Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Zionist Hysteria over Iran

Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not my cup of tea, to say the least. I look at him and see an Iranian version of one of our Shas politicians, and I don't like them, or their political-religious fundamentalism either. His human rights record isn't great; he is a lousy president; the Iranian people would do well to get rid of him.

So I am not going to defend him or make apologies for him – even though he has never threatened to destroy Israelis, and, needless to say, he has never threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

(If you don't believe me, read the wikipedia article Ahmadinejad and Israel – which is not, apparently, even disputed by the Hasbara-niks and the neo-cons.)

Of course Ahmadinejad wants the State of Israel to vanish from the face of the earth. Big deal. Reagan wanted the same thing to happen to the Soviet Union. Most Arab states, and all Palestinians I know, see no justification for a Jewish state in Palestine. Some are willing to make peace with it, but no Arab I know is a political Zionist (I realize that there are folks like that; the hasbara people trot them out, occasionally, or so I have been told.)

Ahmadinejad has never called for massacring Jews. As Roger Cohen points out, if he is another Hitler, then why doesn't he treat his Jews the way Hitler treated German Jews? Even if life isn't a picnic for the Iranian Jewish community, they have suffered less loss of property than have Palestinian Israelis, and much less than Palestinians under the permanent Occupation.

Given the fact that neither Ahmadinejad's anti-Zionism nor his Holocaust denial poses any sort of threat to Israel (except in the eyes of the Commentary crowd and some politicians), then the only rational grounds for Israel's sabre-rattling against Iran is Iran's support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Now that makes sense. That's where Israel should be focusing its attention.

And yet, when Israel and its Jewish supporters (and an occasional politician courting Jewish votes) go bonkers over Iran, it is not over its support of Palestinian and Lebanese insurgent groups, but over its nuclear program.

Will somebody explain to me why Israel has the right to have nuclear weapons but Iran, or the Arab countries do not? (Besides, of course, the rights that your tribe has over other tribes, regardless of international law and conventions.) Israel is afraid that Iran would wipe it off the map? Hasn't an Israeli minister (Fouad Ben-Eliezer, I believe) threatened Iran with that? And doesn't Iran have more to fear from Israel than vice-versa?

In fact, it would take years, perhaps decades, for Iran to equal Israel's nuclear capability. Given that Ahmadinejad has proven himself (with the help of Bush-Cheney) to be an astute leader in terms of Middle East power politics, given that he is no Idi Amin (and not even a Mu'amar Qaddafi), given that he knows when to back off, why the cause of hysteria?

That there is Zionist hysteria cannot be denied. The affliction is particularly noticeable among the liberal hawks. Reporter Daniel Luban has a great piece about Jeffrey Goldberg's hysteria here. It should be must reading for anybody who wants to penetrate the psyche of the species.

Israel's own liberal hawk columnist, Ari Shavit, has produced an extraordinary rant, a scare-scenario with the typical, glatt kosher Israeli message to Obama (tinged with the customary Israeli condescension to African Americans). The message? Stop talking about dialogue with Iran; they may not be Arabs, but they sure act like them; they only understand force. If you don't act now, it will be the END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT, or, at least, the END OF YOUR REGIME.

What are the sources of Shavit's hysteria? I think it has many sources: the Jewish fantasy (partly kabbalistic) that Jews are at the center of the universe; the Iron Wall philosophy of the political Zionists ("Morality is a luxury for Switzerland"; "This is the Middle East"; "We have to out-bastard the bastards.") Throw in some post-Holocaust trauma for the children of the survivors, but not, of course, for the actual survivors. And, of course, the galling fact that guys like Iran can even have a nuclear bomb. I mean, it was one thing when their film industry was doing better among international critics and festivals than Israel's. But nukes?

