Movie Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to College

A Review of Richard Linklater’s movie, Boyhood


Howard Adelman

I assure you that this blog was not pre-planned. Last night I went to see Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, with my eldest daughter who was in town from New York. The film had been given its general release two months ago. However, though I heard enough about the film to want to see it, movies had slipped to the periphery of my vision and my thoughts because I spent the summer at the cottage and because I was obsessed with the 2014 Gaza War.

When I got up this morning knowing I would write about the movie, I could not get the words “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” out of my head. I thought the song must have been in the sound track. To my surprise, it was not. The film’s sound track included classics such as Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” and music that could be identified with the twelve years Mason Elvar Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) took to grow up over the period that the film was shot, beginning with the British alternative rock band, Coldplay, and its song from the year 2000, “Yellow”, and the 2000 song, “Hate to Say I Told You So” by the Swedish rock group, The Hives, but nothing even resembling Down by the Riverside is in the soundtrack The film could not incorporate such a utopian gospel song that harked back to the twenties and was a standard folksong we sang in the rebellious sixties.

The film starts, and has been publicized, with the picture of the young Mason lying on his back staring at the stars. But Willie Nixon’s anti-war song, “Down by the Riverside,” is about laying down your sword and shield down by the riverside and trying on your “starry crown” rather than leaving the world of magic and creativity behind in the froth of a Mississippi paddle wheeler. There is no Promised Land at the end of the movie, only living in the moment. In an interview, Ellar Coltrane said at the end of a long soft-spoken digression, “I tend to be very cynical, and something I’m trying to take away from all this is this valuable lesson to just try everything. Now, I just try to appreciate every moment, because reality is happening all the time, whether you’re paying attention or not.” In the final frames of the film, Boyhood, Mason ends up taking still pictures of nostalgic leftovers from the past at a desolate service station beside the road in Texas “as the desert world began to settle down.” Mason Jr. wants to portray the world that has been lost and shows little interest in participating in the world that is coming.

After all, Mason Jr.’s father sold his vintage black Pontiac Firebird GTC that he had promised Mason Jr. when he was a young boy. The father has said that the car would be Mason Jr.’s when he turned sixteen. Mason Sr. (in another brilliant performance by Ethan Hawke) forgot that he made that promise. In any case, why would he give his son a car that he bought for $8,500 and then, instead of depreciating, because he took care of it as a vintage vehicle, he sold it for $22,000? The promise to a young boy could easily be cast aside. Mason Sr. in his irresponsibility was totally insensitive to the pain of his son.

The car itself is virtually a character in the film. When the two children, Samantha and Mason Jr. are still young, their father is driving with them so they can spend time with him one weekend. He asks them about school. “OK.” He asks them about their friends. “Good.” He asks them about whether they are enjoying school. “Yeah.” Mason Sr. veers the car over into the curve, stops and turns to his children. “I am not a father who will put up with one word answers that are an excuse for non-conversation. I want you to tell me what is really happening in your lives,” or words to that effect. He then offers an imaginary riff about their friends, their troubles with their friends and their problems at school, only to be challenged by Mason Jr. who turns the protest against him and says, “But you never tell us about your life. Do you have a girlfriend? What kind of work do you do?”

A dominant motif of the film is about conversation, how people fail to converse directly anymore with their Facebook pages and cell phones. As Linklater has said about his movie, in contrast to that of other filmmakers, there is “the tendency for conversation and communication to move in very different directions. If I may risk a generalization, a lot of young filmmakers are less interested in the expository function of dialogue than in its expressive potential. People in these films don’t talk to advance the story, but rather to provoke and manipulate one another, to fill the silence and pass the time.” Conversation, on the other hand, exists in Linklater’s films, not to offer an histrionic boost to a plot, but to reveal and explore the self and life, to find magic in the small and the large of the very natural world as exemplified in the story Mason Sr. tells about the wonder of a whale.

In contrast to “Down by the Riverside,” Paul McCartney’s song is about being trapped – “If I ever get out of here…,” the very sentiment expressed so movingly by Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an Oscar nominee performance) when, in a very moving scene, she breaks down as Mason, near the end of the film, leaves to go off to college. The movie is as much about Olivia being stuck in failed marriages and the responsibilities of a mother bringing up two children as it is about the coming-of-age of Mason Jr. Though Olivia longs to escape the treadmill she has always been on, she perseveres. With two children and her first failed marriage, she manages to go to college, not to get an education, but to get a better job. She succeeds, becoming a popular community college teacher of psychology only, at the end, to “give it all away”, at least the home and the artifacts she collected to provide a secure home for her two children. For Mason Jr. is going away.

There never really was any fun in her life. Even Mason Sr., Olivia’s first husband and the irresponsible but joyful and playful father of her two children who deserts her and tries to run away to Alaska, returns and surrenders his dream of escape. Throughout his life, he becomes more imprisoned in responsibilities by “the jailer man” as the frustrated musician in him continues to search for “the band on the run.” He ends up in insurance, an actuary, the very job that both Linklater and Hawke’s father had. Ironically, as Linklater stated in an interview, that is how he learned about risk. There is greater risk of failure if you enter an enterprise in a half-hearted way instead of throwing your whole self, mind, body and soul, into a singular project.

This is a movie about arrested development as much as it is a coming-of-age movie. For, as Leslie A. Fiedler so incisively put it in his classic, Love and Death in the American Novel, American fiction repeatedly portrays a society in a period of arrested development. Coldplay sings,

Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
Yeah, they were all yellow

I came along
I wrote a song for you
And all the things you do
And it was called “Yellow”

It’s all yellow. Your skin and bones are yellow according to the lyrics. I have no idea what the intended reference of “yellow” was, but in the movie I associated the colour with the mulatto, Emily West, the Texan version of the Biblical Esther who saves the Jews when she is married off by her uncle to the Persian King, Ahasueurus. West was “The Yellow Rose of Texas” who saved Texas – at least in legend – when she seduced the Mexican President, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, allowing the American Texan forces to win the battle of San Jacinto in 1836 near Houston where most of the film, Boyhood, takes place.

The stars for America are not white or silver, but the yellow of a mulatto, of mixed blood in a film where it is almost impossible to find a person of colour in its full one hundred and sixty-five minute length. The Hives’ 2000 song, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” is an echo of a blog which I wrote called “I told you so,” but which I did not distribute, but self-censored when I failed to observe my own motto that, “I know I’ll tell you because I wanna.” Mason grows up wanting to “turn his back on the rot that’s been planning the plot,” but ends up with the ominous sense that he will grow up to be as trapped as both his mother and father in their very different ways were.

