A Reader’s Response to “We Are All Living In Israel”

Related to my piece, “We Are All Living In Israel,” I received the following comment from a very bright and thoughtful reader of this blog:

Yikes and Wow! I have to call “horseshit” on you, Duane. Israel has not honored its commitment to allowing a Palestinian state. Ever. It continues to encroach on the ever-shrinking Palestinian territory. Much of the area in uninhabitable due to the devastation by Israeli bombing. More illegal Israeli settlements are being built in the West Bank with impunity for the right wing zealots who build them. The West doesn’t give a shit. Israel receives empty chidings, but nothing with teeth since Eisenhower. Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness. A plague on both their houses: Hamas and Likud. You surprise me, sir.

My response is lengthy, but this is a complicated subject:

____________________________________

Ah, my friend. You surprise me, too.

You wrote:

Is Hamas disgusting? Most certainly, but you just spent a number of paragraphs giving Israel the same free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit — with no need for them to be honest brokers for peace or fairness.

What surprises me is your claim that I have given Israel a “free pass to butcher and destroy and suffocate Palestine as they brutally see fit.” I guess I should begin by asking you to specifically cite a sentence or a paragraph that led you to make that claim. Obviously, since you have read other things I have written, you must know I would never offer a free pass to anyone to do such things. So, I am a bit perplexed as to how you could say such a thing, especially given the nature of the moral argument being made in this piece.

In any case, I will respond this way:

The question I asked was: Should the Israelis be losing the current PR war with Hamas? In other words, do they deserve to be condemned over and above Hamas for what has been happening? And the answer, at least to me, is they shouldn’t be. That’s not to say (and I mentioned this) that the Israelis are historically blameless in this context. If you read Harris’ piece, you will notice that he mentioned “war crimes” on the part of the Israelis. I didn’t go that far because a war crime charge would require a whole legal argument I didn’t want to take the time to make. But I did write this:

Sure, there are bad actors in Israel. Sure, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Forces have much to answer for. Sure, any solution to the problem between Jews and Arabs is not enhanced by killing civilians in Gaza. I have several times criticized Israeli actions regarding their dealings with Palestinians.

I said all that because I wanted to make clear that the Israelis (Israeli leadership and those who call themselves settlers, to be precise) have often behaved badly and the Palestinian people have suffered because of that behavior. The problem is that this piece wasn’t about this or that bad behavior on the part of the Israelis in times past. Most of us know that they have done things that deserve condemnation (just like Americans and Europeans), which I have written about (especially regarding the settlement issue). But this piece was about whether the Israelis, compared to Hamas, deserved our “larger” moral condemnation for their response to recent missile attacks. For the reasons I stated, I don’t think so. Here is more explanation:

Most Jews in Israel don’t want to turn Gaza or the West Bank into a Jewish state (which is where the settlement issue comes in; some Jews, with right-wing Jewish leadership in charge, have been, borrowing your word, encroaching on Palestinian lands, a situation that must be rolled back before any real peace is possible; right now 500,000 “settlers” live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem). And there is no charter guiding Israeli officials that explicitly or implicitly states that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank belong to the Jews and all Arabs should be removed. In fact, the Israelis could have, if they had wanted, kept all the land and forced all of the Palestinians to leave (they did, after all, occupy Gaza for 38 years). But they didn’t for reasons that support my claim: they share the same values as most Westerners, even if, like us, they don’t always live up to them.

In fact, a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution (even if Netanyahu doesn’t or thinks one is “impossible”), although a disturbing number of them (maybe a fourth) would tolerate an apartheid state. Call that the Israeli Tea Party. The fact remains that most Israelis aren’t religious radicals that see Palestinians as targets for destruction, even if the oppression of Arabs in Palestinian territory is itself a gross injustice (and, practically speaking, stupid) and a continual source of problems. I could list several actions by the Israelis that deserve our stern judgment, but none of them have at their base an open disdain for Western values (again, even if they often fall short, as in the rush to settle as much Arab land as possible).

Now, look at Hamas, to which this comparison was made. You said the organization is “most certainly” disgusting. Then you move right on. I find people on your side do that a lot. They readily admit how awful Hamas is just before they begin a long list of Israeli atrocities. Usually the criticism is in the form of (as John Judis wrote) “There is no moral justification for Hamas firing rockets against Israeli cities, but…” They tend to ignore the depth of depravity, most of it buttressed by fundamentalist Islamic nonsense, that characterizes Hamas’ long-term strategy. Let’s begin with its charter or “covenant,” made “In the Name of the Most Merciful Allah.” In its preamble it says:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.

I could stop there and my moral point about Hamas would be made, in terms of any comparison with Israeli retaliation. The Jews have no such guiding document that uses obliteration of Arabs or Muslims as its main principle. Their response to Hamas is based on the principle of self defense, whatever you think of the proportionality of the response. But I won’t stop with the charter’s preamble. Look at Article Eight, defining the slogan of Hamas:

Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.

