Self-Defence, Democracy, and Moral Equivalence

As with the past two Gaza invasions, supporters of Israel have relied upon three central arguments to justify the destruction of Palestinians’ lives and means of life.   None are sound and all need to be publically contested.

The first and most widely deployed argument is that Israel is simply exercising its right to self defence.  This is the most common argument because it is the most plausible, seems to conform to international laws and norms, and involves the fewest number of odious moral implications.  Here is the argument:  Hamas is using Gaza as a base to launch  rockets at Israel.  Israeli cities and civilians are endangered by the rockets.  As a sovereign nation Israel has the right to self-defence.  The right to self-defence includes the right to decide the most efficacious means of self-defence.  Only a ground invasion can ensure the safety of Israeli civilians from Hamas rocket fire.  Therefore, a ground invasion is necessary.

A corollary of this argument relates to the civilian casualties in Gaza.  The corollary asserts that Hamas is responsible for all Palestinian deaths, because Hamas started the conflict.

This argument appears sound because there is in fact a right to self-defence under international law.  There are also norms concerning proportionality, however, which the scope and violence of Israeli operations arguably violate.  However, arguing about the finer points of international law is not the most effective line of criticism, because, as history proves, international law in effect means whatever those with the power to enforce it decide it means.  Hence, we need to expose the problematic assumptions that underlie the right to self-defence argument.

The first assumption is that Hamas is the cause of the conflict.  Hamas is not the cause of the conflict; they are not initiating military operations, they are reacting to an embargo on life goods and the imprisoning of an entire people by Israel.  They have said that their goal is to end the siege of their life space.  No people could reasonably be expected not to resist conditions such as Israel has imposed upon the people of Gaza.  One can debate both the wisdom and the legality of rocket fire into the territory of a militarily superior nation, but it is not possible to plausibly deny that the cause of the rocket fire is the inhuman conditions of life that the Israeli blockade imposes on Gazans.   People are safest when they give their neighbours no cause for violence.  I am much less likely to fight with my neighbour if I do not barricade his driveway.  If I barricade his driveway, beat him up the first time he asks me to remove the blockade, reinforce the blockade with concrete the second time he asks me to remove it, and burn his house down the third time, I could hardly pretend to not be responsible if he should, the fourth time, decide to respond more forcefully towards me.  I might plead self-defence, but really, I am defending myself from the predictable consequences of my own actions.  Hence, because the blockade is the real cause of the violence, and Israeli’s have built and maintained the blockade, they bear ultimate responsibility for the state of war between Gaza and Israel, the self-defence argument fails.  If the blockade were ended (and a comprehensive peace agreement reached) Gazans and all Palestinians could get on with building intrinsically valuable lives in which the energy used to sustain historical enmities and hatreds is sublimated.  Israeli’s too, for that matter.

The second argument is far more problematic, but much loved of Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird.  Baird often argues that Israel  should never be criticized, whether for its military incursions, its apartheid wall, its collective punishments, its detentions, or any other indignity or abuse it decides to heap upon the Palestinians, because it is a democracy.  This argument rests on a category mistake. The category mistake is that Baird uses a political structure as moral justification for life-destructive outcomes (the death of Palestinian children) that would otherwise be judged immoral and criminal.   Democracy is nothing but a form of government, a structure of rule, a way of taking collectively binding decisions.  It is not, in and of itself, a justification for the outcomes of the decisions it takes.  If the mere fact that a decision were taken democratically were sufficient justification for its outcomes, then nothing that a majority supported could ever be morally wrong.   But the justification of political decisions, their moral legitimacy, depends upon the life outcomes for the people affected.  A decision to bomb and shell densely populated areas in full knowledge that there will be innocent civilian casualties is wrong because it knowingly and necessarily destroys innocent life.  That it has popular support does not make it morally correct.  Democracy is a political form, whether it is good or bad depends upon the degree to which those affected by its decisions are enable to lead good human lives.

Two brief addenda.  It is questionable whether Israel can be both a “Jewish state”  and a liberal democracy, at the very least religio-ethnic exclusivity is in tension with the liberal ideal of equal citizenship.  Arab citizens have the same formal rights as Jewish citizens, but how can they be equal in a state that identifies itself as essentially Jewish?   The issue is complex and I leave it to others and to a different time to resolve.  My point is only that the issue of Israeli democracy is more problematic than it might appear.  If the question of Israeli democracy is more complex than it first appears, then the question of Hamas’ political illegitimacy is even moreso.  The Western media typically play down the fact that Hamas was democratically elected in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian parliament.  So maybe it is not true, for either or both of these reasons, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

The final, and by far the most odious and dangerous argument in support of Israel asserts that there is “no moral equivalence” between Israeli deaths from Hamas rocket fire and Palestinian deaths from Israeli  fire.  The only way this argument could be true is if Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives.  Equivalence implies equality of value.  By definition, then, inequivalence (which is what “no moral equivalence” entails) means inequality of value.  Inequality of value means that one of the two poles of comparison is worth more than the other.  If there is no moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli deaths,  then Israeli deaths are worth more, i.e., are morally worse than, Palestinian deaths.  If death is bad because life is good, and some deaths are worse than others,  then, by implication, some lives are better than others.  If the living and the dead are sorted into reified groups  (‘Israeli,’ ‘Palestinian’) and this sorting is mapped onto to the inequivalent valuation, then the conclusion is that Israeli lives are worth more than Palestinian lives.  And that is, quite simply, a repetition of the most odious and inhuman racism that has periodically infected human history.