Anyway, Shavit's piece is worth reading for the psychological malaise that is essential to his type of Zionist. In fact, some of the other articles in Haaretz on Independence Day illustrate this well. When somebody has to write an "I-am-proud-to-be-a-Zionist," piece, a century after Zionism and 61 years after the birth of the Zionist state, you know that there is still a problem. Israel has not succeeded in getting rid of the question mark over its very legitimacy. Tribalists, of course, will attribute that to the "New Antisemitism." They will forget that the legitimacy of Israel was then, as now, predicated on finding an agreed-upon solution for both the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples, and that the little matter of ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians (all "cleansed," by the way, on the same day and at the same hour – when Israel passed its Nationality Law) has come back to haunt Israel

As long as one side is not free, neither side will be free.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Michael Walzer’s Proxy War against Jeff McMahan

Round two of the Walzer/Margalit vs. Kasher/Yadlin fight contained a surprise. It may be that the real target of Margalit and Walzer, whose latest criticism of Israel appeared today in the NYRB, was not the lightweight Asa Kasher, who, as the result of a family tragedy, sold his soul to the Israel Defense Forces years ago (By the way, dear rightwing readers, he was also cheerleading for the IDF when it did not respond to the Kassams. Kasher gives the IDF a hekhsher no matter what it does.) No, the real unmentioned target of their salvo appears to be Jeff McMahan, whose book, Killing in War, has been released in Europe but not yet in the US. McMahan's book strikes at the heart of the Just War theory distinction between jus ad bellam and jus in bello. It also strikes at the distinction between soldier and civilian that is so fundamental to Just War theory, and at the heart of Margalit and Walzer's criticism of Kasher and Yadlin.

McMahan's book, which I received yesterday from London, is considered the most powerful attack on Just War theory yet, and may, in some ways, sound the beginning of the end for Walzer's remarkably influential run as the Just War theorist par excellence.

McMahan, for example, argues that non-combatants may reasonably be considered culpable in certain circumstances, and should not automatically be considered immune. Of course, non-combatants have been subject to sanctions and have been forced to pay reparations after the war, and certainly they don't have the same responsibility as the leaders, nor can they be killed with imputiny. But McMahan is persuasive at attacking the distinction between combatant and non-combatant that is at the center of the Just War doctrine. He also argues that soldiers should not fight in an unjust war, that they, as soldiers, do not have some special status that allows them to kill others – albeit other soldiers – in war that non-combatants do not have. It is wrong for a soldier to participate in an unjust war, even if she wishes to be a good citizen. You cannot be a just participant in an unjust war. So much for jus in bello.

All this is denied by Walzer

Walzer and McMahan have been going at it for some time now. Is it a coincidence that a month before McMahan's book appears in the US, Walzer takes the opportunity to wage a preemptive strike? One need only compare the original Hebrew version of the Walzer and Margalit piece with the English, expanded, version, to see what I mean. This appears to be a proxy war.

In the meantime, Kasher and Yadlin have published a response to Walzer and Margalit which is full of contradictions, and for good reason: When it suits their purpose they follow McMahan; when it doesn't they follow Walzer. Thus, like McMahan, they blur the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Israelis soldiers are our brothers, our sons, etc., and they should not stand in line behind the civilians of the other side. Their civilians, on the other hand, are culpable when they don't listen to the phonecalls and the leaflets that the IDF drops on their houses. They and Hamas are responsible for anything that happens to them.

Margalit and Walzer disagree:

"Each side in a war quite naturally views its soldiers not as helmeted warriors but as "our kids," young, pure, and innocent, who have been trained and issued uniforms by the state and who find themselves endangered by a cruel enemy. On many occasions, the public cares more for the life of its soldiers than for the life of its civilians. It is this understandable but morally misguided sentiment that creeps into the Kasher-Yadlin paper when they write: "A combatant is a citizen in uniform"—so as to convince us that we should not ask our soldiers to take risks to save the lives of noncombatants on the other side. This isn't the same as saying that a diplomat is a citizen in the uniform of a head waiter. A uniform in the case of combatants is not merely conventional; it is the crucial sign of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants—the distinction that guerrillas and terrorists try to obscure by not wearing uniforms"

In other words, when soldiers don their uniforms and fight against a foreign army, they are no longer our innocent sons and daughters – they are soldiers who stand in line behind the welfare of civilians, including enemy civilians. And they should take risks.

