Wednesday, 11 October 2023 20:00

How to think morally about the Israel-Hamas war

A man cries while sitting on the rubble of a destroyed house in Gaza on October 8, 2023.

In southern Israel, Hamas terrorists broke into a room where a family of five was hiding and slaughtered every one of them. In Gaza, a father wrapped in gauze held his child, butchered in an Israeli strike, for the last time.

These scenes pose a very simple moral test: Do you believe that it is wrong for innocent people to suffer in this way? That mass death should be deplored, not defended, regardless of who its victims are? If the answer to either of those questions is no, then you are a morally broken person.

Depressingly, the Israel-Palestine discourse has exposed many of them.

Almost immediately after news of the attack broke, celebrations broke out among a group of Western leftists, hailing Hamas’s incursion as an act of “decolonization.” This was not merely a handful of isolated individuals, but included journalists with large followings, professors, and student organizations at elite universities. At a rally supported by the Democratic Socialists in America in New York, the crowd cheered Hamas’s success.

This cheerleading for murderous terrorists is ghoulish and self-discrediting: “a betrayal of the left’s most fundamental values,” as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz writes.

It is also, in a way, revealing. The moral failures of the fringe left show us how not to think about the ongoing horrors in Israel and Gaza — and, in doing so, point to a better way.

Currently, the Israeli government is preparing a ground invasion of Gaza that threatens to come with unimaginable human costs. The callousness with which they are talking about civilian deaths in Gaza is appalling. An anonymous Israeli official told Israeli reporter Alon Ben David that their response would turn Gaza into “a city of tents.” A parliamentarian from the ruling Likud party said, on national television, that Israel should not concern itself with the safety of any Gazans who “chose” to stay in the Gaza Strip. (With crossings into Egypt and Israel blocked, Gazans could not leave if they wanted.)

This, too, is evil.

I do not pretend to know exactly what the right choice is for Israel going forward. But I know that if the Israeli Defense Forces do slaughter civilians indiscriminately, the Israeli government will be committing abuses on moral par with those of Hamas.

I also know that justice for Israelis and Palestinians cannot be found through a mode of thinking that says only one kind of life is holy.

We are not limited to a binary choice between the murderous theocrats of Hamas and the murderous theocrats of Israel’s far right. There are good people, kind people, in both Israel and the Palestinian territories — brave souls looking to help those on the other side, amid unspeakable tragedy, and together make the land they share safe for everyone. Some of those people have already been killed by the other side; more will likely die in the coming days.

Those of us outside the region need to follow their moral example. Only by grounding our vision in universal humanity, the idea that every life is sacred and all people deserve our respect, can we ever figure out a way to break the cycle of violence dragging Israelis and Palestinians into hell.

Language, cruelty, and moral evasion

The language of mass murder we’re hearing is intentionally bloodless.

When the Israeli military kills Palestinians, they speak of “collateral damage,” not families blown apart. When the defense minister talks about cutting off electricity and water to Gaza, he speaks only of fighting Hamas “animals” — not of the hospital patients and formula-fed babies likely to die as a consequence.

You see the same among Hamas’s Western apologists. They do not gleefully post pictures of Israeli children executed in their beds. Instead, they cheer pictures of Hamas breaking down the border fence with Gaza, calling it “decolonization” — ignoring that Hamas fighters broke down those fences to commit intolerable acts of mass slaughter.

A case in point of this moral evasion is an essay by Tariq Ali, a prominent British public intellectual. Ali’s essay furiously goes through a litany of abuses committed by Israel against Palestinians, all real enough and worthy of condemnation. But when he gets to the actual actions of Hamas, he retreats to pure abstraction instead of talking about Hamas gunning down teens at a music festival.

“The elected leadership in Gaza begins to fight back,” Ali crowed, asserting their right to do so “by any means necessary.”

By. Any. Means. Necessary.

Four words, a phrase hardly unique to Ali, that gives away the game. Ali and his fellow travelers are not engaging in an intellectual discussion about whether there is a version of Palestinian armed resistance to Israeli occupation that could be justified. They are responding to a specific act, the mass slaughter of families and festivalgoers, and saying that we are in no position to judge them.

“By any means necessary,” they say — the mirror image of Israeli hawks who believe their own security can be found in the wholesale slaughter of Gaza’s population.

Three soldiers stand on a hillside with rubble of destroyed buildings and a torrent of household items covering the ground, taking photos.
Israeli soldiers photograph the scene of a Hamas attack on Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel, on October 11, 2023.

The linguistic pathologies reflect an inability to confront the conflict as it actually is. The language used is abstract and divorced from practical consequence because engaging with reality, with hard, cold human suffering, would disrupt the neat ideological picture that allows one to bask in one’s own moral righteousness.

Hamas and its Western leftist apologists point to Israel’s overwhelming power, together with its blockade of Gaza and indefensible colonization of the West Bank, and see a power imbalance that makes it impossible for Palestinians to triumph in anything like a conventional war. So they ask: How do you want us to resist? What can we do when we are so weak?

Israeli hardliners and their foreign allies ask essentially the same question. We are facing remorseless murderers who once used a hospital as their de facto headquarters. they say. We have a right to defend ourselves, and it is Hamas’s fault — not ours — that innocent Palestinians will die.

You can see where both of these perspectives are coming from. It’s true that Israel has overwhelming power and is using it to victimize Palestinians on a daily basis, turning Gaza into an open-air prison and colonizing the West Bank. It’s also true that Hamas is a vicious group dedicated to a violently antisemitic worldview, one that has no qualms about brutalizing Palestinians and putting weapons in civilian-populated areas.

