Gaza conflict – three thoughts about the fighting

August 10, 2014 by

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1. Good Guys, Bad tactics?

There was something of a meme that went around, asking the two key questions of Just War theory: Are we fighting the bad guys? and Are we fighting like good guys? I think I’ve realized that the first question is almost irrelevant, and often unhelpful.


It’s irrelevant because while I may be sure that Hamas are the bad guys, so Hamas thinks it is Israel who are the bad guys. It is unhelpful because since we both reckon we’re fighting the bad guys, we both tend to take the second question less seriously. 

Are we fighting like good guys? My answer would be yes and no (and how?). There is absolutely no doubt we are going to great lengths to hit military targets and avoid civilians. Anecdotal evidence we have all heard from friends of friends in the Air Force, texted warnings, “knock on the roof”, and so on confirm how relatively careful we have been, and the disproportionate number of fighting age men in the Gaza death toll suggests we were shooting at combatants.

But questions do and should remain. For example, what do we choose to define as military targets in the first place? According to the latest IDF meme, some 20 odd targets in Shuja’iya were “Terrorists’ houses” – in plain language, Hamas commanders’ family homes. Do we really accept that the family home of a Hamas commander is a legitimate target – texted warning or not? A naval officer lives on my kibbutz: I’d rather not imagine that his house is now okay to be bombed according to international law.


We know that Hamas fires at Israeli civilians from within highly populated residential areas, schools, and hospitals, and that for the IDF to fire back is to risk civilian casualties. Does the evil of Hamas –deliberately avoiding the open ground aplenty in the Gaza strip deliberately to fire from within urban areas – justify risking these civilian deaths? To get technical on this, do we believe that the military advantage we gain by shooting back at those shooting at us, is great enough for us to choose to risk the death of civilians?

It was two of the Jewish world’s greatest living philosophers, Michael Walzer and Avishai Margalit – the first a committed Zionist the second Israeli –  who wrote this advice in 2009 to the IDF:

Conduct your war in the presence of noncombatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the noncombatants. A guideline like that should not seem strange to people who are guided by the counterfactual line from the Passover Haggadah, “In every generation, a man must regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.”

They are right. It doesn’t seem strange. It actually sounds morally beautiful.

But it also sounds bloody unworkable.

Can one ever wage war effectively following this moral enjoinder? Asa Kasher seriously doubts it.

To an extent the Walzer/Margalit instruction sounds a bit like Rabbinic approaches to the death penalty. Yes, the death penalty is valid under certain conditions, said the Sages, but we will ensure that these conditions are so impossible to meet, that effectively the death penalty is banned for all eternity. Perhaps the underlying consequence of “treat their civilians as you would your own” is that we just have to find non-military ways of solving our problems.

Now that’s easy…

2. Talking about Rabbinics – The Tricycle and UK Jewish Film Festival

The Tricycle affair reminds me of the difference between Mishna and Gemara. Yes, I did once study these two different aspects of the Talmud back in the day… The Mishnah aimed for clarity of law, a codification of the commandments. The Gemara, written some few hundred years later, offered a far more rambling open commentary on these statements of the Mishnah. The combination of the two mixes law with anecdote, judgment with counter-judgment. In the Talmud one sometimes gets the feeling that no one loses, contradictions live happily with each other, and whatever stands today may be replaced tomorrow. It is, to paraphrase and bastardize Alick Isaacs’ theories, a Jewish vision of Peace.

The Tricycle forced British Jewry beyond the comforting cushion of ambiguity. No nuances allowed. Either the UK Jewish Film Festival was with Israel, or detached from Israel. On the one hand, there was something positive about this. An honourable acceptance on the part of most UK Jews that, yes, they do see Israel as central to their identity, no matter what the chattering classes would like. At the same time, this demand – to declare oneself for or against – has both collapsed British Jewry’s own self-defence mechanism that support of Israel cannot be a reason to channel rage at Israel into rage at Jews, and it has erased all space for conversation.

Demonstrations and press releases and boycotts are not the arena for “yes-butting”. Those troubled Zionists who ask themselves the same questions as in the first section of this blog, must choose between their loyalty to Israel and their loyalty to complexity. This choice is always going to be reductive, non-dialogical, and combative.

That’s why I’m so sad about the Tricycle’s cowardly decision. And I so loved performing there…

3. Jon Stewart and Family

Shmuel Rosner has written the cat-among-the-pigeons piece that was always coming. I’m a real fan of his writing. He’s smart, he’s unexcitable, he’s always extremely well-informed on matters of the Jewish world, and he’s much harsher than I tend to admit to being. Rosner rejects what he sees as a “threat” from liberal Jews in the States to withdraw their support of Israel. His analogy is that of a family: Families can argue, can attempt to correct each other, but if their care for each other is conditional on consensus, then such care is of no value and neither are their arguments.

It is a powerful statement, and a very counter-cultural one. The idea that a commitment to any collective is built on heredity and not shared values, goes against much of what young Westerners assume. That isn’t to say that going against current norms is a bad thing – until the invention of Israel and the United States I’d always thought that Judaism was the essence of counter-culturalism – but we need to know what we are up against.

We are up against Jon Stewart.

And Jon Stewart, inadvertently I believe, throws a spanner into the “families argue but never abandon” analogy. He likens Israel to a drug addict. Israel is, according to his comic logic, addicted to throwing bombs at Gaza. Thus it is illogical for the US to urge restraint and ceasefire from Israel, if at the same time it continues to supply Israel with arms. Quite apart from being absolutely terrifying – the thought of an Israel lacking military superiority in this region of well-armed crazies fills me with dread – this vision challenges the family analogy.

There is, it seems to me, only one time a family will throw their child out of the house, refuse him any of the succour he swears he requires, and deliberately push him into pain and possible danger. When he is a drug addict…

Heart-warming conclusion

I guess the decider will come a few months or years from now. At some point there is going to be another war with Hezbollah. We know they have been busily tunneling under our Northern border and building up arsenals (thanks UN, for failing to ensure their disarmament…) to fire at us. Lebanon is not under Israeli occupation. There is no “open prison” there, nor do we have anyone in Israel who wants to build a settlement there. Nothing to muddy the waters, so to speak.
So when Hezbollah march into their own civilian-populated areas and start firing their missiles at Israel from houses and hospitals (God forbid, though S/He rarely does) – what are we going to do? Or more to the point, what are Jon Stewart, liberal Jews around the world, and wishy-washy Israelis like myself, going to do?

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