Re’eh- Ir Hanidachat and the Morality of Collective Punishment

One of the biggest moral issues that has plagued Israel since even before its existence is the question of collective punishment. From early attacks of the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi on British and Arab troops in the 1930’s and 1940’s, to more recent maneuvers and operations by the Israeli military, many outside of and within Israel ask the question- is it really moral to kill innocent civilians, or even very low-ranking soldiers and operatives, if they personally are not the ones attacking and terrorizing Israel? To quote Avraham Avinu, in his plea to Hashem to save the inhabitants of Sodom “חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע,” how could we kill the innocent with the guilty?!

Our sedra features one of the most obvious cases of collective punishment- the Ir Hanidachat, the city which has become negatively influenced by Avoda Zara and must be destroyed. Even though the Tosefta (סנהדרין יד:א) writes “there has never been an Ir Hanidachat, and there never will be,” perhaps we can learn something for our modern question of collective punishment from the rules set out in this mostly theoretical case.

כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּאַחַת עָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לָשֶׁבֶת שָׁם לֵאמֹר. יָצְאוּ אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וַיַּדִּיחוּ אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי עִירָם לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה וְנַעַבְדָה אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֶּם (דברים יג)

If it becomes known that “בני בליעל,” which Rashi interprets as people who are not from that city, but passed through trying to recruit the residents to their cause of idol worship, suceeded at their mission, then action must be taken.

וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְחָקַרְתָּ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה אֱמֶת נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר נֶעֶשְׂתָה הַתּוֹעֵבָה הַזֹּאת בְּקִרְבֶּךָ

Research and investigation must be done to see if this is true, but if it would be and the Bet Din would decide that the city meets the criteria of an Ir Hanidachat, then:

הַכֵּה תַכֶּה אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי הָעִיר הַהִיא לְפִי חָרֶב הַחֲרֵם אֹתָהּ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ וְאֶת בְּהֶמְתָּהּ לְפִי חָרֶב

You must destroy the people who live in that city and all of their belongings, even their crops and animals, by the sword.

וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ תִּקְבֹּץ אֶל תּוֹךְ רְחֹבָהּ וְשָׂרַפְתָּ בָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ כָּלִיל לה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וְהָיְתָה תֵּל עוֹלָם לֹא תִבָּנֶה עוֹד

And all of the spoils that were plundered from the Ir Hanidachat must be gathered in the center of the city, and they must be burned with the city, never to be rebuilt again. Bye bye city, bye bye Avoda Zara!

This concept, of a city so full of sin and idol worship that it must be destroyed, is not a new idea to those who are more familiar with the Written Torah- after all, the conditions for Ir Hanidachat seem to very much fit the circumstances of the destruction of Sodom, and the one threatened against Ninveh by the words of Yonah.

However, the Oral Torah very much limits the scope of how extensive the collective punishment of Ir Hanidachat is. The Mishna (סנהדרין י:ב) right away makes a distinction between the guilty parties (רשעים) and innocent bystanders (צדיקים)- even though all of the property inside the city is destroyed no matter who owns it, any innocent’s property outside of the city is spared, while a guilty man’s property is destroyed even if it is far far away from the Ir Hanidachat. Tosefta (יד:ג) makes a similar distinction, by bringing the disagreement about whether or not children of this city are killed- Chachamim teach that they are not killed, whereas Rabbi Eliezer says they too are put to death. His reasoning is that they were influenced by their parents, so they are very likely to do idol worship at an older age, even if they hadn’t yet committed this terrible sin. Sifrei (שם) writes that women were also killed in an Ir Hanidachat for two main reasons- because they could have stopped the evil men of their city from sinning, and also their deaths are another punishment to their husbands, who took part in the Ir Hanidachat.

Taking this back to our modern issue of collective punishment, we can see that there very much is a biblical basis for destroying a city which has become influenced by an evil culture. If we return to the pesukim in Devarim, and substitute “Muslim Jihad” for “Avoda Zara,” we can see some very real parallels between the case of Ir Hanidachat and the history of our neighboring Arab enemies.

