Approaching Conflicts
Contexts, Perspectives, and Values in Israel Education

Morality in Conflict:

Defining Ethical Codes in Military Practice

How do we understand morality within the context of an army and conflict? Armies are tasked with matters that fall outside of the realm of everyday morality – can we apply everyday moral codes to military behavior? This programs explores the multifaceted and complex realities of integrating morality into conflict decision-making, on and off the battlefield.

Ethical Choices
Decision-making in times of war, in particular regarding the use of tactics and technologies of war, demonstrates the complexity of morality based on context.
The Israeli army and Israeli soldiers are governed by strict ethical and moral codes, given that they are required to sometimes engage in dangerous and deadly actions.
Jewish values are codified and inform moral decision making in the IDF.
What are the factors that go into moral decision making on the battlefield?
How do you navigate conflicting values in conflict decision making?

Program Description

The goal of this section is to help learners think about the role the army plays in the state and how that role is given moral definition. It may be helpful to do this program after or alongside A Good Heart: How is Morality Defined, which provides context for morality in biblical, rabbinic, and modern times.

Questions to consider:

  • Why do countries have militaries?
  • What are the roles of the military within and outside of the state?
  • How might these missions vary across different countries? What accounts for these differences?
  • How does an army perform its missions? What tools or instruments does it use?
  • What are some of the challenges that face an army in executing its mission? What are the physical or logistical challenges? What are some of the moral challenges?

Activity

Individually or in small groups, have students consider the following groups of people for which an army may be responsible. Ask students to give several reasons why there should be obligation toward this group, and several challenges to exercising this obligation. Use the provided worksheet under “supporting documents” if necessary.

What should the moral responsibility be toward:

  • A country's own soldiers: What is your commitment to your own soldiers? What might a state ask soldiers to do that challenges this commitment?
  • The families of soldiers: Do you believe that you have a moral obligation towards the families of soldiers? How does responsibility to a family look different than to an individual soldier?
  • A country's own civilians Does an army need to consider their responsibility to their own citizens? If so, in what way?
  • Enemy civilians: Are enemy civilians responsible for the actions of enemy states or soldiers?
  • Enemy soldiers: What is your commitment to how they are treated? What are the limitations in responsibility toward those that aim to harm you?

Questions to consider:​

  • If you are put in a position where a moral action toward one of the groups above means acting in an “immoral” way toward another, how do you decide who your priority is? How would you rank the priority of the groups of people above?
  • How do you deal with situations where the certain success of your mission is in conflict with your moral priorities?
This section explores how a military force balances its military objective against its moral responsibilities and how those responsibilities are written in a code of ethics. For this exercise, students will look at both the IDF Code of Ethics and the United States Military Mission order to gain perspective on the codification of military ethics.

Have students examine the following two documents:

Note to teachers: These are lengthy texts – you might want to suggest that learners do this at home or give them direction to read the introductions.  

Have your learners compare and contrast these documents. While these two texts are quite different in their scope, both highlight the aims of each state’s military, and the means that can be used to pursue the military’s objectives. 

  • What are the similarities across both documents? What are the key differences?
  • What potentially accounts for the different missions and doctrines of these two states?
  • What, if anything, surprised you about these documents?

Now let's look more closely at  Ruach Tzahal (the IDF Code of Ethics), which the IDF requires soldiers to memorize as part of their training:

Questions to consider:.

  • Are there areas of this text that are surprising? Why?
  • What Jewish values/phrases can you identify in the text?
  • What are the passages that specifically reflect a sense of moral responsibility?
  • For what reason do you think that the IDF gives four sources for where its ethical values are drawn from?
  • What would you say are the core ideas in this document? Can you list at least four?

Additional activities:

As a longer assignment, students could look at the Code of Ethics of the IDF in comparison to lengthier documents which seek to detail moral obligations of militaries in very specific modern contexts:

The goal of this section is to apply the knowledge gained in the two previous sections to a hypothetical military scenario in which students need to make tough moral decisions. How can one balance the military objectives of an army with its responsibility to it's ethical code?

In this excercise, students should be asked to reflect using information from the previous sections. They should:

  • Examine the stakes and goals in the military operation based on their discussion of the Mission of the IDF.
  • Brainstorm the moral questions that need to be discussed using the IDF Code of Ethics and their own understanding of moral decisions.

In war and times of conflict, soldiers sometimes are charged with taking over private residences for lookouts or to establish a strategic position. In the Gaza conflict in 2009 – known as Operation Cast Lead – Yishai Goldflam, an army reservist, was part of an operation to take over a private home in Gaza. At the end of the conflict, he wrote an open letter to the family of the house he occupied in which he discusses the moral dilemmas he faced.

