The Torah of Obeying/Disobeying Orders: A Gathering of Sources

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Torah of Obeying/Disobeying Orders:

A Gathering of Sources

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The following real live ethical and political case in Israel raises some religious and Torah questions. (Or perhaps one should say that the rabbis lived through and came to their own conclusions about cases very similar to those we face today.)

First, a passage from Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 74a:

One came before Raba and said to him, "The governor of my town has ordered me: "Go, and kill so and so. If not, I will slay thee." Raba answered him saying, "Let him rather slay you than that you should commit murder; who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder."

And also in Sanhedrin 74a:

It has been taught by Rabbi Jonathan ben Saul: "If one was pursuing his fellow to slay him, and the pursued could have saved himself by maiming the limb of the pursuer, but instead killed his pursuer, the pursued should be executed on that account."

Now let us read our contemporary case. I welcome your comments on how to understand and respond to these cases, especially the contemporary one.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

Israeli officer tried for sabotaging raid

Chris McGreal in Jerusalem

Monday February 3, 2003

The Guardian

An Israeli military intelligence officer has been court-martialled for refusing to obey an order he said targeted innocent Palestinians in retaliation for a suicide bombing, and was therefore illegal.

The trial of the officer, who has been identified only as Lieutenant A, has divided the prestigious intelligence corps unit 8200.

The officer was accused of deliberately withholding military intelligence needed to plan an air force attack on a Fatah office in the West Bank city of Nablus. The military high command ordered the assault in the wake of dual suicide bombings in Tel Aviv last month that claimed 23 lives.

The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv quoted colleagues of the lieutenant as saying he became suspicious about the order when he was asked to identify a building and find out how many people were likely to be in it at the time of the attack. It is more usual for intelligence officers to be asked to identify specific individuals the army wants to target and their whereabouts.

The newspaper said that the officer took this to mean that the Israeli military intended "to cause random casualties, and he balked at the order". He continued to hold back intelligence at his disposal because he feared that the operation "would lead to the death of innocent Palestinians", the newspaper added.

Without the intelligence, the raid was abandoned.

Lieutenant A was court-martialled by his unit commander. He argued in his defence that the order was illegal because it was primarily aimed at killing Palestinian civilians, not known fighters.

The unit commander rejected the plea, dismissed Lieutenant A from the intelligence service and transferred him to low-level administrative work.

But the case has divided the Israeli military.

Senior officers said the young officer should have expressed his concerns to a superior officer, not unilaterally withheld intelligence and foiled the mission.

The unit's commanders have also argued that it is not for intelligence officers to determine what is legal. They are merely obliged to provide the information; the decision on how to use it lies with combat units on the ground.

But junior officers pointed to a law enacted after the Kafr Kassem massacre of 47 Arabs by Israeli border policemen in 1956.

"We are taught that law says it is illegal to kill except in very specific circumstances. This case is being widely talked about in the army now and there's a lot of people who think he was right to do what he did," said one officer. "You do not have to be the triggerman to be guilty of a crime."

The dissent by junior officers apparently prompted a light sentence for an offence that would usually see a soldier jailed.

The military's senior law officer, the judge advocate general, has launched an inquiry into whether the order given to Lieutenant A was legal.

An army statement said: "The intelligence officer was dismissed from his post after refusing a direct order from his superiors, damaging operational activity."

At the end of last year the military set up a special committee, headed by General Yitzhak Harel, to investigate the killing of Palestinian civilians. Soon afterwards, the army chief of staff ordered that every shooting of an innocent Palestinian must be investigated within 72 hours.

However, soldiers continue to receive minor sentences for illegal killings. A soldier who killed a 95-year-old Palestinian woman in December was jailed for only 65 days.

In December, Israel's high court rejected a claim by eight reserve soldiers that they were not obliged to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories. The eight argued that it would be illegal for them to obey orders that maintain "a system which consists entirely of collective punishment of a civilian population".