Q. Is there a religious perspective on the attempts by countries – particularly in the UK – to prosecute Israel leaders for alleged “war crimes”?*
A. I address the question in four sections:
1. Is there such a thing as a war crime? The answer is yes. The Torah lays down how a war is to be conducted. If a nation or army flouts these requirements a war crime has been committed. The Musaf service on Rosh HaShanah declares that God looks at the deeds of nations as well as individuals and if necessary judges a nation severely. Even without an international legal system God can ensure a nation suffers for the wrongs it commits.
2. Should war criminals be pursued? The answer is yes. No matter how old or frail they are they must not be allowed to escape scrutiny. But in Jewish ethics, the punishment of any type of criminal gives us no joy. When the angels wanted to rejoice that the wicked Egyptians were drowning in the sea, God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you want to sing?”
3. Are war crimes the concern of other nations? The answer is yes. Maimonides wrote, “There is no crime as despicable as murder, nothing which destroys civilisation as the killing of innocent people”. The murder of innocent people anywhere diminishes us all.
4. Are Israeli leaders war criminals? The answer is no. Who is making the accusation? People with an axe to grind. Who are they complaining to? Representatives of a legal system that acknowledges that in this area it is defective and needs improvement. In the circumstances of today’s world, such accusations are a joke and a tragedy. The war criminals that Nazi-hunters are pursuing are the genuine article. Israeli government and military leaders past and present are not.
* This article originally appeared in 2011.