Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Israeli Joke That Wasn’t Very Funny a Year Ago And Is Less Funny Now

Almost a year before the Gaza campaign, on Dec. 27, 2007, I wrote a post that began with an Israeli joke

Two Israeli Jews meet each other on the street:

-Oy, Shimon, this business in Sderot is awful. How come we can't stop those Kassam rockets?

-Nu, we are afraid of the Americans. Now here's what we should do. We should drop leaflets over Gaza saying that we will give them five days to stop the Kassams. We wait five days, and then if the Kassams don't stop, we bomb the hell out of them.

--Why wait five days? Why not bomb them now?

--Nu, there's no need to exaggerate.

And then I commented on the "joke"

I was reminded of this joke when I read one of the Letters to the Editor in Haaretz today, which seriously proposed "Shimon's" solution…I hope I don't exaggerate if I suggest that this sums up the moral reasoning of many Israelis.

I don't mean to say that most Israelis advocate "bombing the hell out of Gaza". Many would approve of less drastic measures, such as cutting off their electricity and fuel supply. But the reasoning goes like this: "We could, if we wanted to, flatten Gaza. The reason that we don't is that we are Jews, and therefore generous, and exceedingly moral, and while we would be justified in taking such drastic measures -- such is the world we live in -- that is not what Jews do."

That was a year ago. Now, Israelis and their supporters simply cannot understand what the world wants from them. If Israel really wanted to smash Gaza, it could have done so big time. The fact that "only" 1300 people died, many of them "terrorists" showed that the IDF stuck to its ethical code. OK, there were some infractions, but very few. And the civilian deaths are not their fault; it is because of Hamas.

I wrote then that the reason that most Israelis cannot understand why they are being criticized is that they are moral chauvinists, and that moral chauvinism (the belief that you are ethically superior to the other) blinds people to their own immorality. I also claimed, based on my knowledge of Jewish sources, that moral chauvinism is deeply rooted in Judaism, though I acknowledged that it is common in other civilizations and religions.

That was a year ago. The joke is even less funny now.

Because so many Israelis and their supporters are moral chauvinists, they create fantastical images of themselves, such as the "Most Moral Army in the World" fantasy. For example, ask most Israelis about the current Gaza operation and they will say, "We gave them Gaza; they launched rockets. We did not react until we could take it no longer." When you tell them that during over the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, during the period of "not reacting," Israel killed 1,275 Gazans – they will at first deny the number; then they will say that most of them were terrorists; and then they will say that it was Hamas's fault. Why? Because the belief in their superior morality is so deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche, both traditionally, and certainly after the Holocaust, that Israelis do not allow the facts of their immorality to confuse them.

Let me make something clear. I do not claim that the IDF, or the people who sent them, deliberately set out to massacre civilians as part of military policy. But I do believe that the IDF was figuratively and literally quick on the trigger, as it always has been in the West Bank and Gaza. I believe that they when they used white phosphorus in an urban area, they knew full well that it was possible, perhaps likely, that civilians would be burned. They decided to use it anyway because they simply didn't care about the civilians; they knew that they could always hide behind the claim that white phosphorus is not banned, and that regrettable accidents happen. Perhaps they decided to use it in some cases and not in others. But that does not mean that their reasoning in the "acceptable" cases was correct.


Peter Drubetskoy said...

Here's how it works. Soldiers go with blood in the eyes to Gaza. There is no order form the Chief of Staff to kill as many as possible but "ruakh ha-mefaked" - the spirit of the commander - is just this. How so? Well,
- This is the mood of the street
- You start the operation with bombarding busy Gaza streets in broad daylight, killing the traffic cops, the civilians who happened to be on the street, the 5 sisters who lived by the strategic target of Islamic University and so on;
- You kill a Hamas operative Ryan with all his family in the same circumstances as Shehade, that just 6 years ago prompted Israel to claim that "had we known there were civilians living in the buildings around, we'd call the operation off".
- You give orders to destroy hundreds of buildings that were blocking the forces’ “line of vision.”
- You distribute brochures that say things like "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral" and "the population, it is not innocent"

Et cetera.
From which a lot of soldiers take the cue.
Now, one of the dirty secrets of the IDF is that it is a very undisciplined army. The main leverage of the commanders is soldiers' motivation; punishments for most transgressions are laughable. So, if you want a well-performing force, your soldiers have to be "mur'alim" - with high morale. A company or platoon commander that will see his soldiers behave badly in a war-zone like Gaza will have hard time discipling them in a lot of cases. You have to have served in a combat battalion in IDF to appreciate this, but it is so. Depending on the unit, a commander that disciplines his soldiers for, say, opening unwarranted fire, could face grim life in his own unit and maybe even a revolt. The problem is really systemic, especially in some units. To solve it, IDF would have to mount a sweeping organizational effort and this, obviously, was never a priority. Nor is investigation and punishment of crimes. And let's not forget that this did not start with Gaza. The problem really exacerbated with the second intifada. "Lawrence of Cyberia" has a good summary of some relevant facts.

