Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Demonizing the Enemy

Do you think that Hamas celebrates death, intends to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible, deliberately fires rockets from populated areas in order to increase Palestinian casualties and to embarrass  Israel on the world stage, and forces Gazan civilians to act as human shields?  Do you think that if they could, they would wipe out every Israeli man, woman, and child, and that it is only Iron Dome and the primitiveness of their rockets that prevents this outcome?  Do you think they built tunnels for this purpose? 

If you do, I don’t know why. You don’t have any credible evidence to warrant these claims.  And yes, I have read the Hamas Charter, and yes, the movement is anti-Semitic.

Here’s two more questions: Are you a liberal who feels bad about the suffering of the Gazans, but who makes a sharp distinction between them and Hamas? Does it make a difference to you that while some Gazans express reservations about Hamas’ fundamentalist ideology, many, perhaps most of them, support Hamas’s resistance against Israel – and I assume  that is also true of most West Bank Palestinians?

Like most insurgent movements with a military wing, Hamas is hardly a paragon of virtue in wartime. There is  considerable evidence that Hamas recklessly endangers the lives of Palestinian citizens by firing indiscriminately rockets and missiles. This constitutes a war crime.  I really can’t see that they actually endanger the lives of Israelis – they certainly frighten them --  but firing rockets into Israel the way they do should be considered a war crime. An occupied people under a brutal siege has a right to armed resistance.  If it were the Jews and not the Palestinians, you would agree.  It may not be prudent for them to exercise that right, but they have it.

People ask, “What is Israel supposed to do when rockets are fired at them?” To them I ask, “How are the Palestinians supposed to fight justly when they can’t get close enough to well-protected IDF  forces to shoot at them?” These are hard questions but whatever their answers, both sides must take maximum reasonable precautions to spare civilians. Once again, both sides didn’t, and both sides committed war crimes, though not of the same magnitude.  I have not yet been entirely convinced that Hamas fought a just war  – although political theorist Anthony Burke makes a persuasive argument for the justice of Hamas’s waging war under international humanitarian law and the laws of war. Their demands for a truce are reasonable, and in most cases, Israel has agreed to these demands in the past.

Now here’s a question for me: if I think that the Palestinians have the right to resort to armed resistance as a last resort, why do I detest Hamas? That’s easy. They are a  religious fundamentalist political party that opposes all my liberal values. I detest all religious fundamentalist political parties. I shudder to think how the Jewish Home party, or better, the Shas party, would fight a war were they to be in control of the Israeli government, and Israel  was under Palestinian occupation for generations, and a decade long-siege. Needless to say I detest Hamas’s  anti-Semitism, just like I detest the anti-Palestinianism and anti-Arabism of the Jewish fundamentalist right.

But just because I detest a political party, that doesn’t mean I have the right to interfere with a democratically-elected government, provided that government is not interfering with my country.  And when they do interfere with my country, I only resort to war as a last resort, after all other resorts fail. In this case, of course, the Palestinians are not a separate independent country, but a people under occupation and siege. 

What I have written makes me a defender of liberal values, not Hamas.  In wartime, those values often get chucked overboard by liberals, especially if they feel a need to rally around the flag.  Demonizing the enemy is as old as warfare.  We shouldn’t do it. Especially when that enemy has been under a brutal occupation for decades.

Monday, August 4, 2014

We Are Romans, Mourning for the Destruction of the Temple

We are Romans, mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

We are Romans, born of a great civilization with a noble destiny.

We rain havoc on Jerusalem and its people.

And blame the Zealots for the deaths and displacement .

“Terrorists.” “Suicide-bombers.” “Haters of all things civilized”

“We wish no harm to the people.”

“We willingly grant them autonomy.”

“The destruction of Jerusalem is the work of the Zealots.”

But the hurban is the work of our hands.

Our hands have shed this blood.

We are Romans, mourning for the destruction of the Temple.


Tisha B’Av, 5774

Friday, August 1, 2014

Zionism 2014: Power Without Agency

Classical Zionism argued that the loss of political sovereignty involved the loss of Jewish political power, and hence the loss of Jewish political agency.  Jewish existence was considered to be ahistorical in the diaspora, and Jews were shuttled from land to land “as a driven leaf.” Classical Zionism called for a “return of the Jewish people into history,” to use Emil Fackenheim’s phrase, and the return of power to Judaism. Jews would be for the first time in two thousand years the masters of their fate, not dependent upon the nations of the world. Jews would have real power, and hence, agency.

So it never ceases to surprise me that supporters of the Jewish state today,  at the zenith of its power and influence, a power the founders of Zionism could never have imagined, actually deny Israel agency in its dealings with non-Jewish groups, especially the Palestinians. These supporters  deny Israel agency in order to avoid  moral accountability for its actions.

For example, it is well known that anti-Semitic activity correlates with  hostile activities directed towards Palestinians. This has been shown in study after study. During the first two years of the Oslo Accords, anti-Semitic activity was at a record low.  Yet when one holds Israeli actions in part responsible for ebb and flow of anti-Semitism (I emphasize, “in part”), many people say that no matter what Israel does, there will still be anti-Semitism; and that Israeli actions merely provide a convenient “excuse” or  “pretext” for  anti-Semitic activity.  Israel has power, but it lacks agency; hence it is not at all responsible.

As of this writing, Israel has wreaked havoc on an entire population, killing over 1400 people, and wiping out whole neighborhoods.  Yet supporters of Israel deny any responsibility on the grounds that Israel is merely reacting to Hamas’s provocation. In other words, Hamas forces Israel, against its will, to kill hundreds of civilians. One would think that Hamas is quite literally holding a gun to Israel’s back, saying, “We will kill you if you don’t kill our people.”  Israelis will say, “What can we do? Our people are under attacks from rockets, We are forced to defend ourselves.”

Power without agency. No agency, no moral accountability.

The most recent attempt to absolve Israel of most of its moral accountability for war crimes is the philosopher and liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer, writing in The New Republic. Walzer has a novel argument; it is not so much only that Israel is forced by Hamas to commit war crimes, but rather it finds itself in the position of power in an asymmetric war, and this is almost a recipe for atrocities against civilians. Israel, or any strong power, can’t help but committing atrocities.

In asymmetric warfare, low-tech forces—call them terrorists, militants, or the more neutral "insurgents," which I will use—aim at the most vulnerable targets, civilians, and they launch their attacks from the midst of the civilian population. The high-tech forces respond, in defense of their own or of allied civilians, and end up killing large numbers of enemy civilians.

Walzer believes that in such circumstances, for the asymmetric war to be waged justly, the powerful party has to assume a certain amount of risk for its soldiers in order to spare the lives of civilians.  He assumes that on the whole, Israel does this, despite bringing no evidence for that view (besides the curious fact that Israel is a “democracy”). He also assumes that Hamas deliberately launches rocket attacks from populated areas in order to inflate the number of civilian casualties from reprisals, despite bringing no evidence for that view either.  Walzer has written about how powerful parties can wage an asymmetric war justly; he has written less, to my knowledge, about the weaker parties. He ends his article as follows:

I would strongly advise anyone contemplating the loss of life in Gaza to think carefully about who is responsible, or primarily responsible, for putting civilians at risk. The high-tech army, for all its claims to precision, is often callous and clumsy. But it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause. We should do what we can to ensure that it doesn't.   

Once again, power without agency. So much for moral accountability.

So much for the Jewish return into history.