Take Gaza for example- after Israel withdrew from Gush Katif ten years ago, the new Muslim inhabitants quickly became extremists, voting in the terrorist organization Hamas as their government less than a year after moving in. Hamas very much fits the bill of “בני בליעל,” an organization run by men based out of Tukey, the UAE and Qatar whose visit to Gaza was only long enough to turn the locals against Israel and arm them, before returning to the safety of the Gulf states.

As the months went on, word started filtering in to Israel about the terrorist activities going on there. As missiles starting falling in Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon, it was time to make a decision on how to proceed. The “דורשים” and “חוקרים” of Israel met and made a decision three times to respond gently, to take out Hamas targets by air in order to neutralize the attack. A more extensive ground operation has been ruled out or limited significantly, in order to avoid the death of innocent civilians. The result of this approach has been renewed struggles after every military response, making life unbearable in the south and even the center of Israel- through our government’s concern for the innocent civilians of Gaza, the innocent civilians of Israel are losing out.

The parsha of Ir Hanidachat preaches a different path of action. If the residents of Gaza have unanimously elected Hamas, which calls for Islamic Jihad and the destruction of Israel in its charter, this shows that the “בני בליעל” hiding out in Dubai, Qatar and Istanbul have succeeded in turning their enclave into a subversive city. This is not so difficult for us to see either- whenever Israel threatens to attack a Hamas base in Gaza, the so-called “innocent civilians” gather there, in order to try to stop Israel from attacking, or at least to deteriorate Israel’s PR image.

We must understand that the people of Gaza are not innocent. They’ve chosen to put their lot with an entity that actively tries to destroy us, and they’ve let themselves be used as human shields against us, so we cannot be afraid of attacking and destroying them. In order to attain a sustainable peace in the south of Israel, we must not be afraid of treating Gaza as an Ir Hanidachat, destroying the entire enclave so that they cannot attack us anymore.

However, many of the more liberal Israelis say that this is a very amoral approach. How can we feel like we are doing the right thing, following the high moral standard of our Jewish culture, if we are killing women and children?

To answer this, I direct you to the final passuk of the parsha of Ir Hanidachat:

כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל מִצְו‍ֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹת הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
For you have listened to the voice of Hashem your Lord, to keep all of his mitzvot today, to do what is fair in the eyes of Hashem your Lord. (דברים יג:יט)

Even though the collective punishment of destroying the entire Gaza Strip because of the actions of its ruling terrorist organization may feel wrong, we must do it anyways. Why? Because Hashem commanded us to do it, and even though we might not believe, by our societal norms, that it is “ישר,” we should follow Hashem’s command anyways, because by His more objective standards, it certainly is “ישר.” If we listen to Hashem’s words, and do what He says is right, then we cannot go wrong.

The parsha of Ir Hanidachat is a wake-up call to us on how to properly deal with an evil culture that preaches our destruction. It was successful at stopping the Sodomite culture from spreading, and the threat of its execution was enough to cause the Ninevites to repent. This same philosophy may have also stopped the rampant spread of ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram, the PLO, and other terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, even within religious circles, this biblical command is considered extreme, and activists, such as Rav Meir Kahane, who have called for it to be considered, have ended up getting the treatment that our enemies deserve.

Collective punishment is not an amoral approach to fighting our enemies- it is the only moral way, both because it is defined from the beginning as “ישר בעיני ה'” and because it is the only way to finally stop unprovoked attacks on our truly innocent civilians, to stop the collective punishment being done by our enemies for the sin of being Jewish. With Hashem’s help, we will see it implemented in the correct time against the evil cultures surrounding us, so that we can see the permanent and final destruction of our enemies, and the coming of the Geulah, very very soon.

Based on sources brought in “The Punishment of the Subversive City,” by Dr. Israel Zvi Gilat in Bar Ilan University’s Parshat Hashavua study sheet (http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/reeh/gilat.html)