Essays

Proportionality and the Diaspora in Operation Protective Edge

A response to Piki Ish-Shalom

As far as military euphemisms go, Operation Protective Edge is not the worst offender. As any reliable voice will point out, Israel faces significant danger from Hamas and its various factions. The threat posed by missile attacks or deadly incursions courtesy of a significant tunneling network out of Gaza and into Israel are real and they are serious. It is unreasonable to expect Israel to do nothing about them indefinitely. Yet, self-defense does not mean that anything goes. Therein lies the problem. The population density of Gaza is high, and so the risk of harming civilians in any military attack is great. Any military strike, no matter how precise, will almost certainly hit civilians. Assuming, for a moment, that this war has been taken as a last resort, one of the remaining moral questions about this war becomes one of proportionality. Are the attacks proportionate to the desired outcome? In other words, is the risk to Palestinian civilians mitigated by the intended aim of an Israeli military strike? There has been some excellent commentary already on the topic of Just War, proportionality and Operation Protective Edge. However, something is being missed when we focus on the normative language of Just War and don’t pay enough attention to the moral terrain on which decisions are based. As the scholar Piki Ish-Shalom of Hebrew University writes, “purists who hold the too easy high moral ground look at the world from a nowhere point … allows them to see nothing.”

It is easy for those of us in the Diaspora to take an easy moral ground. Not necessarily that of the purist, but that of the person detached who does not have to live with the consequences of action or inaction. However, Israel is not Las Vegas. What happens in Israel no longer stays in Israel, and Diaspora Jews cannot, as Sigal Samuel writes, have it both ways: 

“Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state.”

Diaspora Jews are not responsible for what the Israeli government does. However, to the extent that Diaspora Jews and Diaspora Jewish organizations affirm the importance of Israel as the Jewish State for Diaspora Jews and as a consequence defend Israel uncritically, Diaspora Jews can be held morally accountable for this support and its consequences. The Diaspora does not stand from nowhere, but from a place that really matters.

First, in response to Operation Protective Edge, there have been increasing numbers of attacks against Jews in the Diaspora. The correlation here is not to say that Israel is responsible for the behavior of anti-Semites, but that Israeli military actions are not isolated in their repercussions. As the Jewish State, Israel needs to take into account how its security policies may be decreasing the security of the Jews in the Diaspora and raising fear among Diaspora Jews. It is disturbingly ironic when the Jewish State, the State that was built to protect and offer security to the Jewish people, contributes to raising Jewish insecurity. Diaspora Jews are, in this sense, not detached observers. A serious discussion on this issue is urgently needed.

Second, In a world where Israel is verbally condemned from all around, where in Europe, the continent that once tried to rid the world of the Jewish people, come voices condemning Jews who defend themselves, it is up to the Diaspora to speak hard words to Israel because the Diaspora may be the only critical voice that Israel may listen to. One of these hard words is proportionality, although not for the reasons usually written about. The Israeli government and the Israeli military regularly claim to abide by international law. However, if this is so, then the use of artillery into densely populated areas (as recently reported by the New York Times) is a serious violation.

I have never served in the military. I have never been in battle. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that when facing enemy fire, the pressure of the moment requires fast actions and swift judgment. Be that as it may, soldiers are professionals, and all soldiers are expected to act according to the rules of war. This is partly what distinguishes military soldiers from other types of combatants: their training and the responsibility that each soldier is expected to bear. The question, consequently, that is troubling is why were Israeli military officers prepared to use artillery in heavily populated urban areas. 

The first answer could be as simple as context and timing. The soldiers were under attack, they needed to respond in self-defense, and only artillery was available at that moment. I am prepared to accept such an answer, although it does not excuse a possible violation of international law. If the law was broken, those who broke it need to be held responsible.

The second answer, which I find more troubling, is that some Israeli soldiers did not care. The euphemism “mowing the grass” is a disgusting phrase to describe Israeli security policy, but it accurately describes the increasing de-humanization of the Palestinians by Israel. People are not grass. Morality is easy if it applies only to people we like. It is when we have to deal with those who are not like us, and those that we disagree with, that morality becomes difficult and our moral being revealed. The occupation of the West Bank, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the anti-Israel rhetoric that so regularly comes out of Arab countries have all contributed to Israelis viewing the Palestinian people not as a people, but as a problem. Being able to sustain the military occupation of the West Bank has resulted in Israeli soldiers de-humanizing their Palestinian neighbors and taking these opinions into post-military life. The anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism that has taken hold of Israeli society is deeply disturbing. The troubling conclusion is that even if there were alternative military solutions to using artillery to attack an area with a known UN-school in the line of fire, the soldiers who ordered the attack may not have cared. They may not have cared because they were under fire and because they did not care about the Palestinian civilians that were in harm’s way.

I really hope that this is not the case, that the artillery attacks were just terrible accidents, isolated incidents of indiscriminate firing. But a part of me thinks that there may be more to it. Indeed, in the second attempt to rescue Lt. Hadar Goldin, the Israeli army instituted its Hannibal procedure, which is intended to prevent Israeli soldiers being captured and which may involve massive use of force. In this case, the extensive and indiscriminate use of fire resulted in the death of 130 Palestinians. 

This violent and deadly conflict is not mowing the grass, or weeding, or any kind of gardening. It is, as the soldiers on the front lines and their families know, a war. If this war is to ever end and offer a long-term solution Israelis and Diaspora Jews need to start caring more about the Palestinian people as human beings. At issue here is more than needing to be compassionate. At issue is about what type of a people Diaspora Jews want to be when we always hedge our statements about Palestinian suffering by reference to Palestinian terror, and what type of people Israeli Jews want to be. Israel has, alas, made it acceptable for Jews to be racists. This war may only further exacerbate the moral damage racism is doing to the Jewish people. The bombings of the UN Schools was most likely disproportionate. They were disproportionate in regard to the risk to civilians and they were disproportionate to the risk they pose to Israel and Diaspora Jewry’s moral compass. Legitimate the attack against a school, and we de-humanize not only those who were killed and injured, but ourselves as well.

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Ilan Zvi Baron

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