Thursday, April 9, 2009
Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit Condemn Israel’s Conduct of the War in Gaza
When Michael Walzer, one of Israel’s staunchest defenders among American liberals and the author of the classic study, Just and Unjust Wars, publicly criticizes Israel for its conduct of the war in Gaza, you know that Israel has lost its moral stature in the eyes of liberal American supporters. The only answer to Walzer is, “Morality be damned; war is hell” which, of course, is a rejection of the just/unjust war distinction that has formed the bedrock of the liberal justification of war since the publication of Walzer’s book. Walzer's condemnation, carefully worded but uncompromising, is co-authored with his Princeton Advanced Institute colleague, Avishai Margalit, Israel's best-known philosopher. It appeared in Haaretz yesterday, and I have not seen it translated yet. Maybe the English version will appear in Dissent or in the New York Review of Books Both Walzer and Margalit have publicly criticized Israel before, but they have always taken the position of the Zionist left against Chomsky, Said, and what we in Israel call "the consistent Left." And Walzer, in particular, has gone easy on the IDF, which he has romanticized as a people's army. Walzer and Margalit start their op-ed by criticizing the well-known article by Asa Kasher (the IDF's house ethicist) and Asher Yadlin, "Assassination and Preventive Killing", which according to Amos Harel, underlaid the military's justification for its actions in Gaza. The major principle is that "our soldiers' lives take precedence over their civilians." The principle, according to Walzer and Margalit, is "erroneous and dangerous" -- because it strikes at the distinction between combattants and non-combattants which is at the heart of just war theory. Wars can be just when they are conducted between states (and those entities that function as states) and not between peoples. The ability to harm and to inflict damage is what makes soldiers legitimate targets during war times. Civilians are not legitimate targets, even if they sympathize with their fighters; for that matter, soldiers who are not part of the immediate war effort are also not appropriate targets (whether they be Israeli soldiers waiting at the Beit Lid bus stop, or Hamas policemen and their families -- JH) The bottom line is that soldiers must risk their lives in order not to hurt civilians -- and to take the same measures to protect Palestinian civilian lives as they would to protect Israeli civilian lines. How much should they be willing to risk their lives? To answer this the authors propose a variant of the thought experiment first presented IN THIS BLOG (thanks to a suggestion of philosopher Georges Rey) and by Joseph Levine. Only this time, instead of Hamas militants holding Israelis as hostages, it is Hizbollah militants holding Israelis as hostages, and four separate types of hostages are presented. Walzer and Avishai's point is that there can be no moral distinction between our civilians and their civilians. Where killing one group as collateral damage is justified, so too killing the other group. All this has to to do with the conduct of the war. I find it highly significant that the authors say nothing about jus ad bellam, whether Israel was justified to go to war in the first place. Well, nothing directly...at one point they write that the Hamas and Hizbollah fighters also believe that their war is just, but that this does not absolve them of the need to examine their conduct. Can it be that an answer to the question that often decides jus ad bellam - whether all diplomatic avenues were exhausted -- eluded the authors? Walzer criticized the Second Iraq war on these grounds. Apparently, Margalit and Walzer decided to focus on the no-brainer: Israel's immoral conduct of the "war". For the record, again, I am very skeptical of the just war/unjust war distinction, which enables powerful countries and their defenders to justify horrific atrocities. But even if there are just wars, then Israel's conduct of the Gaza operation was not just -- according to the guy who wrote the book.