Let us now put all three arguments together and see the hell to which it leads.  If we accept that a)  Israel has an unlimited right to self-defence, b) whose exercise is legitimated by its being a democracy, and c) is therefore entitled to kill Palestinians whose lives are worth less than Israeli lives, then we are led, logically, to the conclusion that if a majority of Israeli’s so agreed, their right to self-defence would entail the right to destroy the entire Palestinian people (their lives are not worth as much as the lives of Israelis they might kill, the right to self-determination is not constrained by extraneous factors but only the democratic decision of the people of Israel).

Sadly, political discourse in Israel is degenerating towards such conclusion.  An Israeli news outlet reported that Knesset member Ayelet Shaked: “a well-known Israeli politician and parliament member, recently said mothers of all Palestinians should also be killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza. She called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.””

If, as I hope, you reject the exterminist logic implied in Shaked’s comment, or openly asserted in a ruling of Rabbi Dov Lior, reported in Haaretz, that ” “deterrent measures to exterminate the enemy” were allowed by Jewish religious law, then you need to rethink the soundness (should you have been tempted by them) of the 3 arguments above that open the door to it.

5 thoughts on “Self-Defence, Democracy, and Moral Equivalence

  1. This is great, thank you for the breakdown Jeff. I can’t tell you how many times in the last few weeks that I’ve had to address that assumption in the first argument (Hamas is the cause of the conflict) with so many people, both arabs and non-arabs. And it is damn near impossible to try to explain it without being labeled or thought of as a supporter of Hamas.

    In a recent podcast, Sam Harris talked about “why I don’t criticize Israel” (he actually does criticize Israel, though he limits his criticism to the religious claims Israel makes about their divine entitlement to the land). I wasn’t sure what to expect when I listened to his reasoning, however, I found that many of his points fall short of making a coherent, well-informed and structured argument. His thoughts seem to centre around these main points:

    1-Muslims worldwide outnumber Jews
    2-There are more muslim extremists than there are Jewish extremists
    3-Muslim extremists want the complete annihilation of all Jews (appeals to the Charter of Hamas)
    4-Israel is surrounded by people who want to see it destroyed
    5-If the roles were reversed and the power shifted from one side to the other, those extremist muslims would not hesitate to wipe Israel off the map
    6-Therefore Israel is doing what it has to and exercising extreme discretion to accomplish what it needs to.

    There is a little more to his “thinking out loud”, but he fails to take into account many things about the situation, namely, the history of the conflict, the fact that Israel has economic relations with surrounding arab nations (Egypt, Saudi Arabia), and not to mention he pretty much falls back on some version of those three arguments that you have addressed above. Perhaps he should stick to neuroscience…

    Thanks again for the post!
    All the best

    • Ali,
      Great to hear from you, it has been too long, really must get together in Toronto sometime soon. I have little patience for people like Harris, scientific blowhards who promise to solve everything that they claim philosophy has not been able to solve, and yet, when they actually turn their attention to matters philosophical, utter little more than what the ruling authorities require of “public intellectuals” i.e., the official line dressed up as science, with no historical or political analysis whatsoever (there are more Muslim than Jewish extremists– hmm, does that maybe have something to do with the history of colonialism and imperialism? As for debunking the “religious” claim to Israel’s right to the land, really, who cares, as if that helps anything. Does he really think anyone in authority in Israeal really believes in the necessity of biblical sanction for the modern state? I haven’t seen the IDF carting around the Ark of the Covenant. Talk about evading the real issue while pretending to help solve the problem.

  2. “Hamas is not the cause of the conflict; they are not initiating military operations, they are reacting to an embargo on life goods and the imprisoning of an entire people by Israel. They have said that their goal is to end the siege of their life space. No people could reasonably be expected not to resist conditions such as Israel has imposed upon the people of Gaza. One can debate both the wisdom and the legality of rocket fire into the territory of a militarily superior nation, but it is not possible to plausibly deny that the cause of the rocket fire is the inhuman conditions of life that the Israeli blockade imposes on Gazans. ”
    This is what I felt when I read how Gazans were losing their olive and fig trees — so important to them, and that Israel was issuing permits for building large housing developments on their land. With all exits blocked and long processes to go through to go to work on the Israeli side, to buy supplies, etc. — Palestinians were – as a recent cartoon illustrated, prisoners in a huge open air prison. This has to stop.