What degree of risk should Israeli soldiers assume [in case Hizbollah captures a kibbutz and surrounds it with Lebanese civilians[? We can't answer that question with any precision. They don't have to take suicidal risks, certainly; nor do they have to take risks that make the recapture…impossibly difficult. They are fighting against enemies who try to kill Israeli civilians and intentionally put civilians at risk by using them as cover. Israel condemns those practices; at the same time, however, it kills far more civilians than its enemies do, though without intending the deaths as a matter of policy. (Thirteen Israelis died in the Gaza fighting, some of them from friendly fire; between 1,200 and 1,400 Gazans were killed, half or more of them civilians.) But merely "not intending" the civilian deaths, while knowing that they will occur, is not a position that can be vindicated by Israel's condemnation of terrorism. So how can Israel prove its opposition to the practices of its enemies? Its soldiers must, by contrast with its enemies, intend not to kill civilians, and that active intention can be made manifest only through the risks the soldiers themselves accept in order to reduce the risks to civilians. [I.e., it is not sufficient for the IDF to say, "We intend not to kill civilians." – JH]

There is nothing unusual in this demand, and nothing unique to Israel. When soldiers in Afghanistan, or Sri Lanka, or Gaza take fire from the rooftop of a building, they should not pull back and call for artillery or air strikes that may destroy most or all of the people in or near the building; they should try to get close enough to the building to find out who is inside or to aim directly at the fighters on the roof. Without a willingness to fight in that way, Israel's condemnation of terrorism and of the use of human shields by its enemies rings hollow; no one will believe it….

If there is "no reason" for responsibility of this sort, if the lives of "our" soldiers really take priority over "their" civilians, then why couldn't the soldiers use those civilians as shields? Since they have not created the "mixed vicinity," why can't they in turn take advantage of it? We don't see how Kasher and Yadlin can avoid providing justification for a practice that Israel officially condemns and that we believe they believe is despicable: the use of noncombatants as human shields for combatants.

This assumes that Kasher and Yadlin have a consistent philosophical position. But as I recall, Kasher supported human shields when it was IDF policy and ceased to support it when it was no longer the policy (By the way, it is still often the practice, if not the stated policy.) Kasher and Yadlin argue now that our combatants should minimize their civilian casualties, and that this is what they did in the Gaza campaign. They believe that the IDF, with few exceptions, acted out of military necessity, and that they did take risks. The soldiers did not intend that civilians should die, and they adduce the dubious doctrine of "double effect " to support it.

In a nutshell, according to Kasher and Yadlin, Israel fought a just war with just means against terrorist, who fought an unjust war with unjust means, supported by an enemy population. We, all of us, are the good guys and they, all of them, are the bad guys.

This, of course, is puerile. What country doesn't say the same thing? And why, if IDF soldiers were not morally obligated to take risks, did they do so?

Oh, that's easy…the IDF is the most moral army in the world!

You see, we could have, justifiably, wiped out Gaza. But we took pity on some of the poor schmoes there. And you know why?

Because we're Jews. Morality flows in our veins.

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 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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gaza – Why this IDF Abuse Was Different From Other IDF Abuse

As "Breaking the Silence" continues to collect testimony of the soldiers who witnessed, or participated in, abuse of Palestinians in Gaza, the first scholarly attempt to place the Gaza events in military and historical context is by Yagil Levy, one of the top military analysts and historians in Israel.Levy manages, in the space of a short Haaretz op-ed, to explain why things were different in Gaza, despite the problem of soldier abuse being nothing new. These are not self-contradictory claims. Armies always abuse civilians under occupation (except in those MTV-inspired recruitment ads in American movie theaters, in which the soldiers are always helping the occupied population – usually children -- while a rockster sings about America, and nobody gets his face blown off.) Yet some campaigns are worse than others. The Gaza campaign was particularly awful, although the greater crimes by far occurred at the level of the top brass. Still, Levy has some interesting things to say about mid-level commanders. This is all very preliminary, and as I wrote below, there is still no scholarly study of why some IDF soldiers abuse civilians and others don't.

