How Does Judaism View Collateral Damage In War?

Dear Jew in the City,

Hamas embeds terrorists with children and hospitals. It is such a cynical approach to take with their own citizens. When Israel sends in troops to carefully excise the terrorists, the danger for Israelis is higher. When Israel bombs the area from a safe distance, the collateral damage on Arab civilians is higher. Is there any Jewish wisdom we can look to unpack such thorny decisions?



Dear Lynn,

Thanks for your question. We discussed in a previous article how the Torah is actually quite progressive in its rules for warfare, especially when compared with the rules of engagement that were common at the time it was given. For example, an offer of peace had to be extended before a siege and an escape route had to be left for the enemy to flee. We’re not even allowed to destroy fruit trees in a siege! You might therefore think that the Torah strictly prohibits collateral damage, but you’d be wrong. Oh, for sure the Torah prohibits targeting non-combatants, but the sad reality is that collateral damage is simply unavoidable in warfare.

There are a number of Torah sources that seem to suggest this principle, some rather directly and some more homiletically. Here are a few examples.

You may recall the incident in which Avraham went to war against four kings in order to rescue his nephew Lot. Rashi on Genesis 15:1 cites the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah that Avraham was concerned that he might have lost his reward because of the people he killed in battle; God told him not to worry about it. (His exact words were, “You will not be punished for all those people that you killed.”) This, however, doesn’t explicitly mention whether they were all combatants or if they included collateral damage.

We are told that King David wasn’t able to build the Temple because he had spilled blood in warfare. (This was permitted – even praiseworthy – but it still goes counter to the Temple’s purpose as a house of peace.) The Radak on I Chronicles 22:8 tells us specifically that this refers to the innocent people who were collateral damage in the wars that David fought in order to protect Israel.

In I Samuel chapter 15, King Saul warns the Kenites, descendants of Yisro, to evacuate the site of an upcoming battle. In verse 6 he says, “Go, depart, get down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, because you showed kindness to the children of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” Gratitude to Yisro notwithstanding, the presence of his descendants would not prevent the battle from occurring.

This one’s kind of a stretch, but I like it: In Numbers 31:2, God commands Moshe to wage war against Midian, who had previously plotted against the Jews and led them into sin. Moshe is told explicitly that after this battle, he will die. Despite the great loss of their holy leader that this battle would cause, the Jews didn’t attempt to delay their obligation. Was this not the greatest collateral damage?

The archetypical case, however, appears to be the destruction of the city of Shechem at the hands of Yaakov’s sons Shimon and Levi. Let’s recap that incident from Genesis chapter 34:

In the city of Shechem, Yaakov’s daughter Dina was raped and abducted by the person Shechem, son of the city’s ruler, Chamor. Shechem wanted to marry Dina so Chamor brokered a deal with Yaakov’s sons: the men of the city would be circumcised, after which they would intermarry with Yaakov’s children and be one big, happy family. When the men were all in pain from their circumcisions, Shimon and Levi massacred them and rescued their sister. Yaakov criticized them for their actions, saying that such behavior would make them a target for the other people who inhabit the land. Shimon and Levi responded, “Should we let our sister be treated like a whore?”

There’s no clear winner in that debate. Yaakov lets his sons have the last word but he again criticizes their behavior on his deathbed, so we see that he wasn’t fully convinced. What’s important to note is that Yaakov’s objection to his sons’ behavior wasn’t based on morality or halacha, it was strictly political, i.e., the other peoples would consider Yaakov’s family to be a threat. Apparently the killing of the people of Shechem was inherently permitted. The question is why.

The Rambam explains Shimon and Levi’s actions in Hilchos Melachim 9:14: There are seven universal (“Noachide”) laws, which apply to all mankind, Jews and non-Jews alike. One of these is to establish courts of justice. The men of the city were aware of Shechem’s crimes but they refused to bring him to justice. They were therefore in violation of their obligation and also culpable. By such logic, those who support an evil regime like the Nazis or Hamas would also be liable and “fair game” in battle.

This opinion of the Rambam was going to be the foundation of my approach to this topic until I saw the opinion of the Maharal, cited in a 2014 article by Rabbi Haim Jachter. Rabbi Jachter writes:

“[T]he Maharal justifies the actions of Shimon and Levi, asserting that the Torah sanctions waging war when a nation attacks us. In such circumstances, we are permitted and perhaps obligated to respond to the other nation’s provocation. In responding, we attack the other nation and do not distinguish between the guilty members and the innocent members of that nation. Thus, Shimon and Levi appropriately responded to Shechem’s aggression. Once they responded, they were permitted to attack the entire nation, because this is the manner in which war is waged.”

This is true. In 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden, a strategic military target, killing around 23,000, including tens of thousands of civilians. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed perhaps 200,000 people, most of whom were civilians. (This ended the war, ultimately saving millions of lives.) The reality is, in order to win wars, you have to be willing to accept civilian casualties. If you can’t do that, you’re going to lose.

It’s only logical that we have the right to wage war endangering enemy civilians. After all, we have the right to draft our own citizens and make soldiers of them. If we can put our own citizens at risk, it should go without saying that we can jeopardize the enemy. (I reiterate that accepting the reality that we may have to jeopardize enemy civilians doesn’t mean that we’re allowed to target them; we’re not.)

A government’s primary responsibility is to protect its own citizens, not those of the enemy. To refrain from battle because of collateral damage would actually be the wrong call. So while it would be reprehensible to target a school or a hospital in conventional warfare, if that’s where terrorists embed their operations, the obligation is to take them out. If anything, Israel goes beyond the call of duty with texts and flyers warning civilians to evacuate.

I think the thing to remember is the rule when it comes to a rodeif (a pursuer). If one person is chasing another with the intention to commit murder, it’s not only permitted but obligatory to kill the rodeif in order to save his intended victim. However, that’s only the case when doing so is the only way to save the innocent party; if the objective can be accomplished without killing the rodeif, then killing him unnecessarily would be murder. Similarly, if a military objective requires civilian casualties, that’s a sad obligation, but if goals can be accomplished without collateral damage, then inflicting it unnecessarily is unacceptable.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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