Time moves forward in the film as Mason Jr. goes through the twelve years of primary and secondary school, but although technology moves on and alters, influencing each stage of development so time in marked by those technological breakthroughs. But there are other markers. Politics serve this purpose, such as in the presidential campaign between Obama and McCain. So can literature – hence the reference to the party scene celebrating the release of another volume in the Harry Potter series. The film is really a flowing time sculpture, a series of scenes, each closer to a still photograph than a traditional move plot of decisions and action. For this is a film of understatement rather than histrionics.

In fact, though Mason Jr. grows up in the film and ages from six to eighteen, he basically does not change. He ends up as simply an older version of the six-year-old who responsibly completed his homework, but, instead of handing his assignment in, he crushes the assignment in his backpack. As a six year old, he has an artistic soul. As a six year old, he already refused to be shaped by customary wisdom and norms.

Boyhood is an archetypal American film resonating a constant in American culture of a coming-of-age film in a society that somehow never manages to grow up. The adults, particularly the males, are almost all assholes. Olivia’s second husband is her psychology professor, Bill Welbroack, played by Marco Perella. She marries him and creates a modern merged family, for he has two children of his own. But he reveals himself to be a dictatorial insensitive patriarch, an alcoholic and wife-beater. She flees the marriage with her two children, but abandoning, to the dismay of her own kids, the son and daughter of her ex-professor husband. Mergers are not really mergers after all, only temporary conjunctions for, as Olivia says, her own two flesh-and-blood children are her primary responsibility.

She then marries an ex-soldier, Jim, played by Brad Hawkins (a native of Dallas, Texas himself), who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He too represents the same decaying and rotting patriarchal culture that is best satirized in the scene when Mason Sr. takes the kids to visit his in-laws and his father-in-law presents Mason Jr. with the most inappropriate present for him, a rifle. Olivia may be a wonderful dedicated mother, but she cannot and does not really survive the weight of an imploding patriarchal culture. She has to flee another patriarch who also tries inappropriately to discipline her son. Discipline and hard work get her through life and allow her to manage her responsibilities, but that same discipline when imposed on others by others, almost always men, becomes a tyranny and an expression of gross insensitivity as currently exemplified in the current scandal plaguing the NFL and, in particular, the Minnesota Viking rushing champion, Adrian Peterson, who beat his four-year-old son with a switch, lacerating his thighs and scrotum.

Samantha Elvar, Mason Jr.’s older sister played by Richard Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, is an exemplification of the alter-ego of the archetypal male in American fiction, a brilliant, precocious and dynamic young girl who can act out as a nine-year-old a Britney Spears song and bowl with the best of them, getting strike after strike. At the beginning of the film, she looks like a character who will upstage Mason Jr. However, she grows up to be a character who disappears into the wall paper at the same time as she loses her role as an irritant to her younger brother and transforms into a friend and supporter. Mason begins as an icon of the powerlessness of children whose sense of agency is constantly squelched. He gradually grows up to become overtly indifferent to any adult attempts to restrict him as an individual. He is not so much rebellious as a young man determined to emerge as his own person.

This is not only a movie shot from a child’s perspective, but one which contrasts the suburbs of the city with the wildness and rough beauty of nature. Several scenes in the movie are of camping in the wilderness, from the early scene in which Mason Sr. returns to Texas and takes his son on a camping trip, to a scene in Mason Jr.’s early teenage years when he and his two friends camp out with two seniors in an unfinished renovated house where Mason and his “yellow” friend are invited to drink beer as they endure the insults in the archetypal American ritual of hazing as the older boys, so obviously insecure in their own manhood, belittle the sexual prowess of the younger boys. In the final camping scene, when Mason goes with his new roommate at college, his girlfriend, and another girl, presumably destined to be Mason’s girlfriend, to Big Bend National Park. There, they combine eating mushrooms – at least, that is the drug that they appeared to take – and Mason opines that the only thing in life is to live in the moment. There is no coming-of-age if that means transitioning into adulthood, only the ageless adolescence of American culture with its ideal of irresponsibility and freedom, escape to the wild frontier while its beauty is left only as a backdrop for existential angst.

A.O. Scott, the movie critic of the New York Times, wrote a marvellous essay called “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” published significantly on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11.  In that essay, he took up Leslie Fielder’s theme of America itself as a culture of arrested development that cannot grow beyond adolescence. For a film critic and observer of culture, Scott himself is immersed in the understanding of culture, for his mother, Joan Wallach Scott, was the Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and his father, Donald Scott, was a professor of American history at the City University of New York. A.O. Scott regards Mary McCarthy as America’s equivalent of Simone de Beauvoir. Her book, The Group, is for him the greatest American novel of the twentieth century.

As Scott depicts it, the movie, Boyhood, is an exemplification in the contemporary era of the theme of perpetual adolescence represented in popular culture. It is the era “not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.” All the adult men are both obtuse and obnoxious, though Mason’s irresponsible father is the best of a bad lot. One cannot help leaving the movie, Boyhood, and thinking it should have been called, “All Men Are Assholes.” The masculine insistence on an entitlement to remain adolescents is offset by the fundamental emasculation of the adult men in the movie.  They are overflowing with self-delusion and a misbegotten sense of their own grandeur alluded to in Olivia’s own psychology lecture to her own community college students. These men want respect but they only deserve derision. They portray themselves as competent, but only grow up to be, at best, conformists, or, alternatively, failures. As Scott wrote in reference to a plethora of TV series and movies, “Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”

Was it because America, the dominant producer of culture in our contemporary society, is a republic which took power and displaced its natural parent, King George II, who was both unreasonable and irrational? Was it because America could not name his replacements (note, not replacement in the singular), who wrote America’s declaration of Independence and its Constitution. They do not become Founding Fathers until the 1930s. As Leslie Fiedler wrote, “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall, to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’” This is the underlying theme of Boyhood. It is Huckleberry Finn for the twenty-first century, for it is only Mason Jr. who retains his honesty, integrity and sense of decency throughout. Preserving youthful self-invention has its costs, however, for adults are forced to exist as eternal supporting players in a coming-of-age life story.

So Linklater’s film throws in references to Heraclitus’ dictum that you cannot step into the same stream twice, that everything is in constant flux, and there is no fixed point of reference. And those who posture and pretend there is a fixed world are only the failed remnants of patriarchal falling stars.