“Death for the sake of Allah” isn’t just a noble thing to these people. It is “the loftiest” of Hamas’ wishes. I find that disturbing and there is nothing comparable on the other side. Nothing. Absorbing this kind of thinking is what leads Hamas leaders to get women and children to die in Israeli strikes so as to bring condemnation on the Israelis from world players. That’s what Harris meant by the Jews being “brutalized” by the process, “largely due to the character of their enemies.” It isn’t a pretty thing to admit, but your enemies can drive you to some pretty questionable things, like attacking Hamas targets among civilians, which is part of Hamas’ strategy to win hearts and minds. But such Israeli actions, questionable as they might be, are not on the same moral plane as putting the women and children there to be killed in the first place, or encouraging them to get killed or blow themselves up in the name of Allah. That is what Harris (and I) are trying to say. Yes, the Israelis have done things that no nation should be proud of, but when you are living beside a group of people who officially will your national destruction, and who send suicide bombers into your cities to kill innocents, and who indiscriminately fire missiles at your citizens, then you have a right to respond. We can make moral judgments about the proportion of the response, but that judgment ought to include a thorough understanding of the nature of the enemy the Jews are facing.

And I guess that is where we differ. I can’t get passed the explicit objective of Hamas and other radical Islamic groups and the immoral means they are willing to employ to achieve it. There is nothing morally comparable to it on the Israeli side. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told Charlie Rose the other day:

We are not fanatics. We are not fundamentalists. We do not actually fight the Jews because they are Jews, per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers.

The problem is that they are fanatics and fundamentalists. Their actions prove it. Their founding document proves it. And, as far as Hamas is concerned, the Jews have no rights at all to “occupy” any part of Palestine. In other words, just as Hamas’ charter states, an Israeli state is impossible to tolerate.

It took me a long time to come to the position I have. Over the years I have read thoughtful pieces on both sides of this moral debate and I admit that when I published this piece I knew it would provoke some to react the way you did. But I want everyone to understand that when we consider what is happening between Israel and Hamas, we are finally left with a “yes, but…” response to the position of both sides. I finally came down where I did because I imagined myself both in the shoes of an average Palestinian, living in a land literally choked off from the rest of the world, and an average Israeli citizen, living in a city that has sustained missile and suicide bomber attacks.

I think I can understand why some Palestinians might resort to violence in the face of the oppression they experience. But I can never understand why a group of people, fighting for a tiny slice of real estate, think that it is okay, in the name of Allah or any other “merciful” being, to kill innocents and have innocents killed to achieve a goal they will never—never ever—achieve. I would hope that, as a Palestinian, I would not only be smarter than that, but more moral than that.

So, as far as the moral case over the recent Israeli response is concerned, I come down on the side of the Israelis (at least as of early this morning; I am willing to admit things could get worse and my future opinion could change), even though, as an average Israeli citizen, I might understand that my government has not always comported itself well in relations with the Palestinians, and I might admit that actions like allowing Jews to settle in Arab lands is a roadblock to peace, as is the harshness of the blockade of Gaza. Because when I look at that Hamas charter and its calling for the obliteration of Israel, when I realize that these terrorists are truly willing to sacrifice innocents on both sides in the name of an Iron Age deity, I realize that it would be immoral not to act, immoral not to fight back, immoral not to defend the citizenry as if the very existence of the nation depended on it.

Because ultimately it does.

Duane

8 Comments

  1. Or, as Voltaire once put it, ““Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

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  2. As always, Duane, a thoughtful response. And fair under the circumstances. Perhaps I missed something in your copious post. Perhaps you had a line akin to my “a plague on both their houses” and I missed it. More later …
    Gotta leave. How’s this for suspense?

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  3. Treeske

     /  July 29, 2014

    Herb, sad but so true.

