Friday, July 18, 2014

Gaza, Israel, and the Lone Intellectual

There is a sickening scriptedness to the latest ramp-up in violence between Israel and Hamas -- one that, to those of us who don't have to live in its presence directly, can impart to the whole set of events a nimbus of unreality.  Ten hours into the conflict and I knew the names of all the articles I'd be reading on the subject over the next few days, and what they would say.  Obviously, for people whose loved ones are killed or whose homes are obliterated, these events have a terrible freshness.  But for those of us whose only daily experience of violence comes through the blogosphere or the airwaves, it is easy to succumb to a feeling of deja-vu, and with it, a certain callousness.

This unreal quality seems to be the only mitigating factor one could urge in defense of Charles Krauthammer's latest call for "Moral clarity in Gaza"-- a column in which "the world's treatment of Israel" is decried as "Orwellian" in one paragraph and "Kafkaesque" in the next, but which belies its own title by demanding of us an extraordinary moral blindness.  It is only if the violence is entirely unreal to him that Krauthammer could write a column ten days into the conflict that does not once mention the number of Palestinian dead -- that does not bring up Palestinian civilian casualties at all, in fact, except in the context of their possible use as human shields by Hamas.

Only the armchair enthusiast would write that "Israel painstakingly tries to avoid [civilian casualties], actually telephoning civilians in the area and dropping warning charges, so-called roof knocking."  Pretend for a moment that you're in that armchair at home one afternoon, and you hear that dread missile "knocking"on your roof.  Do you have the faintest idea what's going on?  Do you know to pile out of the house immediately?  Well, you'd better figure it out soon, because the next missile-- the real one, with the death wish and the cargo of oblivion-- will be there in less than five minutes.  Oh, and your next-door neighbor who's seven months into a pregnancy better toddle out of her house too, and grab her 1-year-old daughter by the hand, and get all their worldly possessions together, and then run an unknown distance in an unknown direction to avoid the missile's blast radius, all in under 300 seconds, or else it will be curtains for them too.  Even though no one knocked on their roof. (See the "Abed Gafour Family Killings" in this Human Rights Watch report 7/16/14).  

Let's pretend that happened to you or your family.  Would you feel adequately warned?  Would you feel that the efforts made to preserve your life had been "painstaking"?  

How about those phone messages?  You receive one while sitting in your armchair that says simply "Stay away from Qassam."  Or perhaps you've heard from the IDF over the news that you should simply "Refrain and keep away from Hamas terrorists[, k]eep away from the infrastructure which is being used against the state of Israel," in order to stay safe. Would you know where to run?  And how far?  Who counts as a "Hamas terrorist," and how would you know?

Meanwhile, you might just be playing on a rooftop or sitting in a cafe, maybe or maybe not in some degree of proximity to someone who is a member of the Qassam brigades.  You could still be wiped from the Earth.

"It’s to the Israelis’ credit that amid all this madness they haven’t lost their moral scruples," says Krauthammer.  Yes, well, perhaps 200 Palestinian dead sounds modest on paper, as military conflicts go, and perhaps a "warning system" sounds generous.  Newsprint has a way of wiping away all tears-- for readers and writers, at least, if not for the afflicted.  You see it on the Left as well-- the Sartres of the world were always willing to applaud revolutionary violence as an idea.  So too the Neocons, the inverted Leninists of the present age, seem to become more bloodthirsty the more they insulate themselves from the reality of violence.  There is a character in a story by Stephen Crane of whom the author observes with characteristic irony: "this woman of peace, who had seen only peace, argued constantly for a creed of illimitable ferocity."

Now look: I would be urging the very same case against anyone who tried to absolve Hamas of responsibility for the destruction and loss of life.  Krauthammer is not wrong in his assessment of that group's culpability.  Hamas does have a history of using civilians as human shields.  And the rockets by which it ignited the latest flare-up in the violence are clearly intended to inflict death and destruction on the innocent.  The fact that they usually fail in their intended purpose is not an argument in Hamas' favor.  One doesn't judge attempted murder by the competence of its execution.

In other words, just as it is deplorably easy for an American columnist to be blind to the reality of what it means to have 500 tons of explosives dropped on an area the size of Queens in the space of ten days-- so too, it is easy for an American blogger to write crisply about rockets heading toward Israeli towns without truly imagining what it means to be woken up in the middle of the night by an air raid siren and having to fear for your children's lives.