Boys have a sense of belonging because of the sacrifice and dedication of their mothers. Mothers provide the warmth. Mothers provide the security. They are the ones who assume the responsibility. But at what cost? There is a loss of a sense of play, a joylessness, a chronic depressed state so that males who retreat to a “fuck-it-all” posture, retain a magic charm. So it is no wonder that men in the movie camp beside rivers to regain their sense of freedom, but no longer follow the lead of Huckleberry Finn and go down the river on a raft or sail the seas on a ship as the Brits used to do.

Linklater was going to call the film Twelve Years, but fearing a confusion with Twelve Years a Slave, he called it Boyhood. He could have called the movie Twelve Years Towards Slavery. That slavery marches step by step in line with progresses in technology that are so explicitly used to mark the passage of time, but this movie is not one about Charlie Chaplin’s working on an assembly line in Modern Times. We live in the electronic and not the mechanical age. As Mason Jr. complains to his girlfriend, she and everyone are glued to their cell phones. His girlfriend finds Mason’s threat to abandon his Facebook page as going beyond his normal angular take on life, which she had always found both attractive and intriguing, but is now a threat to her. We glimpse the first fissure in their relationship.

The movie deservedly has won many prizes including Best Director and the top prize for a film at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Director’s award at both the San Francisco and the Seattle International Film Festivals. In the latter, the film won as best film and Patricia Arquette deservedly won as best actress. But as absolutely marvellous as Boyhood is as a movie, this film by the poet of the everyday is not without some serious flaws. In one scene, Mason Sr. takes Mason Jr. and Samantha to see the parents of his new wife. Mason Sr.’s mother-in-law presents Mason Jr. with a bible. The father-in-law presents him with a vintage rifle. As true as it may be to life in Texas, this scene comes across as just a mocking cliché.

There is another scene in which a former Latino gardener, whom Olivia years earlier advised to get an education, introduces himself to Olivia at a restaurant where she has taken her now adolescent children. The former gardener, now well-dressed and the maître’ d of the restaurant, in flawless English thanks Olivia for the wonderful advice she gave him years ago. The scene is cloying and sentimental. It is a misfit with the dominant theme of the movie. These scenes in a movie that is already very long are totally unnecessary in telling the story and making the main point. They should have been and still should be excised.

But, although every minute of the one hundred and sixty-five minutes was not perfect, two and a half hours were. Linklater should have resisted keeping so much of what he shot over the twelve years he took to make the movie with the same actors portrayed as they grew up. However, what we see is as much as anyone can and should expect. Just when the film is about to slip into the histrionics of most movies at a climatic moment, the film segues into Mason Jr. at a different stage of his life.

This is a masterful movie not to be missed.

Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to War

Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to War


Howard Adelman

In David Grossman’s marvellous, but also exasperating, book, To the End of the Land, the heroine of the book, Ora, is a mother whose son has been called up for duty in the Israeli Defence Forces when a war has just started. Among the many options mothers have of dealing with such a frightening situation, instead of staying at home by the telephone and cancelling all personal pleasures, or keeping herself immersed in busy work, Ora took the path far less travelled. She recruited an old friend and lover, Ofer, to go hiking in the Galilee where, if she were busy hiking and not at home to answer the phone, miraculously the phone would not ring to deliver any bad news. So the reader is taken on a roller coaster ride of emotions and revelations as Ora and Ofer hike and camp in the Galilee hills. This blog is not intended to review the roller coaster ride Ora takes the reader on in northern Israel but rather to compare the son’s experience with that of his mother.

If the response Ora took was unusual, the situation in which she found herself is common in Israel. Lihi Lapid, another Israeli novelist (Woman of Valour), journalist and columnist, posted the following article:

“To Be An Israeli Mom”

To be an Israeli mom is – before you’re even an actual mother, to wait for the ultrasound exam to learn that everything is ok, but when the doctor says “it’s a boy” – to immediately imagine your foetus a soldier in uniform, with road dust in his hair, his rifle hanging on his shoulder and his eyes full of innocence. And to start being afraid.

To be an Israeli mom is to teach your daughter not to show weakness in front of her third grade classmates, because she has to be strong, so she doesn’t fall apart in front of her tough commander at basic training as a rookie soldier.

To be an Israeli mom is to complain about your country quite a bit, but always tell your children it’s the best place in the world.

To be an Israeli mom is to be involved, to “consume” the news like a drug addict, to protest for or against, and always feel responsible for what’s going on here, because it’s yours. It’s your state, and it’s your children that will protect it. And to know that you don’t have the option to be indifferent, not in this country. And sometimes – to agonize that you didn’t protest more.

To be an Israeli mom is to know about the situation no less than the staff sergeant, the commanding officer, and even the Chief of Staff. And if you meet them, to also let them know what YOU think should be done.

To be an Israeli mom is to be scared when the sirens go on, but to remember it’s important that your children don’t stress out, and won’t be afraid, so you take a deep breath and tend to them first, like you couldn’t be more calm and you’re not scared one bit.

To be an Israeli mom who lives by the border, near Lebanon in the north or Gaza in the south, is to be a part of a chain of the wonderful brave Israeli women, for whom guarding their homes is also guarding their country. And to hope this time would be the last.

To be an Israeli mom is to see field-training-uniform hanging on the laundry rope, and know how difficult it is to iron them. And to also know that the mother or father who irons them might shed a small tear which will probably be absorbed into the cloth, without leaving a trace, but which will have come from deep within the heart.

To be an Israeli mom it to not be able to look at the photos of our killed soldiers, and try not to think how they look like your own son. And then look at the photos and think it anyway.

To be an Israeli mom is to see a bereaved mother and feel how you run out of air, feel the sharp pain in your chest. It’s to know that the bereaved mother is not someone else – she is a mom exactly like you. And that it could have been you. And through that to feel you are soul sisters, and hurt with her. To want to hold and hug her, but at the same time to know you will never be able to actually ease her pain, and that there are no words.

To be an Israeli mom is to want one day to be a grandmother too. To be an Israeli grandma is to not to believe that both your grandson and granddaughter are being drafted to the army. After all, you were the one who told grandfather, when he went to war, that by the time you had grandchildren this would end. And to wonder whether it will ever end.

To be an Israeli mom is to know that all you want to give your children is security, and to realize that this is the one thing you cannot actually promise them. And still know for a fact that Israel is the most secure place for your child. (I know this cannot really be explained to anyone who is not an Israeli).

To be an Israeli mom is to want peace, but not be willing to give up safety or security. It’s to go through the current month in Israel and to know that an Israeli mom deserves to grow her children quietly. It’s to also know that one day peace will come.