Questions to consider before reading the document:

Empathy and the Right to Privacy: These questions explore the nature of the moral dilemma with respect to private space.

  • Is there a space that you feel is private to you (for example, your room at home, or your desk or locker at school, or perhaps your cell phone)? 
  • What are the "rules" that you have for others to enter this space? How do you feel if those rules are violated? 
  • Can you think of a time when someone entered your personal space for a reason they thought was justified (for example, parents exercising a punishment or a friend who thought you might be doing something wrong)? Do you think it was justified or did you at least understand their reasoning?

Weighing Military Objectives: These questions will help students generate their own ideas about why a home occupation may be necessary, and weigh the costs and benefits before reading about the specific case in Yishai’s letter.

  • What do you think some of the reasons may be for occupying a home?
  • What might be the pros and cons of this policy from a military perspective?
  • What are the issues to consider when it comes to occupying a home (for example, how should you treat the residents or can you use their possessions, food or water)?
  • If students did Section Two: From what you know about the IDF Code of Ethics, what rules do you think the IDF would have governing the occupation of homes?

Activity

Have your students read An Open Letter to a Citizen of Gaza: I am the Soldier Who Slept in Your Home by Yishai Goldflam.

As a brief follow-up to the reading, ask students the following questions:

  • Why was Yishai ordered to occupy the family's home?
  • What are the specific things that Yishai did during the occupation that you believe demonstrated moral judgment?
  • What do you believe motivated Yishai to write this letter after Operation Cast Lead?

Either individually or in groups, have students write a response to the letter from one of the following perspectives. Before students begin the activity, have them think about how each of these people might feel about the situation in general (occupying homes for military purposes) and the specific case that Yishai gives:

  • From a child in the family whose house he occupied.
    Think back to the questions about your own private space, What things did you appreciate from the letter? What things make you angry?
  • From a child in Sderot who is often under the threat of rockets.
    Do you appreciate Yishai’s actions in this operation? Do you feel his actions were justified and appropriately measured?
  • From a college student in the U.S. who is opposed to Israel’s military action in Gaza.
    Why might you oppose home occupation at all costs? What are the pieces of Yishai’s letter to which you take exception?
  • From a Jewish college student who supports Israel in the United States.
    Do you feel that Yishai acted in accordance with Jewish values in this situation? How do his actions make you feel as a Jewish supporter of Israel?

Additional activity

Note to teachers: Depending on the level of the group and the background knowledge of the educator, the following issue could provide additional opportunities for exploring moral dilemmas in military conflict. This subject may require more background knowledge than students have, so it may be necessary to use the provided background resources.

"Knocking on the roof”: Roof knocking is a military tactic invented by the Israeli Army to warn Palestinian civilians of an impending attack. It’s been used since 2006 as a way to limit civilian casualties while still being able to destroy weapon stashes and terrorist headquarters. The army typically fires a non-explosive missile or something similar 10-15 minutes before the army bombs their building. For background, see the Washinton Post article on Roof Knocking and The IDF's Defense of the Tactic on ethical grounds.

Ask students to think about the different parts of this section.

  • What have they learned? What questions have they discussed?
  • What supportive systems might you put in place to ensure that a military acts in good moral conscience? What support systems deal with when a military doesn’t act in morality? 

You might want to sum up with some of the following points:

  • Ultimately, war is ugly and contains many situations that are outside of our normal moral code. It is often difficult to use the word moral when talking about war and the work of an army. That said, many armies strive to incorporate morality into their decision-making, even, or especially, at times of conflict. We can say armies are moral when they make decisions that favor or take account of moral values over expediency.
  • In the scenario we explores, the soldier needed to make moral tradeoffs, and weigh conflicting values. The choices are usually not between one “good” and one “bad” value, but between two competing values. As a result, many of the choices in war and conflict are morally ambiguous and do not present an easy or clear choice. The mission is to create and support a system that incorporates ethical values even when it is difficult and provides the tools to navigate between these values.
  • We sometimes judge the actions of soldiers as representative of the entire army. This can be justified, especially when it appears that commanding officers were knowledgeable or accepting of the actions of their soldiers, or when immoral practices are widespread. However, individuals don't negate the policies of an entire army.
  • The Israeli army bases its behavior on clear ethical values, and there are many situations where soldiers have to weigh difficult situations. Their values are tested and the answers are not easy. Sometimes we are justifiably proud of the high standards of the Israel Defense Forces. Sometimes we may find our own values in conflict with actions of the IDF. Always, we can see how these are difficult issues that are worth discussion.