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  4. Duane — (and Herb and Treeske) my apologies for having to leave yesterday. In retrospect I should have held any response until today, so it could have been completed. I felt like I had to say something yesterday since you responded so extensively to my “call out”. That response has — in my mind, anyway — better clarified you point for my old brain. BUT. To complete what I started yesterday, let me clarify my position as well. I re-read you initial post and would suggest that it is overall tone of the piece that concerned me. You wrote the blog “because we Americans like to keep moral score, who is to blame for what we have seen and heard?”
    Your writing seems to suggest we (the left) have been deluded into thinking it’s all Israel’s fault, but I don’t know of any thoughtful liberal who believes that. I do believe the statement “…in terms of a larger moral equivalency, there is no comparison between Israel and Hamas…” is wrongheaded. It is unfair to compare “Hamas” and “Israel”. Yes, enough Palestinians voted for Hamas to put them into political power, but not all Palestine is Hamas. Likewise, enough Israelis voted for Likud to put them in power, but most in Israel support a 2-state solution even though Likud does not. The fight is between Hamas and Likud. Palestine and Israel are the reluctant “benefactors” of the radical ideologies of these two political Tea Parties. Hamas is insane. Likud is brutal. Hamas is irrational. Likud is calculatingly ruthless. Hamas is rabidly Muslim fundamentalist. Likud plays the “we’ve been persectued throughout history” card as though it were religiously observant to court international indulgence for its actions.
    The dilemma is that the wrong players occupy power to ever fix the problem. That said, we don’t need Sam Harris or anyone else suggesting “The truth is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies.”
    Historically, this puts Israel (“Likud” in my argument) on an undeserved moral pedestal. Israel’s disproportionate responses are highly IMMORAL — even for war. And those disproportionate responses are historical to the point of becoming a defining part of Israel’s international profile. This is one of the reasons Israel sometimes fares badly in the court of public opinion. (I was going to pull out my Old testament to site numerous ancient examples of Israel’s justified genocides and slaughter, but decided against it.)
    Harris further states: “One of the most galling things for outside observers about the current war in Gaza is the disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens. The Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. [Note: I was not suggesting that the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants are anything less than tragic. But if retaliating against Hamas is bound to get innocents killed, and the Israelis manage to protect their own civilians in the meantime, the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side is guaranteed to be disproportionate.]” And there it is, the ongoing blinder that allows Likud to brutalize in the name of self-defense. Bullshit, Sam Harris. Shame on you, sir. “War is hell” is the problem and should have caused a responsible Sam Harris to write a different article. This justifies the death dance between Hamas and Likud. And that is beyond disappointing.
    Duane, you know the high regard I have for this blog and your writing. I nearly always agree with your opinions and countless times have thought regarding the way you have articulated a particular point: “I wish I’d said that.” Still, some things shouldn’t be given broader life. Sam Harris may make a valid point, but it is the wrong point and is superficial at best and very dangerous at worst. Anyway, you started it. You quoted him.
    Respectfully, the Generalist

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    • Thanks, my friend, for the thoughtful and passionate response.

      Alas! We have at least some agreement:

      The dilemma is that the wrong players occupy power to ever fix the problem.

      That perfectly, and I mean perfectly, states the case. And although I couldn’t agree more with that statement, I can’t agree with your substituting the disreputable Likud for Israel as a whole, as if we were just talking about right-wingers mucking up the process. Right now, an overwhelming majority of Israelis support the effort to go after Hamas in Gaza. It is really amazing how unified the country is on the issue, especially when you consider the normally contentious nature of Israeli politics. We have to, as (amateur) moral philosophers, stop and ask ourselves why there is such widespread support, support from both the left and right? It can’t be that around 95% of Israelis (those who think the Gaza operation is “just”) are moral scoundrels, can it? And we can’t claim, can we, that the population, which has been so divided regarding what to do vis-à-vis the Palestinians, has suddenly and massively lost their moral way? And it has to be more than a case of rallying around the flag, since, as you know, there has never been such nearly unanimous policy agreement in any of the past battles with Hamas in Gaza.

      Something is up and perhaps the situation doesn’t lend itself to long-distance analysis, but I would submit the following scenario for your consideration, simply to clarify what I think are the essential dynamics at work and why it is that I think the way I do and why it may be that people close to the action feel and think the way they do:

      Police are chasing a murderer through a neighborhood full of people. The murderer has with him his own child, who is being used as a shield. Meanwhile, the murderer keeps shooting at the police and bullets are flying everywhere. The police, whose duty is to protect the neighborhood, look out for the welfare of the child, and bring the murderer to justice, have a dilemma.

      Now, obviously the Israelis have chosen in this situation. They have chosen to take shots at the murderer, risking the death of the child. In some scenarios, the child dies. In some scenarios, the murderer dies. In some, both die. All I am saying, and all I think Sam Harris is saying, is that when we try to understand the moral dimensions of this scenario, there is no equivalence between the murderer and the police, no matter what the police tactics are. Hamas has murdered, and will continue to murder, Jews. Hamas has hid behind its own children. Hamas continues firing missiles at Israel, despite the futility of it all. And I think that is why, especially for Israelis living in the neighboring cities near Gaza, we see such support for the Netanyahu government. And, for the purpose of our discussion, that is why I take the position I do, although there are limits to what the police, the Israelis, can do. (Purposely bombing critical infrastructure, which will harm innocents, would be immoral, for instance, and on a par with what Hamas does.)