Because peace is the promise of the Israeli mother.
And she is not the one to give-up.

One reader wrote a response. Here is an extract.

Every word of it describes precisely what we feel every day: Our happy moments along our sad or terrifying moments, the choice we make every day, choosing to live in a place which is homeland on one hand, and the center of a world conflict between 3 religions on the other hand. Looking straightforward into the eyes of a harsh reality forces you again and again, every day, to choose optimism instead of despair, choose hope for peace instead of knowledgeable interpretations about the impossibility of achieving it, choose looking at the beautiful face of humanity and solidarity while ignoring the ugliness of evil and terrorism…The times of Gaza war were very very difficult for A and me, as E participated there intensively. For known reasons I can’t write about it. He was risking his life and all we prayed was that nobody will knock on our door with terrible news. We stayed at home, didn’t want to go out, prayed for this temporary terrible tsunami to skip our house. The burden of our deep worry was very heavy this time. We were sticking to the news, both on T.V. and on the radio praying to hear about cease fire or political negotiations.  At war times I keep saying to myself “no news – good news”.

Mothers go through horror often much more terrifying than their sons or daughters on the military front. The woman who sent me the original article and the response had a son, Aryeh, in the recent Gaza War. She claimed that her husband was much more of a wreck than she was because he had a non-stop stream of news while she had retreated to the cottage and tried to live in a bubble. Though her son had phoned daily when he was mustered to Gaza, after he actually went in when the ground war started, communications were cut. “That was the difficult part, not knowing where he was or when we would hear from him again. We jumped every time the phone rang and slept with our cell phones on and beside us.”

Just nine days before Aryeh and his fellow Israeli troops were the last to withdraw from Gaza, ISIS or the Islamic State blew up a shrine in Mosul with which he shared a name. Aryeh is a young upstanding man whom I have known since he was a baby. He is a man of excellent character and virtue. Yesterday evening I interviewed him.

I asked Aryeh if he saw any similarity between himself and the approximately 100 Canadian volunteers fighting with ISIS. He responded that we all go to serve a cause we believe in. I was surprised at his answer and the additional remark that one man’s terrorist is another man’s crusader and champion, since I radically distinguish terrorists who capture and cut off the heads of Westerners versus Canadian volunteers who go overseas to serve in the Ukrainian or the Israeli armed forces. Of course, he too distinguished the two groups, but he also recognized similarities. For awhile, he did not know whether his volunteering to serve in a foreign army was legal, but subsequently learned that service abroad in the IDF is legal. In contrast, Canadians serving in an organization the Government of Canada has labeled as a terrorist one, including not only ISIS but Hamas, are engaged in illegal Canadian activity. Those individuals are branded as terrorists by the Canadian government.

I asked what training he had in the norms of a just war. I had to explain briefly what those just norms were. He could not recall any lessons and suggested from the instructions of officers, that they had been trained in just war theory because he and his other fellow grunts were taught, for example, never to shoot at a fleeing car except in three cases: 1) men are firing at you from the car; 2) if there has been a kidnapping; 3) he could not recall the third. I suggested that it was perhaps if they had evidence that the car was filled with explosives or if the car was bearing down on you. He could not remember.

For Aryeh, throughout his training, the army almost always appeared as a balagan (chaos but without the texture and feel of the disorder of the original Yiddish or Hebrew). However, once they were engaged in war, the infantry, the engineers, the intelligence units, the tank and artillery units and the dog unit all came together in a marvellously well-oiled machine of coordination and cooperation. Even then, and in spite of all the care taken, some soldiers were killed by friendly fire. He thought the figure was thirteen. When I returned to my desk, I checked. The IDF figures showed five deaths from friendly fire. I was unable to follow up on the discrepancy.

This war had cost the lives of at least five Israeli soldiers from friendly fire, about 8% of the sixty-six military deaths. On the Palestinian side, with equipment much more prone to mishaps and with units working far more independently without the command and control system of the Israeli army, it is estimated that at least 15% of the Hamas and Jihadi militants were killed by friendly fire – as well as far more civilians – or about 40-71 Palestinian militants depending on whether one relies on the Hamas figures of about 600 militant deaths or the Israeli figures of 1068 militants killed.

The first Israeli soldier to die in the Gaza War, 20-year old Eitan Barak serving as a commander in the Nahal brigade, was killed by friendly fire from a tank missile fired by another brigade, the very type of event that Aryeh described that took place near his position. He had been sent with his battalion to the Gaza front two weeks before the ground war started and six days before the actual war started. During those two weeks, the news that the units were going into Gaza or not were reversed many times. However, once his paratroop battalion under the command of the Givati brigade went into Gaza, with an artillery, a tank, an engineering unit, and even a dog unit, the hesitancy and reversals seemed largely to stop until just before the end of the ground war.

However, frustrating reversals did occur. His part of a platoon had taken a position in a house and had filled up special bags with sand to fortify the windows. That same evening, they were told to pack up; they were being withdrawn from there. They emptied the bags and were almost finished cleaning up when they were told the order had been rescinded and they had to refill the bags and fortify their position once again.

Aryeh had not spent all of the 18 days fighting in Gaza. He went in on a Thursday, nine days after the war began with the first troops entering Gaza. After five days, on the following Wednesday morning, his battalion was ordered out of Gaza. By the same evening, they were ordered back in. After another eight days, they left Gaza for some respite, but soon returned to the battle. He himself never found himself engaged in a fire fight. He shot no one and was never shot at. But one soldier in his battalion had been killed. In another incident, a terrorist came out of a tunnel 100-150 metres from his location, shot an RPG at an Israeli tank and another soldier was injured. In his own unit, a soldier was injured by a piece of shrapnel that went right though his leg and another by a sniper bullet that went through his neck, but he survived.

Though Aryeh had been in the war from the very beginning until the very end, the war had not been traumatic for him. Nevertheless, his sense of the contingency of life had become much more acute. Even though the situation was not akin to the action seen in the vast majority of war movies, he still censored what he told his parents sensitive to their fears and what they might imagine. When sent to the front, he told them he was in training. One of the two times he came out of Gaza for rest, his father, who had traveled from Canada, was there and they were able to hug and cry together.

Aryeh was largely engaged in blowing up tunnels with the main focus on tunnels going into Israel rather than the many logistical tunnels within Gaza. The engineers planted the actual explosives that blew up the tunnels. On his cell phone he showed me a picture of a mosque beside which the entrance of a tunnel had been built. He then showed me the picture of the tunnel exploding. The mosque was severely damaged in that explosion. The soldiers themselves had been ordered never to enter the tunnels, so the presumption I had made that the Israeli soldiers needed training in tunnel warfare was wrong. They did not fight in the tunnels. They only located them, traced their route and the engineer company destroyed them.

