article two of the UN Charter, is that it’s inadmissible to acquire territory by war or by force. You can’t change countries’, nations’ borders simply through the imposition of force. For those of you who know the technical side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, you know that a famous UN Resolution 242 from November 1967 lists out the basic principles for resolving the conflict at the very top. The first principle listed is the inadmissibility of acquiring territory by war.

    That principle was upheld in the recent 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the World Court. That means concretely that Israel has to “fully” withdraw from the territory acquired during the June 1967 war, for our purposes in particular, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Why? Because all of those territories were acquired in the course of a war and under international law you have no privy whatsoever to territory acquired in the course of a war. Now, no Israeli party, no Israeli government, no Israeli official has ever acknowledged a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. And we know that because the record, as I said, is quite clear. Every year, for the past 20 years, the United Nations, usually around December, has a resolution called Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question. Every single year. And every single year the vote is exactly the same. It’s the whole world on one side, I’ll quote to you from this year, the last vote was December 2005… It was 156 to 6, the whole world on one side and on the other side — I should just point out that this resolution calls for a Two-State Settlement on the June 1967 border — it’s the United States, Israel and depending on the year, it’s some variation of Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu, Micronesia and the Martial Islands. That’s seven all together but usually one drops out. Each year they grow… [inaudible]… depending on who gets paid that year. [audience laughter] It’s the whole world on the one hand, the United States and Israel on the one hand and those South Sea …[inaudible]… on the other hand. And the record has been that way, you know, if you take the year 1989, it was 151 to 3, the three then were the US, Israel and the island State of Dominica. Dominica still comes in and out, you know like Grenada is also another major super power [audience laughter] … [inaudible] … depending on the year. And it’s always been the United States and Israel who have opposed that Two-State Settlement.

  • Just Stopping By

    Oops, I got confused and my last comment should be addressed to Talisman. But, that doesn’t change my views. 🙂

  • Just Stopping By

    @Nur Alia:

    I agree with you that the best course is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement. I would support whatever they agree to, as long as neither side is doing so under military or other pressure.

    Personally, I think that the solution that has the most potential is a two-state solution where we see the emergence of an independent Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem. As for why it has not happened, I have my own views but mostly I blame both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership for each turning down viable offers from the other, as well as the extremists on both sides that want the other to disappear or that can’t see that the others are human beings deserving of the same respect and rights as themselves.

    May your relatives and all in the region have a brighter future.

  • Ummer

    No comment by Mindy1 eh? I note there’s a mistake in your title it should be “…Jewish Law is used to Justify Killing Civilians”.

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