Anonymous said...

"Because the belief in their superior morality is so deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche, both traditionally, and certainly after the Holocaust, that Israelis do not allow the facts of their immorality to confuse them."

So what does The Magnes Zionist think: i) Israel is morally inferior in comparison to the enemy it confronts; ii) Israel is the moral equal of the enemy it confronts, no better or worse; or, iii) Israel is morally superior to the enemy it confronts? Since you take issue with those who would maintain that it is (iii), the impression is given that for TMZ it is (ii) or even (i). Are your readers to assume it is (ii), since (i) would be such an extraordinary claim? But it seems from what I have read of the TMZ, you rarely, if ever task Israel's enemies for even the most egregiously immoral conduct. And you express doubt about the very legitimacy of Israel given the circumstances of its creation and other considerations. So would it not (ii) or (iii) be a reasonable inference to draw?

If we were talking about WWII, would you address yourself only to the moral shortcomings of the US and its allies, saying nothing about those of the Axis? The Allies were surely not above reproach at all times and everywhere, so they might have been criticized for some of their conduct. But who would do so without reference to all of the relevant circumstances, which would have to include the nature of the enemy, how that enemy went about their prosecution of the war, the magnitude of the threat facing the Allies, etc. What moral authority could anyone command who criticized the Allies relentlessly, all the while focusing no attention on the Axis forces?

If I am mistaken in what I have said about the striking lack of criticism of Israel's enemies, the doubts cast on Israel's very legitimacy, etc., please tell me so and point me to where I can read where TMZ has contradicted me.

.....DC Doc

Jerry Haber said...

DC Doc,

First off, I have condemned Hamas until I am blue in the face, but it doesn't matter because my condemnations are deliberately ignored by the rightwingers.

There is a reason for this. They assume that if you criticize Israel, you must support Hamas. That is because they don't understand the human rights perspective, only the ethnic tribalist perspective.

But, of course, I am much more disturbed by Israel's actions than by Hamas's, for the same reason that I would be much more disturbed if my brother were a murderer than if he were murdered.

For more explanation, please see my post on Singling Out Israel for Moral Opprobrium

amyrpk said...

I might point out that you seem to have a blindspot about your critics. To label them all as 'rightwingers' is ... um ... incorrect.

And I'm kind of fascinated by your being "more disturbed if your brother was a murderer than if he was murdered." Just sort of a gut instinct thing?

How would you ever know?

Ploni said...

By Hamas numbers 650-700 of the 1300 were "holy fighters" aka *combatants. This leaves a ratio of less than 1 civilian to one combatant death toll. That is if we are to believe Hamas in their skewed numbers which doctors leaving the strip said were impossibly inaccurate. Still, for arguments sake lets just say they are correct! Less than one civilian death per combatant is the LOWEST ratio ever in modern warfare. The US averaged 25 to 1 in Iraq according to a 60 Minutes report. Let's not consider the actions of Russia or China or shall we say "less moral armies"???? Israel conducts a war with the LOWEST civilian casualty ratio in history and YOU have the audacity to call the Israelis nasty nasty names? I think the only moral chauvinist is YOU! You clearly have 2 standards which you hold the world to, one for Jews and one for everyone else. You know there is a name for people who d that, right? Israel is a state nation, it is tiny, but it is normal. Some good some bad, some achievements some mistakes. Stop treating it as if it were a dhimmi state obligated to ingratiate itself to the world. Israel killed the fewest civilians per combatant that has EVER been done in modern war. Having the lowest civilian death rate is commendable and IS a sign of morality on the battlefield and it SHOULD be irrespective of the ethnic majority of the state the army defends! If another state had done that I would be the 1st to admit that it should be commended and that my own state should strive to be like that. Only a true A hole will deny the same to a state solely because it is a Jewish state.