Near the very end of the war as units were being withdrawn and as the cease-fires were no sooner agreed upon than they fell apart, his unit was engaged in locating and protecting the engineers as they worked to blow up one final  tunnel they had located. When they were ordered to withdraw on 4 August, they felt they had only partially succeeded in totally destroying the last tunnel. But Aryeh felt very proud about the 32 tunnels they did locate and destroy.

Asked about the relatively high cost in military casualties, he said that is why they were in the army. They were there to sacrifice their lives for the protection of civilians. The few Israeli civilians killed (six plus one Thai foreign worker) was a testament to the IDF’s success. Just imagine if the planned attack on Rosh Hashanah of 200 Hamas and jihadi militants through the tunnels into Israel had taken place. Can one imagine how many Israeli civilian deaths there would have been? The soldiers, and the four sniffer dogs that had been killed, about which he felt particularly badly, were necessary sacrifices for the larger cause of protecting Israeli civilians.

Near the very end of the war, just an hour before the final real cease-fire came into effect, on a kibbutz next to Gaza that had been under almost constant code reds, Shahar Melamed, 43, a father of three children, and Zeevik Etzion, 55, a father of five, were outside repairing an electricity line damaged by a mortar attack earlier that day when they came under a barrage of fire from Gaza. Both men were killed.

Aryeh had also been very near the position where three Israeli soldiers had been killed near the end of the war. Initially, his unit had been told that two of them had been captured and kidnapped and then that figure was revised to only one. As it turned out, all three had been killed. But the believed kidnapping of an IDF soldier had triggered Operation Hannibal and his and other units were ordered to leave the work they were doing locating the last tunnel and aggressively ordered to penetrate further into Gaza to isolate the area of the alleged kidnapping.

Aryeh is very proud of what he and his fellow soldiers had done and accomplished in Gaza. He had no doubt that they had won. In the tension between those who believed that too much ordinance had been used and those who believed that the army had been held back and should have finished Hamas off, he sided with the government and thought it struck a reasonable balance between minimizing IDF casualties and destroying Hamas by debilitating Hamas to a very large degree.

Aryeh seemed less aware of the much larger media war in which Israel and Hamas had been engaged. For him, there was no question. Hamas was a terrorist group, perhaps not as bad as Islamic State, but nevertheless a group that ruthlessly, openly and in public killed civilians simply because someone claimed they were collaborators. He thought that the greatest victims of Hamas were the Palestinians they ruled over. He also conceded that the Hamas militants the IDF encountered this time had been much better trained, much better equipped and much more determined and tactical in fighting an urban war.

The most surprising part of the whole discussion was the number of soldiers Aryeh thought had been deployed in Gaza. He asked how many I thought. I replied that the highest figure I had read in an article by a purported expert on the Israeli military was 73,000. I had been very critical of that figure as highly exaggerated and thought the figure was less than 40,000. He said that the Israeli army went in with four battle groups. He knew the numbers in his own battle group and calculated there were 8,000 IDF soldiers who entered Gaza. According to him, at most 10,000 soldiers went into Gaza to fight against 21,000 to 30,000 Palestinian militants. The discrepancy between the 10,000 maximum and my figure of 40,000 may have come from my failure to distinguish between Israelis called up for duty and Israeli soldiers deployed on the ground in Gaza.

When asked about the pain and fear and suffering of his mother while he was in Gaza, he said that he was aware of it and tried to spare her as much worry as possible, but that it was part of the sacrifice of the war. He himself had emerged from the war relatively unscathed and was surprised to learn that I believed that his mother had been more significantly affected and had become more acutely aware of which of her friends offered and were capable of offering empathy and understanding the fears that she went through. Both parents were amazed at the outpouring of love and support from those outside their close circle. That meant so much while they waited to hear news.

I came away from my interview convinced that the parents of the Israeli soldiers in Gaza suffered far more than the soldiers themselves. This is probably the case with parents of Palestinians. The dread may also be akin to the fear and trembling parents experience when their children are suffering or have a severe illness.  Their pain might be even more acute than that of their children.

Canadian cynicism

Canadian cynicism


Howard Adelman

I slept in until 7:15 a.m. Friday morning. Writing a blog after 9:00 a.m., I have decided, is, for me, cruel and unusual punishment. I ought to never again inflict it upon myself. The phone calls, the interruptions, the need to attend to service men and my insurance agent – let alone my lovely wife. It drives you crazy. So why was I so cruel to myself Friday morning? I started the blog and never got even one-third through. This blog may explain why.

On the occasion of Shira Herzog’s tribute evening on Thursday evening, a reader of my blog greeted me and asked me to “lighten up already. War, war and more war – it’s depressing.” So today I will try – at least a little – to lighten up. A warning first. When I wrote my final exams in high school, the English composition exam assigned a piece of creative writing for half the marks. I wrote what I thought was a very funny story. I received a mark of sixty overall. My answers to grammar questions were worth half the mark. Though I do not speak with correct grammar and often do not write according to the rules, I do know the rules and usually received perfect, or close to perfect, marks in grammar tests. As a result, I figured I only received ten out of a possible fifty marks on the creative portion of the exam. Someone clearly did not like my sense of humour. Hence the warning! Also the promise – I will refer to comedians but I will not try to be one. And a second warning. Be cynical. Don’t believe me. I am as incapable as Stephen Harper of lightening up.

Many comedians, and perhaps most of the very famous ones, are contemporary cynics. They look at the follies in the world and, by satirizing behaviour, believe they play a role in correcting much of the nonsense they observe so acutely. Therefore, cynics do not have to be absolutely wedded to a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps they are only pessimistic about those who seek and achieve power. They still may believe in their own powers of amelioration even when they deliberately choose to be outsiders to the power system. Cynicism is central to great satire, but mindblindness may also be at the core of satire, for irony and satire only work if the satirist is unaware of the contradiction between his belief in the effectiveness of his or her comic talents to question and reveal what is wrong with the world and his usually accompanying belief that any assumption of power corrupts.

