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August 24, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shofetim

This week’s portion includes the rules of war: when Hebrews besiege a city, they must first “propose a peaceful settlement” (Deut. 20:10).  If the city says no, the Hebrews shall take the city and kill all the adult males (20:14)- though as Scharfstein points out, “the Torah prescribes a ore humane conduct towards the women and children [who merely become slaves].”  Of course, most modern readers recoil at such passages- so how do we explain their presence in a Divine (or Divinely-inspired) document?

The most common answer I have heard is that people were just less civilized in those days.  But I think this is too easy; it seems to me that there are pragmatic reasons why genocidal warfare (or almost-genocidal warfare) made more sense 40 centuries ago than it did a century ago.

40 centuries ago, the difference between civilians and soldiers was pretty blurry; no one wore uniforms, and I can’t imagine swords were hard to get if the Hebrews were able to get them.  So if everyone (or at least every adult male) is a potential soldier, and your group wanted to take over city x, the best way to avoid future guerilla warfare from the residents of city x would be genocide.  So to me, the more interesting question is: what changed?  Why did genocide (mostly) go out of fashion?

At some point, armies became more professional; they started wearing armor and then uniforms, and then started to get specialized weaponry that really wasn’t that easy for civilians to get (such as tanks and bazookas).  As the soldier/civilian gap increased over the centuries, it became easier and easier for armies to hold territory without killing every single adult male on the other side.   The Nazi genocide is not really an exception to this rule; even though the Nazis killed Jews out of ideological fanaticism, they were able to hold western Europe without killing most non-Jewish civilians.  (Eastern Europe is more complicated; even though they did not kill every single civilian Pole, they were considerably more bloodthirsty towards Poles than French, again out of ideological fanaticism- they believed Poles were an inferior race too).

So if this dvar Torah had ended anytime before September 11, 2001, it would have a happy ending.  But technology now has moved in a very different direction; rockets, etc. are now so easy and cheap to get that non-uniformed groups like Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. can fight an army on relatively equal terms, which means that the boundary between civilian and soldier is becoming more blurry.  For example, when the USA tried to conquer Iraq, the Iraqi army melted away quickly, but civilians quickly created a terrorist underground that made Iraq ungovernable, and which later become ISIS.    Similarly, Israel does not want to conquer Gaza because (I suspect) of fears that if it tried to do so, Hamas would melt into the general population and make the place ungovernable.

So does this mean that armies will return to Deuteronomy-style tactics?  I doubt that the USA or Israel will do so, for obvious moral reasons.  But in the rest of the world, who knows?

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