      Finally, I agree with you that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians (Harris made that point, too, as I recall). That’s why I limited this discussion and comparison specifically to Hamas. And I think we probably agree that what the Israelis are doing, to the extent they are willing to risk killing innocents in pursuit of demilitarizing Hamas, is making the problem worse, not better. But that is a different issue from the immediate moral question.

      Duane

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      • Duane,
        As you stated in the original post, the situation is complex. That is because for Israel or Palestine, USA or Russia — the first response seems to be violence and ever escalating retaliation. The media helps build that bridge to nowhere because retaliation is visceral and graphic. Do we believe that everyone who listens to or watches Fox News grew up racist warmongers? Of course not, but the message beats people down over time. It erodes their better selves. Harris said as much. They become afraid. Any port in a storm. Kill my enemy, please. Make the fear go away. And on the news tonight: more fear-mongering. Gotta buy a newspaper so I know whom to fear next.
        And this never begets anything good. Never — save for the arms dealers and the fear-mongerers. The mark of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but this is not true insanity. This is calculated to keep those drunk with power — Hamas, Likud, Lockheed-Martin, Halliburton, Colt, NRA, etc. firmly in control of their piece of the pie.
        It’s not just about Gaza. Religious fundamentalism is alive (sick-but-alive) here. The lust for power: Rove, Koch, Cruz, Palin, etc. is alive here. The perceived need for violence: GameBoy, X-Box, the NFL, etc. is alive here.
        Until we have the collective will to change the argument or shift the paradigm, we must — at the very least — not give quarter to those who would avenge violence at a ratio of 100:1. Or to those who would shield their lust behind the life of an innocent child.
        We have to throw out the fear industrial complex and their demagogues (fundamentalist leaders of any stripe and the rich overlords who exploit their followers). They are essentially cowards, anyway. Can we stand up to them? That fixes Gaza, and Ukraine, and North Korea, and the US/Texas border. That saves civilization.

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  July 30, 2014

    Duane,
    Good job TRYING to state a view on moral equivalency during a war. It is a matter fraught with difficulty, for sure, in almost any war. Even the Catholic Church has given it a good try in Niebuhr’s A JUST WAR. I studied (about 30 years ago) that document under a very wise Jesuit Priest and still disagreed with the conclusions therein after a lot of careful thought and reading.

    Bottom line, it seems to me that Israel has been in a fight for survival since 1948, pure and simple. If I was a Jew living on a plot of land in Israel I am sure I would be doing so with a gun nearby. Turn the other cheek when just trying to survive doesn’t count in most minds.

    Do the Palestinians have a right to complain? Sure they do and it is a legal right, thru the UN which created Israel in the first place and the UN resolution was settled on the field of battle, back then and now. When politics doesn’t work and survival is at stake, well is a war “JUST”, by either side?

    60 years of repeated efforts to settle the issue of Israel have failed. While many don’t like it, it should be of no surprise that repeated battle fields have resulted from such an unending political dispute. Then the concern is HOW to fight a war, morally. Before those on the left launch all sorts of accusations about “targeting civilians”, etc. I would suggest you consider the man on the ground being shot at behind “human shields”. As well argue about the technical imbalance between the Israeli military forces and a “bunch of Arabs” with the peak of their technical wherewithal being an RPG or a hidden IED.

    “Good nations”, most democratic nations spend the money needed to equip their armed forces with the ability to fight and win when called upon to do so. Calling for a “level playing field” in war is ridiculous, in my view. And to combat technical superiority with “human shields” is about as despicable a tactic as I can imagine. Hell that is in fact a STRATEGY on the part of many Arab nations, not just a short term battlefield tactic!! Despicable in my view and should in and of itself be a “war crime”.

    So Duane, I agree with both of your blogs. In fact I needed not a second blog to better understand your views but understand that you are going up against people, in this instance, that are normally on your side.

    One other point back to the General. He makes his point that this fight is really against Hamas and the Likud, two political factions within the Israeli and Palestinian governments, both democratically elected governments, well sort of. I disagree for sure. This fight is between Jews in Israel and Palestinians anywhere and to a degree the larger Arab world as well. Governments represent (and control to a degree) the people they govern, like the party in power or not. War of this nature is between governments as well and thus all the people in each nation so engaging.

    How many times have we heard our enemies, those opposing America, saying that their war is not against the American people? Well American people were certainly shooting at those enemies and our government is ultimately by the people of America. I am sure the General would love to see a liberal majority government in Israel that might well stop fighting unilaterally and let Hamas do whatever Hamas chose to do in Gaza. If I was an Israeli right now, I on the other hand would thank the Jewish God for military power to protect and defend my own homeland, against the likes of Hamas, wanting only to destroy, completely a Jewish nation and all my friends and family living where I live.

    Given such circumstances and looking at it from the perspective of a Jew living in Israel, I cannot imagine a more “JUST WAR” than the one now being fought by Israel.

    Anson

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