Much of contemporary comedy, however, is not merely cynical; it is often cruel. Joan Rivers, who recently died, was a partisan not only of the comedy of vulgarity and put-downs, but the comedy of cruelty at its core. In a performance in March of 2011 in Wisconsin, she was on stage and said, “I hate children. The only child I would have ever loved was Helen Keller. She didn’t talk.” A heckler, who had a deaf son, interrupted her, and, in evident protection of civility and sensitivity, as well as his own feelings about what was appropriate to joke about concerning his own child – but, using heckling to make his point, in contradiction to his own position — yelled out: “That’s not funny.” Joan immediately responded with a combination of a string of invectives – “Stupid”, “Idiot,” “Stupid son-on-of-a-bitch,” “Asshole,” and referenced her mother’s deafness and her husband’s loss of his leg about which she had a whole comic routine. She then immediately slipped into a sketch asking, “How do you find Osama bin Laden.” Her answer: “There is only one plug in all of Afghanistan. Follow the cord…” as she re-enacted with her body the quest. She, of course, brought the house down.

The introduction to the sketch above, as a response to a roast evening of herself, was an observation about another comic whom Joan described as a self-pitying woman on the Howard Stern show, “shrying” that, “My father molested me. My father molested me.” Joan Rivers responded: “Take a look at yourself, honey. You should be happy he paid any attention to you at all.” Joan continued: “I saw you backstage naked. You looked like a fucking mudslide.” She told one of the other comics, “You took a shit last week and Rock Hudson came out.” To a Jewish comic she claimed he had debased himself by defiling the evening with vulgarity. “You made me a Jew-hater. You know what I am going to do now? I am going to Malibu and give Mel Gibson a blow job.”

The comedy of cruelty has no boundaries. You may be powerful. You may be absolutely unfortunate. There is no proportionality and no laws of discrimination. Everyone can be and must be a butt of a joke. As great Irish (as well as Newfie) comedy reveals, the misfortunate have often been the best masters of the comedy of cruelty as their appalling stories told with a straight face reveal that laughing at the misfortunes of others allows misfortune to become a common bond. One need only watch Martin McDonagh’s comedy, The Cripple of Inishman or John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

The Torah even has one of the great satires of all time, at once a tall fish tale and a satire at God’s enormous power and at His expense. The greatest part of the satire is that it is included as a sacred text. Further, Jonah is read on the most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur. And, to think, the vast majority of Jews with their great, and often cynical, sense of humour, most often aimed at themselves, take the book of Jonah so seriously they do not get the joke.

All cultures have their satirical streams. Early English literature is certainly replete with satire. One only has to read Chaucer to savour its scatological richness and its ability to scoff at platitudes, unveil hidden presumptions and motivations, and point out the bizarre and contradictory, if sometimes unintended, consequences of our actions. But this is not the comedy of cruelty as we have experienced it since the end of WWI.

For the essence of contemporary comedy is cruelty. The comedy of cruelty is no longer a humorous dissection of illogic and contradiction, but is, as Joan Rivers exemplified, a form of discourse that eschews argument in favour of invective, that tolerates NO argument and no half-measures in its search for the more extreme and the more shocking. The comedy of cruelty is the North American successor to pre-WWII surrealism and its negation without limitation where dream and reality become one and boundaries are dissolved. There just is no independent reality in this worship of subjectivity.

The comedy of cruelty is not subtle and despises gradualism, wit that builds a case by minor step-by-step shifts. That is, as Joan Rivers clearly stated, because the comedy of cruelty requires keeping control of your audience. That comedy is, at its essence, an exhibition of control. Comedy is Spiderman with the broad smile of Batman’s The Joker with the real power of a tarantula who works by stinging and paralyzing his victim after weaving a web of entrapment. The comedy of cruelty is not intended just to satirize power and those in power, but is egalitarian, for it regards all humans as power seekers who need to be ridiculed and laughed at. Contemporary inhumane cynicism stands in stark contrast to the altruism and humane Cynics of the classical world who valued “the natural” and “the natural” that became the ethical.

What does all this have to do with Stephen Harper’s Canada and with Stephen Harper himself? He is not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. It is because the comedy of cruelty is the mirror reflection of those contemporaries who strive for and achieve power, but the corners of the mouths of those who have real power are turned down while the corners of the mouths of our comics are turned up to hide and disguise their core of cruelty. “Say it like it is” and “Say whatever you like without any inhibitions” is supposedly the highest expression of human freedom standing in total opposition to those in power who want to limit and control discourse. But that is only the appearance. The comedy of cruelty is the inverse mirror of a politics that insists upon controlling the message and expressing politics as control. In the politics of control, all political activity is reduced to an individual materialist striving, awarding those who maximize profits the highest pinnacle of reverence in order to deliver power to the few who ostensibly recognize and esteem this ideal when their own vision is not the acquisition of wealth ad infinitum but the acquisition and retention of power.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was a story on a former Finance Minister from Nova Scotia, Graham Steele, who had just written a new book, What I Learned About Politics. Steele was a Rhodes scholar who chose to go into politics with a view to changing the world for the better. He did it as a member of the NDP, which may explain why The Globe saw it as worthy of a front section news story instead of a review in the more specialist and less widely read Arts section. He resigned office when Darrell Dexter, the premier of the province at the time when he was Finance Minister, made a deal with health workers without consulting either him or the caucus. His view of politics, according to the story (I have not read the book), is that public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected. Further, he contended that there was no real difference whether you sat on one side of the house or the other since no legislator deals with the real issues. For him, the contemporary political culture of cynicism is deep, tenacious and pervasive.

In his section on “Rules of the Game,” the first and number one rule is do what you have to do to get re-elected. Since there are no electors in the legislature, spend as little time there as possible; for policy debates are for losers. A second rule, of which Stephen Harper is a past master and Rob Ford was but a buffoonish imitation, is “Keep it simple”. The electorate is too preoccupied and distracted, so communicate with them with slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures and images. “Find whatever works, then repeat it endlessly.” There is no necessity for any slogan to have even the slightest truth value.  Another rule is seek to get credit and seek even harder to avoid blame. Politics is the art of covering your ass. And the final of his ten rules is deny that any of the above are the rules of the game.

I have not read a better summation of contemporary cynicism. It could be and should be funny if it were not so destructive. I was in Ottawa this past week meeting with top governmental officials about implementing a new humanitarian policy, a policy proposal a few of us had written and that the officials had read, absorbed and even reconfigured. In a lunch beforehand of the three authors of the proposal, we asked each other what was the best we could expect. “That they would say that they would implement the proposal.”