But I suppose my question is this: who, exactly, is trying to absolve Hamas in this conflict, apart from their lonesome selves?  Whom does Krauthammer think he is heroically facing down by arguing this point?  When Human Rights Watch first reported the conflict, in a piece published on July 9th, their headline read: "Palestine/Israel: Indiscriminate Palestinian Rocket Attacks."  Only in the fine print did one find condemnation of Israeli airstrikes on civilian targets.  Amnesty International has likewise consistently condemned the actions of both sides, to the great extent that both target civilians.  If neither organization has devoted precisely equivalent text and airtime to the atrocities of both sides, it is because there is simply no parity as yet in the extent of the civilian toll.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported in large print on July 15th: "First Israeli Killed Near Gaza Border."  Is anyone surprised that there was no similar headline when the first Palestinian child or pregnant mother was incinerated in this conflict?  The Palestinian dead tend to be reported in clumps-- in the tens at the very least -- and in small print.  Does Charles Krauthammer allow himself to think for even an instant, even from within the confines of his echo chamber, that this is how the casualties would be reported if the positions in this conflict were reversed-- if over 200 Israelis had been killed, including 50 children?

Even left-wing critics of Israel, to their credit, don't seem to be batting for Hamas this time around, if they ever were.  Bob Dreyfuss in The Nation had the following headline on his blog when the shooting started: "Palestinians Must Put an End to Suicidal Hamas."  I haven't checked the more usual suspects on the Left for their take (Dreyfuss is perhaps atypical in the extent of his justified animus toward political Islam).  I admit that I insulate myself from certain kinds of dizzying moral casuistry from the Left once I have identified their source.  But even acknowledging my ignorance on this point, I'm hard pressed to see a vast pro-Hamas conspiracy in the new media or in public opinion.

Krauthammer's evidence for the anti-Israel bias of "the world" amounts to a movie, an opera, and the UN.  (And, I suppose, to the fact that the media chooses to report the numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties at all.)  Admittedly, Krauthammer is right to say that the UN Human Rights Council is a sick joke of a place, the membership of which always seems to be drawn, with cruel irony, from the most reprobate specimens of world leaders.  And yes, lots of other states around the world do much worse things than Israel on a daily basis, and not nearly enough people condemn them for it.  But remember the crucial point here: there is simply no amount of horrendous evil that China and the Sudan and Bashar al-Assad can unload on the world that will somehow make it okay for Israel to kill a family of eight, only one of whom has any affiliation with Hamas, while they are asleep in their beds at 1 in the morning (see "Al-Hajj Family Killings" in the HRW report cited above).

If I am correct, whence comes Krauthammer's feeling of universal betrayal-- the feeling that Israel is up against the world?  I have a theory:

Our civilization, you will agree, accords tremendous prestige to the model of the intellectual who rejects the prejudices of the mob-- who braves disgrace and opprobrium, that is, for the sake of the truth.  "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil," was Bertrand Russell's favorite Bible passage, and I suspect it is a lot of other people's as well.  I suspect there are very few of us with any authorial, juridical, or journalistic ambitions in life, who have not at some point imagined ourselves in the role of Emile Zola, scribbling his "J'accuse," or of Atticus Finch, arguing for the defense, or of Ibsen's "Enemy of the People," staking a claim for scientific fact against a tide of ignorance.

In a society whose entire political spectrum almost uniformly draws on the images and rhetoric of liberalism to make their case, even when their practices so often violate all of liberalism's tenets -- in such a society, all political disputes and disagreements seem to be conducted between different Atticus Finches and Clarence Darrows.  We are all the heretics, facing down the nattering ranks of the orthodox.  Or so we like to think.  Not all societies throughout history have been like this.  The Dreyfuss Affair in France was not a conflict waged between rival views of Dreyfuss' innocence, for example -- it was a conflict waged essentially between those who sought the truth and those who didn't even profess to care for it-- who believed that military "honor" was well worth the price of a lie, and of an innocent person's incarceration and moral demolition as a result of it (so long as he was a member of a persecuted minority).

It is a sign of how very thoroughly the values of liberalism have taken root among us that no one could conceive of arguing the case for "honorable" dissimulation so brazenly today.  Nowadays, we hide our illiberal shame.  No matter what position in a dispute we are defending, we now portray ourselves as the Zola, the Dreyfuss, the crusader for truth and fair play.

I'm not sure whether this means we have become better, or just more dishonest.  But certainly one bitter consequence of this cultural evolution has been that intellectuals of all stripes, in order to retain the image of themselves as the unjustly hunted and persecuted ones, must now keep up a constant supply of invented straw men and straw women, whom they endow with ultramundane powers and terrifying omniscience.  This works so well because paranoid scenarios always have an inbuilt plausibility.  That is to say, most of us will err on the side of credulity when our fear buttons are pressed.  Will affirmative action really keep you out of a job or out of college?  Probably not, but isn't it an awful thought, and doesn't it therefore sound almost likely?  Were there really leftwing radicals in the 'Sixties with the power to turn your daughter into a bomb-throwing maniac and then spy on you and try to seduce you by splaying their legs and writhing around on the floor?  Probably not, at least not very many, but Philip Roth portrays them doing this in American Pastoral, and it's really bad, therefore leftwing radicals in the Sixties start to seem really bad.