But by taking one set of facts in isolation of the other, hardliners on both sides displace their own moral obligations. By asserting the unerring righteousness of their own cause, they excuse themselves from having to think about the consequences of their actions. Because we are in the right, the logic goes, we are justified in acting however we see fit — and are under no obligation to deal with the messy details of actual humans we harm.

In the quest to defend one’s own side, language is turned into a tool of immorality. It allows them to celebrate their enemies’ deaths without guilt.

The problem with being anti-anti-murder

Among some on the Western left, a subtly different position has also emerged — not pro-Hamas terrorism, exactly, but anti-anti-Hamas.

The basic idea is that condemning Hamas from afar is pointless, in that it does not work to secure any concrete political end. We in the West, rather, have an obligation to point out the way in which our own government’s support for Israel has created the conditions for apartheid and ongoing violence.

“The only meaningful contribution Americans can make to stopping the violence is by confronting at every opportunity the vast public conspiracy of silence about the [Israeli] occupation,” writes Gabriel Winant, a historian at Yale University. “That’s the only thing we can do that has any consequence beyond seeing to our own conscience.”

This is untrue for any number of reasons.

For one, condemning Hamas’s evils — and that fraction of leftists willing to celebrate them — is vital for the still-weak American left to become anything more than a small fringe group speaking only to and for itself. For another, it is important to call out concepts that may have some value — like “decolonization” — when they evolve into justifications for horrible violence, as a matter of ensuring the left does not, as a collective, lose sight of the ideals of universal human equality it claims to stand for. For a third, it risks forfeiting moral standing in the eyes of others when the left goes on to condemn Israeli human rights abuses later in this conflict.

But I want to focus on a fourth error, one that applies as much to Israel’s hardline supporters as its enemies: the mistaken idea that advocating for “our side,” or the evils of the other, is the correct role for outsiders in the Israel-Palestine discourse.

For anyone whose brain has not been broken by the fever dreams of Israeli and Palestinian radicals, there is only one way this decades-old conflict ends: with Israelis and Palestinians, including their leadership, finding a way to live in peace. Personally, I think that is only achievable in a two-state solution; other reasonable observers disagree. But the baseline assumption that underpins any feasible solution is that, somehow, the two sides can see the dignity and humanity in the other.

Our role, as foreigners, should be to help foster this belief. This does not mean mealy-mouthed statements about peace, but specific interventions designed to push our individual governments toward fostering that sense of respect.

A better way

I agree with Winant, broadly, that American policy prior to this conflict has been far too tolerant of the deepening of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. After the current emergency, the Biden administration ought to reconsider what it can do to put pressure on Israel to cease its cruel and counterproductive policies.

This moment, to put it mildly, is not a time when anything like that will happen. But what we can do now is bolster the forces who support peace and equality on the Israeli side in other ways.

Israelis will never feel safe making concessions if they don’t, well, feel safe. One of the most powerful tools available to Israel’s own extremists is a perception that the world doesn’t care about Israelis and Jews, that Israelis are on their own and need to do whatever it takes to protect their lives from Palestinian extremists. Legitimate Israeli security fears, especially in the wake of the worst catastrophe in the country’s history, need to be taken seriously by anyone who cares about Israelis and Palestinians.

I think that’s part of why the Israeli leftists I know and speak with, people who risk their own safety and security to criticize the occupation, are so appalled by the defenses of Hamas terrorism: In denying Israeli humanity, these critics do damage to the cause of peace.

More broadly, we need as outside observers to maintain basic human values in ourselves: to see the victims on both sides as humans, to care about suffering, and to attune our statements and activities toward finding ways forward that can improve the situation. If we allow ourselves to slide into moral solipsism, we won’t merely justify atrocities; we will blind ourselves to the steps that can be taken to actually make life better on the ground.

We can and should extend sympathy to Israeli victims, but we should not let that shade into justification for retaliatory atrocities. We should condemn Hamas terrorism, but we should also condemn Israeli abuses against Gazans.

Of the many examples of international official statements I’ve seen, the one issued by Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) — the country’s left-wing third party — is among the best at threading this needle. It’s worth reading the whole thing, including the condemnation of justification for terrorism, but putting these two paragraphs back-to-back really captures the heart of the issue:

The terrorist attacks by Hamas on thousands of innocent Israeli civilians are unjustifiable. We are shocked by the brutality, missile attacks, kidnappings, and targeting of civilians including the elderly and children. These are war crimes and must be prosecuted. We call for the immediate safe return of all hostages and call on the government of Canada to do everything in its power to ensure the release of Canadians among the captives.

This morning, Israel’s ground operation into Gaza commenced. Civilians in Gaza are caught in a horrific cycle of violence; like the Israeli civilians killed over the past few days, Gazans are victims of Hamas’ brutality. Israel’s bombardment of civilian homes and infrastructure in Gaza, where over half the population are children, has killed hundreds of Palestinians with entire families wiped out. The next hours may be the deadliest Gaza has ever seen. Canada must urgently insist that Israel respect international law and protect the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians who bear no responsibility for Hamas’ terror.

The NDP’s comments show the way forward, for the left and really, everyone: exercise moral judgment, not partisan loyalty.

Criticize Israel when it slaughters Palestinians, and criticize Palestinians when they slaughter Israelis. Note the asymmetries — both Israel’s vastly superior power and Hamas’s much greater disregard for rules about targeting civilians — but do not allow those differences to obscure the most basic moral truth: that human suffering is, in and of itself, wrong.

This is not just how we say the right things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It’s how we, in the end, will figure out how best to contribute to peace down the line. To think otherwise, and find fault only with one side, leads to the moral oblivion of cheering the slaughter of children.