They did more than did that. They were much more ambitious. They thought the proposal should be expanded. Further, they had taken its core of business/NGO partnerships in the local community and converted it from a grass roots into a business elite proposal in a program that highlighted “badges of honour” and “branding of businesses” as exemplifications of humanitarianism to enable those businesses to maximize their profits while undertaking a humanitarian mission. What is even more astounding is that we walked away enormously pleased with ourselves because: a) they heard and listened to our criticism of the differences; b) and we were overjoyed at our success.  For all of this is to be done by a government that has squeezed the independent information and knowledge foundation out of our mandarins by closing its libraries and department think tanks, a political regime that has not permitted mandarins to make independent decisions of any significance, and forced them to avoid areas that are politically sensitive. Whereas a decade ago, mandarins were entitled to make policy decisions that were not overarching, today ALL policies, big and small, all budget changes, big and small, have to be processed at the highest political level. The real rationale is to inculcate into the mandarin culture that they are merely the servants of the political class in power and serve that power and not the people of Canada.

We should have cried rather than congratulated ourselves when we left the offices where we had our two meetings. Public servants have been reduced to political servants. How humiliating for such a talented groups of people to have to spend time figuring out how to be devious in order to be innovative. Machiavellianism in its worst sense now permeates the civil service. How impoverishing! How immobilizing to decision-making! The government in power has put a stopper on innovation in the public sector to prove its own mantra that innovation is a virtue of the private sector. So creativity grounds to a stop in the micromanagement of the delivery of public goods and services. It should be no surprise, as an Environics poll showed in June, that trust in the federal government to do a good job has declined by 13% since 2002, from almost half the population to 36%, much lower than the decline in faith in the abilities of either provincial or municipal governments.

Do not get me wrong. I favour business-humanitarian partnerships. But I do not favour confusing and even identifying the two as one and the same. Further, I definitely object to the evisceration of the mandarin class in Ottawa and resent even more the hoops and twists that intellectuals have to go through who work with and try to influence the mandarins and politicians, with excisions and modifications of proposals just to converse with those in power and, worst of all, then congratulate ourselves that our public servants have listened to us at all after we have taken out all the parts that might elicit a negative response.

The Harper government is not like Preston Manning’s vision of a smaller government sensitive and responsive to the words, feelings and thoughts of its citizens. It is a government with a vision of controlling those words, feelings and thoughts, not primarily by draconian measures, but by its deafness. As in Joan River’s comedy, they have made deafness both the butt of the joke and the exemplification of its most essential characteristic. And it is done straight-faced without cracking a smile.

The long form census that is needed to produce the knowledge on which policy could be based was eliminated. So the government has deliberately blinded itself without the excuse of Oedipus that he had unknowingly had sex with his own mother. Decisions which should take two days, take two months. And decisions which should take two months, take six months and a year if they are ever made at all. It is a government in control of discourse that cannot control action and implementation. On its core platform and supposed strength, its strong belief that the primary purpose of the state is to protect its citizens from external threats, the government has been exemplary in its rhetoric and totally porous in its incapacity to deliver.

In July 2007, over seven years ago, based on Conservative policies first unveiled in 2005 in the Conservative Party’s Canada First Plan for Arctic Defence, the Harper government released its defence policy. The government planned to procure six to eight Arctic patrol ships to demonstrate as a state that Canada controls its Arctic waters and the government’s supposed belief in sovereign enforcement. What has the government done? It is engaged in symbolism and indulging Harper’s misuse of and sentimental view of history. The government has found one of the ships from the nineteenth century Franklin expedition. The Harper government has demonstrated it can find sunken ships while, symbolically, it reveals it has a mindset more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century, but its citizens still cannot get a glimpse of those six to eight Arctic patrol boats that were promised so many years ago to be operational by 2010, a date revised and then re-revised promising delivery this year, but which we may not see in 2016 or 2018. And when they appear out of the mists of promises and re-promises, as a report critical of the procurement demonstrated, the ships will lack the speed, strength, stamina or scale to cover the territory assigned and will be unable to deliver any effective defence.

What about the deep-water docking facilities on Baffin Island in Nunavut for these ships that have been lost in the Arctic fog? These have not sunken without a trace, but the existing wharf in Iqaluit in Nunavut, which could allow the new ghost ships to dock, has already sunk two meters since it was built and the government has been unable to find a way to stop the sinking without sinking more funds in the effort to have an Arctic defence port.

Why does the Harper government not form an expedition to locate deep–water docking facilities and the ships to dock at them? And what about the proposed “Arctic National Sensor System”?  One can go on and on – about our attempt to acquire fighter aircraft to replace our aging F-18s, an effort the Harper government muffed even more than the Liberals, but which, ironically, may be of some benefit as drone warfare gradually displaces the role of fighter aircraft except in close air support to ground troops, except that the government persists and has re-launched an effort once again to procure the aircraft.

The defence budget for 2014-15 is only $18.2 billion dollars, down in absolute dollars 15% from 2009-10 and 30% in constant dollars. In the face of increasing threats in the Middle East, on the eastern borders of the Ukraine, Harper can be a loudmouth, as Joan Rivers was, on defence policy, but in reducing defence spending to only 1% of GDP instead of a targeted 2% and the 1.3% we spent in 2009, the government continually displays its incapacity to put its boots on the ground where its mouth is. It is a government of words, not of action.

None of this takes into account what the government takes back on the exit side. For, according to a 2013 study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Department of National Defence, the Harper government since 2006 has returned $9.6 billion dollars it has been unable to spend because this is a government incapable of making timely and expeditious decisions. The reality today – Canada is unable to mount a sustained deployment of troops and all it can do in Iraq is send a few advisers so no one need worry that we will have significant troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

I am not talking about cuts to the Arts, Culture and Research programs at universities or within government. I am not talking about the excision of the Rights and Democracy Institute in Montreal or to Kairos as a humanitarian agency. I am writing about programs supposedly at the core of the Tory agenda, The reality is, and exactly contrary to its discourse, Harper’s government is not a conservative government; it is a demolition government.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s ninety-fifties self-indulgent roman-à-clef, The Mandarins, she depicts the role that she and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Jean Genet played in trying to forge the intellectual foundations of post-war post-Vichy France in the shadow of Hegel’s great misinterpreter, Alexandre Kojève. The latter gave that French intellectual generation its theoretical foundation by displacing Jean Wahl’s focus on the unhappy consciousness in Hegel, the point of view of the comic of cruelty as pure negativity, a vanishing particular who will fight to the very end to celebrate finite and transitory existence without meaning in a world in which God has forsaken humanity altogether. In Jean Wahl, the unhappy consciousness was viewed as the highest achievement of persons who have no sense of historical development. When man truly recognizes his nothingness, he can be raised up to the higher levels of deformed Reason and reformed Spirit as the core of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Kojève insisted instead that the political structures had to be totally rebuilt. With his shift to and emphasis on Lordship and Bondage as the core turning point of Hegel’s great classic, he propounded his misbegotten version that the section was primarily about Masters and Slaves, about those who wielded external power and control over others. The French thinkers à la Marx began to view the structure of society as reflected in individual thought rather than the quest for spiritual freedom in individual thought itself as the source of the problem with the structure of society.