  3. I see a lot of straw-men being blown down here, but little of real substance.
    But before I start, let me say that I, too, am against the occupation of Gaza and the unlivable conditions. That said, this is not the way to peace, and your points simply pave the way towards more isolationism and violence. More hell.
    Your first point re/ Israel’s right to self-defense: while we may excuse the pent up frustration of the Palestinians, Hamas is leading them down a dangerous road. Violence begets violence and no good can come of kidnapping soldiers or shelling Israel. When Hamas shells Israel it only serves to unite a complex and vigorous population, as the polls prove. But isn’t it within the Palestinians rights to fight? Yes — but the children being shelled never got to make that choice. They are victims of Hamas’ calculus, a strategy they have been upfront about since the beginning. And Hamas itself is not entirely Palestinian in origin; one sees in this conflict the hand of Qatar. So it is not simply the oppressed rising up…and even if it were (and I know I’ll lose you here) it’s a strategy that will fail. It’s failed in the past and it’s failing them now. It may spark interesting Facebook debates, but from a geo-political point of view it’s a disaster. The most recent ceasefire violation did nothing to help. And though you wave away Hamas’ charter as a red-herring, it is a potent document of hatred and deserves scrutiny.
    Given the forces at play, Israel truly does have the right to respond. And even if it didn’t (and I believe it does) — it’s going to anyway — so let’s stop playing with words and acknowledge the jaw-dropping death toll is as close as Hamas will get to victory. Indeed this is part of their plan. Which allows us to ask — is their plan moral? Is it serving a greater good? (Which, I think we agree, is to end the occupation.) I would argue it’s the equivalent of not only beating your head against a wall, but beating other’s heads against walls as well. Even if the wall shouldn’t be there, progress is unlikely.

    Your next point re/democracy isn’t convincing. Israel can and should be criticized — and very few argue otherwise. But given the choice between Hamas and Israel, between a virulent sworn enemy and an obvious strategic ally, are you truly surprised where the democratic super-powers fall? During what amounts to war-time? Please: let’s acknowledge we’re on planet Earth and this is 2014. The truth is, Hamas is anathema to the west, as they should be. And I’ll re-state my point: the Palestinian children who are dying are being used as pawns. To pretend otherwise is to ignore Hamas completely. These kids had no choice. People will argue, yes, but their lives were so miserable they were willing to die. But we don’t know — and we’ll never know — how willing or unwilling they were. We treat them as the “other” when we accept such logic.

    Your third point is one I’ve rarely heard argued. What I have heard, of course, is Israel’s force is disproportionate. To which Israelis argue, we won’t die in order to even out the proportions. I see all of this — this whole argument — as a dead end. In war people die in outrageous, tragic numbers, which is why the shelling was cynical strategy to begin with. And since the death of innocents is part of Hamas’ plan, it’s all too easy for the Israeli population — and indeed, the super-powers – to forgive the IDF. The discovery of tunnels and the violations of ceasefires only provokes Israel more. So yes, it’s outrageous. But it’s an inevitable result — indeed the goal — of the Hamas strategy.

    So how do they end the occupation? This is a complex and worthy topic. I wish people spent more time debating this and less time pretending that Israel a country of psychopaths — or that all Palestinians are terrorists. One-sided analyses like the one you’ve written simply don’t help. As I said, violence begets violence, and no good will come from this. Again, how do we end the occupation? To sum up: not like this.

    • Hi j. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Please forgive the brevity of my response– a lot on my plate right now (and in any case, nothing I say is going to alter facts on the ground at the moment). I will, of course, take what you argue into consideration next time I write on the problems (as well as in my activism around the issues). 1. I agree that Hamas’ strategy is politically and militarily stupid. I waver on the question of its morality (not in the abstract, lobbing rockets is wrong) but in the concrete circumstances Gazans find themselves in. Peaceful methods to break the siege have been tried (remember the flotillas) and have not worked. From the comfort of my study I say– build a peaceful democratic movement. But there have been negotiations, demonstrations etc… and more land swallowed up by settlements. So, what does one do in this circumstance? What is the political morality of military struggle when negotiations have failed? 2. I know Israel is not a nation of psychopaths, I have been there (although in a more hopeful political moment), and to be sure, I do not think that the politics of Hamas vis-a-vis the existence of Israel are either justifiable or historically sound. In earlier posts on this subject I was more critical of Hamas than in this one. However, it is the case, as you say, that violence breeds violence, and also that violence breeds hatred of the other against whom the violence is directed. There are no cases that I can think of (and I include Canada, where I live) where settler regimes do not generate virulent racist attitudes towards those whose lands they control. It is not psychosis, but a settler mentality that is responsible for the Israeli side of the hatred, and that is a problem that Israeli society has to deal with. 3. Democracy. I do not understand why being a democracy makes a moral difference in the calculus of death. I am sure that killing Israeli’s enjoys popular support in Gaza. The number of backers a policy can muster (and this is hardly a strawperson, and you side step in your response) does not determine its morality (or efficacy, for that matter).

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