“In conquering the Land [of Israel] according to Nachmanides and Rashi [*], who say that the wars of today are also mitzvah wars for conquering the Land, I am beholden to nothing. This isn’t the law of the persecutor [**], right? What law are we dealing with? The laws of a mitzvah war, a war of occupying the Land. Even if I don’t conquer Gaza right now, [conquering it] is part of my ability to settle the Land of Israel, so it is also a part of the mitzvah of conquering the Land. And therefore it follows, there’s no other way; like, we’d have to kill them all. Because this is the difference between the Law of the Persecutor and mitzvah wars. […] A mitzvah war of conquering the Land, which is not limited to saving the people of Israel from their enemies, according to some of the Rishonim [***] I could, on the face of it and by the essential law, destroy, kill and cause to perish [****] all of them. I will not do so, because if I were to do so, and reject international treaties, then the State of Israel shall parish, unless we shall witness a miracle of miracles – and one must not trust in a miracle. And that’s the only reason I won’t do it.”
A few other notes are essential. First, and please bear with me, what is a mechina? Literally, it means a “preliminary school”, but in Israel it came to mean a school which prepares students who finished their high school studies for military service. While most Israeli Jews are drafted soon after finishing high school, a select few are allowed to study for one more year, and in this year they are supposed to be indoctrinated to become better soldiers. Most mechinas boast of a high percentage of graduates who go on to become officers and serve longer than draftees. With one exception, all mechinas are religious, and are in fact a form of yeshiva. Mechina teachers are public employees who get their salaries from both the Education Ministry and the Defense Ministry. Mechina leaders often meet with senior officers, up to the Chief of Staff, and participate in high-level discussions about the level of religiosity of the army, particularly whether women may serve with men. The fact that the mechinas are producing a large number of motivated officers when most Israelis do not wish to become officers gives them unusual leverage with the high command – with the result that they are rarely, if ever, supervised.
This began to change over the last year. The Bnei David mechina, the first of them, has long been considered the flagship of the National Religious movement, and its leader, Rabbi Elli Saddan, even won the Israel Prize – the country’s highest civil honor – for his contribution to education. However, over the last year, several rabbis of the mechina – including Saddan himself – were caught on videos saying highly inflammatory things. The main targets of the mechina rabbis have been gays and women; the utterances were so inflammatory, as the rabbis exposed their misogyny and homophobia, that the Minister of Defense demanded at one point that one of the worst offenders, Saddan’s deputy Yigal Lewinstein, resign or the mechina will be sanctioned (Hebrew). Soon after, Lewinstein went on “vacation”, but the mechina insisted he was not fired (Hebrew).
As one scandal after another hit Bnei David, leftists have made it a habit to go over the mechina’s videoed lectures looking for bait. The Wallas quote is the latest prize. Most of the haul, however, dealt with misogyny and homophobia. This is one of the rare examples of what Bnei David rabbis think about Palestinians.
Now we need a crash course in Jewish [not Israeli] warfare law. It basically distinguishes between two sorts of wars: reshut (permitted) wars and mitzvah (ordained) wars. Kings are permitted to go on reshut wars if they so please, but such wars are handled under relatively humane laws. Mitzvah laws are a different concept entirely: they are holy wars, the enemy is considered to be the enemy of God, and, as Wallas says, “I am beholden to nothing.” The model is the extermination wars of the biblical Joshua. Most Halacha scholars are divided about what constitutes a mitzvah war, but they agree that wars to reconquer the Holy Land fit the bill – after all, they are modeled on Joshua’s.
There used to be a snag: Only a king could declare a mitzvah wars, and Judaism was not supposed to have a king until the messiah came. The National Religious movement made a leap of faith over this hurdle: it declared Israel to be “the beginning of the growth of our redemption” (a phrase recited every year in the Independence Day prayers), and treats the state as semi-holy, and one that may declare mitzvah wars.
And, at the end of the chain, we have a government-sponsored rabbi teaching children ardent for some desperate glory that legally they are permitted to order their soldiers to destroy, kill and cause to perish women, old men, and children. Yes, there is still a caveat: If Israel is to suffer because of international treaties, it shouldn’t be done.
But what if the time is right?
Technically, Rabbi Wallas is somewhat under military supervision. As his teachings – while essentially correct, alas – go directly against military law, one might expect he’d be removed, demoted or reprimanded. But, while Lewinstein was reprimanded for denigrating women soldiers, Wallas has less to fear. No one in the military command cares about rabbis rhapsodizing about genocide.
* Two prominent medieval glossa writers, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman and Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki
** A halachaic law permitting the harm, up to killing, of a person who is “persecuting” others and putting them in danger.
*** Jewish religious scholars of the High and Late Middle Ages period
**** Wallas is here quoting Haman’s order for the extermination of Jews, Esther 3:13.
Yossi Gurvitz is a journalist and a blogger, and has covered the occupation extensively.