I'm sure I've been taken in by fear scenarios before and perhaps spun a few myself.  The truth is that there are endless examples of crackpots and assholes and goons to be found among any human group and on any shade of the ideological spectrum.  Assemble enough of them on the opposite end from you of a political question, and suddenly you start to feel as if you are the only person left in the world with any moral courage-- that everyone around you is deliberately blinding themselves to something that only you are willing to see.

How then is one to judge what is a fear scenario and what is not?  Perspective, my friends.

Now, no amount of perspective on the Israel/Gaza conflict should convince us that Hamas is in any way innocent in this-- it certainly is not, and I don't believe there will ever be a just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict until there emerges a liberation movement that is committed to nonviolence as both an ideal and a tactic.  If Krauthammer finds people who wish to say otherwise, or to make excuses for Hamas, he is right to condemn them.

But a sense of perspective can remind us to weigh the claim that the Israeli government is a persecuted underdog against some other considerations.  First among them is that Israel enjoys a decisive military advantage in any conflict with any Palestinian group.  Second is that it continues to enjoy more or less unqualified support from the United States (Yes, this really is the case, Charles Krauthammer.  Just check out the White House spokesman's initial response from July 8th, quoted by Bob Drefuss.  Note how the White House statement just barely flirts with the idea of moral parity, but in the end plumps, as always, for a double standard.)

Who is Zola here? Who is Dreyfuss (Alfred now, not Bob)?  Something tells me that it is not the guy making apologies for Israeli airstrikes on civilian targets.  Something tells me it is not the guy who claims that Israel "goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming the very innocents its enemies use as shields[,]" -- without seeing fit to mention the fifty Palestinian children for whom those lengths have evidently not been "extraordinary" enough.  Something tells me, in short, that Krauthammer's article did not require a great deal of moral courage.  Nor does it display much "moral clarity."


  1. Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic is making similar claims to Krauthammer 's about the motives and actions of Hamas:

    Specifically, he asserts that the civilian casualties in the conflict so far have been due to Hamas' perfidy, rather than to war crimes on the part of the IDF. He writes: "Civilians get killed during the Israeli response in part because Hamas rocket teams operate from sites that are among Gaza's most densely populated, and in part because Hamas stores its weapons in schools and mosques."

    Where is the evidence for this claim? It is true that Hamas has a history of using human shields in past conflicts, as noted above. Also, Amnesty International reported yesterday that the UN had found 20 rockets stashed in a "vacant school."

    But it is quite a leap from acknowledging this to implying that all or most of the civilian casualties in Gaza to date were killed because they were in proximity to a military target. Where is the evidence that they were?

    We have quite a lot of documentation already showing by contrast that civilians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes for no identifiable military purpose, and with no or very little advance warning:

    Where are the stories exculpating Israel's choice of targets? Does any of us believe that Goldberg and Krauthammer wouldn't have cited them already if they had found them? The fact that they cite no concrete instance of this phenomenon suggests to me that they are benefiting from the tendency described in this post: stashing rockets in hospitals sounds horrible enough to seem true, so people believe it.

    I still think that the Israeli response would fail other metrics of humanitarian scruple and international law, even if it could be shown that Israel had only killed civilians due to their proximity to military targets (such as arms stockpiles, rocket sites, etc.) But I have yet to see evidence even for this latter point.

    Meanwhile, we have cases like that of the killing of the al-Hajj family, for which Golderg's explanation completely fails-- an entire family of eight killed at 1 AM in the morning. 20 of their neighbors wounded. Only one of them had an affiliation with Hamas, and the family home was not a base of Qassam operations. As Human Rights Watch opines: "Israel would never accept an argument that any Israeli home of an Israel Defense Force member would be a valid military target."

    There are plenty of other stories like theirs-- and I'm sure we'll be hearing more in the weeks ahead.

    In the meantime, no more crocodile tears for Palestinian civilians, please, from people who aren't willing to entertain the possibility that the IDF might be morally responsible for their deaths.

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  3. Goldberg is not a serious expert on the Middle East, just a propagandistic hack whose "understanding" of every country surrounding Israel only goes so far as understanding what Israel wants from them. He should be ignored -- and unfortunately, because he parrots what people want to hear, he won't be.