It's the Same Violence

By Yagil Levy

The disclosure of testimony by graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy at Oranim Academic College about the conduct of the army during Operation Cast Lead drew three responses.

The first regarded the testimony as something anomalous that required investigation. The investigation, as usual, was sent to the Military Police Investigation Unit, which found the suspicions baseless.

The second was an attempt to link the improper behavior patterns with the prominent presence of rabbis with the soldiers, and the materials they disseminate to them.


The third reaction, which sums up the previous two, involved pondering the question of why the Israel Defense Forces have relinquished their traditional values. The implication was that if the scum was cleaned away, the ranks would no longer be defiled.

That is not necessarily so. An army by definition is a violent organization. The question is, what restrains the use of violence?

The rules of engagement give the officers and soldiers broad autonomy, and thus great deal responsibility. The soldiers' tendency toward violence does not merely stem from the values they bring with them from home or from ideological persuasion. An important role is played by the competition the soldiers feel for their status in the unit, the importance that their status in the army plays in determining their status in the civilian environment from which they came, and the degree of competition among the army's various units.

An army is a competitive environment no less than a violent one. The competitiveness is especially strong when the number of conscripts drops and when the fighting units are manned by a large percentage of soldiers from the social periphery and religious groups that move from the fringes to the mainstream.

An achievement in the military field is especially significant for someone who enlists in the army in order to gain social status or to leave an ideological mark and not merely to fill a basic civic duty, which is what motivates (now diminishing) parts of the established middle classes. An accomplishment is measured through the test of militancy.

The army itself intensifies this competitiveness; in its attempts to market itself among the public of potential conscripts, it increases the exposure given to the units and turns them into brand names. What is important in the testimonies that were disclosed is not the preciseness of detail about the use of fire but rather the enthusiasm to employ violence. As someone said: "Everyone went upstairs and fired together, they were really excited as if it were fun - we're shooting." In a competitive environment, it is more difficult to restrain violence. The key question is whether the units have a critical mass of soldiers who have heightened sensitivity and who can restrain their colleagues and if necessary report about irregularities in the chain of command. The change in the composition of the army makes this less likely in relation to the army of the first Lebanon war and the first intifada.

The late appearance of "breaking the silence," after four years of fighting in the territories, bore witness to that. The meeting of graduates of the Rabin academy and their attempt to influence (retroactively) the army's conduct outside the formal army channels also testifies to this.

When a critical mass of soldiers of this type is lacking in the ranks, the action takes place outside the army and not within it. In both cases graduates of relatively established groups, who do not feel that the test of how they fight is definitive for their status in their own eyes or in the eyes of others, act toward restraining the army and do not flinch from dealing with criticism that raises eyebrows about their patriotism. Even inside the army one can discern different patterns of behavior between units that differ from the point of view of their social profile.

This is not a new phenomenon. The IDF of the present decade is in certain aspects more controlled and restrained than the army of the 1950s which carried out the retaliation raids, and than the IDF of the War of Independence or the organizations that preceded it.

The youths in the Palmach also operated in an environment that was competitive compared with other organizations. The way in which the Palmach generation competed for its place as compared with other groups led to a nurturing of excessive aggressiveness.

It was only when this generation and its successors became established that it became possible, after the Six Day War in 1967, to hold "siah lohamim," a frank discussion among soldiers about the fighting, which was critical at that time. According to recent reports, today's fighters brand their actions through T-shirts with nationalistic and sexist slogans.

The Palmach fighters did not put slogans on their shirts, but they could enjoy a song by Haim Hefer which spoke of the castration by the Palmach of an Arab who was suspected of raping a Jewess. The style has changed but not the substance.

Prof. Levy is a member of the faculty at the Open Universi