The trial of Elor Azaria is rocking Israel. All Jews can sympathize with the heart-rending personal tragedy of this young, inexperienced IDF soldier and those who love him. Yet the case transcends individuals and has momentous national significance. We have arrived at a pivotal moment in defining Israel’s soul: Is the Jewish state a society of laws and ethical values, or one of unbridled nationalist and religious fervor?
Azaria killed Abdel Fattah al-Sharif by shooting him after the terrorist had stabbed an Israeli soldier. But Sharif had already been “neutralized” by other soldiers prior to Azaria’s arrival, and lay immobilized on the ground when Azaria cocked his rifle and fired into Sharif’s head at point blank range. Before shooting, Azaria told a fellow soldier, “He stabbed my friend and deserves to die.” Later, Azaria changed his justification, claiming, “He was armed with a bomb and I shot him to protect myself and my friends.”
All the trial evidence indicated that Azaria did not shoot in self-defense. His commander testified that the terrorist was not a threat when Azaria fired, a fact confirmed by a detailed video of the shooting. In addition, Azaria’s statement before shooting indicates that his motive was more revenge than self-defense.
Three military judges ruled unanimously that Azaria’s action had no basis in self-defense, that the young soldier was guilty of violating the IDF code of ethics (tohar ha-nesheq) and of manslaughter.
This verdict upheld the initial observations by previous Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and current Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot that Azaria had violated the IDF’s rules of engagement, which allow the use of force necessary only to achieve the military objective.
Many in Israel refuse to accept the verdict. It is difficult for a society to be objective about its soldiers, who are virtually every parent’s sons and daughters. So fierce are the passions that Gen. Eizenkot and the military judges have been threatened with violence, and Ya’alon — who lost his minister’s position after he criticized Azaria’s act — is again being vilified.
These reactions should not surprise us. Even before Azaria’s controversial incident some rabbis declared that Israelis should kill terrorists after they have been neutralized and no longer pose any threat.
The trial used Israeli military law to arrive at its verdict, and interestingly its conclusion is entirely consistent with the religious law of rodef (“pursuer”). Jewish law states that one may kill a rodef to preempt his aggression and eliminate the threat he poses — but with one essential caveat: If the aggressor can be neutralized by injuring a limb or via some other non-lethal action, then killing him is prohibited. Jewish law insists that such killing is a gratuitous use of violence that undermines the value of human life that persists even in the life of a malicious aggressor. If so, in Azaria’s case, killing the rodef after he has already been neutralized certainly cannot be justified.
Palestine’s first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, broke with most of his religious peers by supporting secular Zionism. The hostility against his “heresy” was so strong that religious Jerusalemites threw garbage on his head when he walked through their neighborhoods.
Rav Kook justified his support for these rebels against Jewish tradition by claiming that they were unconsciously realizing God’s plan of returning the chosen people to their biblical homeland, restoring glory to the Jewish people, and bringing the world closer to ultimate redemption.
To Rav Kook, neither kipot, tzitzi’ot, nor party affiliation determined the religious character of a Jew’s actions. What counted was whether they were acting to realize God’s covenant with the Jewish people and working to bring holiness to the world.
The Azaria case has brought us back to Rav Kook’s paradox. While some rabbis and religious Israelis stridently insist on justifying Azaria’s actions, ironically it is the secular IDF officials who are helping Israelis fulfill the religious imperative to “do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord” and guiding Jews observe the moral values underlying the religious law of rodef. These secular officials are bringing holiness to the Jewish people by insisting that Israel honor the sanctity of human life and that her soldiers always fight effectively, yet morally. As representatives of the entire Jewish people, IDF soldiers must be better than the bloodthirsty terrorists surrounding them. The IDF code of ethics enshrines in law that its soldiers must fight with Jewish values and represent the Israel Defense Forces rather than the Israel Revenge Forces.
Like the earliest Zionist pioneers, the IDF officials are unwittingly helping the Jewish people become a heroic people amidst its immoral enemies and preventing us from becoming just another savage tribe in the Middle East.
All Jews — both religious and secular — are indebted to these righteous IDF officials for protecting us and for helping shape the Jewish people into what God wants us to be.
Rabbi Eugene Korn lives in Jerusalem, where he is the academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation.