The Moralist: An Eye-opening Interview with the Man Who Helps Set the IDF’s Ethical Parameters, Professor Asa Kasher

Published: 
April 22, 2011

Source: Jerusalem Post

 

In the wake of Richard Goldstone’s belated withdrawal of the accusation that Israel deliberately targeted civilians in Operation Cast Lead, and the fresh round of moral argument the judge’s climbdown has provoked, David Horowitz, chief editor of the Jerusalem Post, contacted Professor Asa Kasher, prime drafter of the IDF's Code of Ethics, to discuss the IDF’s ethics. He wanted to understand the thinking that underpins IDF do's and don’ts, the problematics of grappling with enemies that do not follow any such rules, and the gaping discrepancy, Goldstone’s reversal notwithstanding, between most Israelis’ certainty of the IDF’s morality and the international diplomatic, media and legal community’s relentless opprobrium. He also wanted to put to Kasher specific criticisms of IDF actions in Gaza so that the IDF’s guiding moralist would address them. Among Kasher's remarks:

 

"Our responsibility is to maintain our moral standards. That’s a very important starting point because in matters of war it can sometimes get blurred. People are always talking about factors like international law, public opinion, the Western world – that is, outside factors that we’re supposed to match up to. No, I say we have to uphold our own standards… When the enemy becomes more ruthless and harsher than it was in the past, then we have to protect ourselves in smarter and different ways, but still according to the standards that we have set for ourselves…

 

We are a democratic state. And that means two things. One, we are obligated to effectively protect our citizens from all danger. So we have a police force, to protect against crime, a Health Ministry to protect against medical dangers, a Transportation Ministry against the dangers on the roads. And we have a Defense Ministry, to protect us against the dangers our enemies represent.

 

The state cannot evade this obligation. It can’t say, “I am busy, I have more important things to do.” There is nothing more important than protecting citizens’ lives - nothing.

 

A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning, to go shopping, to go to work, to go out in the evening, a routine way of life, nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that…

 

At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state - everybody.

 

This applies even in our interactions with terrorists. I am respecting the terrorist’s dignity when I ask myself, “Do I have to kill him or can I stop him without killing him?”

 

And I certainly have to respect the human dignity of the terrorists’ nondangerous neighbors – who are not a threat. We always talk about “innocents,” but “innocence” is not the issue here. The issue here is whether they are dangerous. So the correct translation is “non-dangerous.”..

 

We have to protect our citizens and we have to respect human dignity. But when it comes to a war like Operation Cast Lead, those two imperatives are likely to clash. I am obligated to protect my citizens, but I have no way to protect them without the non-dangerous neighbors of the terrorists becoming caught up in the conflict. What am I to do?

 

Two things: First, you decide what is more important in the given situation. And second, you do whatever you can so that the damage to the other side is as small as possible: Maximizing effective defense of the citizens; minimizing collateral damage.

 

How do I decide which of the conflicting imperatives is more important? People don’t like this idea, because they don’t understand it: They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists. They don’t understand that the world is built in such a way that responsibility is divided.

 

We are responsible for the residents of the State of Israel. Canada is responsible for the residents of Canada, Australia, for Australia. And that’s just fine. We are not responsible for the lives of Canadians in the same way as we are for the lives of Israelis and vice versa. This is completely accepted and completely moral and no one questions this. We don’t have one world government that is responsible for everything. We have states with their own responsibilities.

 

Now from this stems the fact that when you have clash of imperatives, this responsibility for one’s own citizens takes precedence over the other responsibility to the non-dangerous neighbors. This isn’t anything to do with us being Israel, or Jews. The same applies to the United States or to Canada or to any other country.

 

I cannot evade my prime responsibility to protect the well-being of the citizens of my country. Now, among all the means I could use to protect them, I will choose those that are better morally – better from the point of view of the effectiveness of the protection and the minimalization of the damage to the neighbors of the terrorists."

Updated: May. 03, 2011
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