So Arthur Koestler (see David Caesarani’s book on Koestler The Homeless Mind) is represented in de Beauvoir’s book as a fossilized classical Cynic. Nelson Alger (Lewis Brogan in her book), the Chicago writer and love of her life – Sartre was more a matter of  idol worship than a true lover – becomes the romantic ideal that has to be bracketed and sacrificed for her career. Albert Camus, the only really likeable character in Simone de Beauvoir’s volume, is portrayed as a person, not of moral purity concerned with acute personal decision-making, but as an individual who lies about the lead actress in his play (presumably Caligula), either to save the career of the actress or to save the production, or both, we are not sure.

Controlling the message is at the heart of the book and was at the heart of Sartre’s reverence for Stalin implied in his play, Les Mouches, and de Beauvoir’s 1947 ruminations in Pour une morale de l’ambiguité on the necessity and utility of using violence presumably to achieve the freedom which that violence inherently denied. For history, as they all believed, was a slaughter bench upon which the freedom of individuals as well as the happiness of peoples are sacrificed. In de Beauvoir, as in Sartre, freedom is reduced to the proposition that, in the end, each of us is fundamentally alone and singular and there is no self integrally related to community. Perhaps that is why Simone de Beauvoir is rarely if ever seen with a smile on her face in most of her photographs.

Given her portrait of the intellectual mandarin class as the kissing cousins of the civil service and of contemporary Canadian politicians now in power, it should be no surprise that France, since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power, has produced such an impoverished series of leaders, especially in the last forty years since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from the centre-right and François Mitterrand, the fascist posing as a socialist, came to power, only to be succeeded by the three stooges, each more comical than the previous one — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and, the most hilarious of all, François Hollande.

The problem is ubiquitous. In Israel, the Netanyahu government tries to equate Hamas with ISIS, but, as Ha’aretz noted this morning, the Prime Minister of Israel comes off as a used car salesman. The impression is particularly sharpened when a long list of Israeli elite intel unit veterans this past week denounced the use of that intel to persecute innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I formerly saw Obama as one of my few heroes. It was hard to listen to his message, full of superb rhetoric, to Americans this past week. If Netanyahu (as well as Harper) is to Obama a used-car salesman, Obama increasingly comes across as a carnival barker without any real bite.

So I am not suggesting that the Stephen Harper government’s cynicism is unique or extraordinary. It is only special in its grimness for it allows none of the comic relief of the Rob Ford farcical attempt at governance. I believe the Mandarin intellectual class of France that reached such stellar heights in the post-WWII period and spread their message of post-war disillusion to their successors and to the rest of the world, has served as an intellectual Ebola virus that now permeates all governing classes and those who try to influence public policy. Unfortunately, I recognize now how infected I am. I now comprehend the meaning of a question I avoided for years, the one Iris Murdoch asked in the philosophical journal, Mind, a long time ago, “How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?”

In the contemporary world, we are condemned to walk around with intellectual oxygen breathing machines. If I were truly an idealist and a visionary, I would be able to communicate how you can choose optimism over despair, faith in peace against the reality of the incompatibility of the warring or even peaceful belligerents, to love humanity as my friend Sister Jo Leddy manages to do in the face of terrorism and the inhumanity of man especially to women. Further, if I were a contemporary cynic, I would have been able to make this blog funny.

My apologies, but only after you have read my older blog on apologetics.

Shira Herzog, Cynic

Shira Herzog, Cynic


Howard Adelman

One of the difficulties of writing a blog in the early morning hours is that I write at an hour that Windows chooses to take over your computer to reconfigure and update windows automatically. A nice service, but it wipes out what you have been writing. I write fast so I do not save as I go along and, if fifteen minutes have not passed, I lose everything for the past fifteen minutes when windows goes to work on my computer. I vow to reprogram the computer so that everything is saved every five minutes, but I have never managed to figure out how to do that, or most other clever things a computer can do.  Further, recovery only seems to work if I have saved the file already. So this first page is the second version of my blog rather than the original version that I send out with all its errors and typos.

Last night at the Donalda Club in Toronto I attended a tribute evening in honour of Shira Herzog with the proceeds to go to the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), a fund which was represented on the program by Joan Garson, its Canadian national chair, and by a recorded video and written tribute by Rachel Liel, Executive Director of NIF. A number of friends said that they would feel uncomfortable attending a tribute dinner to honour someone when the person was no longer alive; the evening should have been renamed a memorial tribute.

In fact, Shira was present. She had set the agenda, not just the overall agenda, but the details of what was to be said and when. And also what was to be sung. As Aviva Chernick said when she introduced the last song of the trio she sang near the end of the program, it was a song Shira asked her to sing but she had first declined since she had not yet worked it into her repertoire. But she had changed her mind and sang with the music on a lectern – not exactly her usual style. The song was taken from the words of a Jewish mystic at the time of the first century. Not only was the song beautiful and haunting, not only was it sung in the unique style of an outstanding Ladino/Spanish singer whose two previous songs for the evening came from those two sides of her repertoire, but this final song made Shira’s presence all the more acute because Shira’s controlling hand was at the till even after her death. The song chosen allowed her to be fully present.

So fears of the evening being uncomfortable because Shira had passed away and would not be at a dinner honouring her were mistaken because she was there. Her voice was there as, in part of the program, a recorded tribute to the National Israel Fund by Shira was played in which Shira described how the fund was born at the same time as she entered the philanthropy field in the mid-eighties with the Kahanoff Foundation. She described the philosophy she had adopted and, in partnership with the NIFC, had introduced into Israel of using charity to enable people to stand on their own feet rather than to receive hand outs. Shira was there in the slide show, “A Life Well-Lived”, in pictures of Shira’s aristocratic Jewish family, for her grandfather had been chief rabbi of Ireland (we visited his small home in Dublin in June), her uncle had been the President of Israel and her father had been the first ambassador to Canada.

Shira had a commanding presence that was not very evident in the pictures of her as a baby, as a young girl and as an awkward teenager. But as those pictures progressed through her life and showed her – often smiling though her projects and philosophy of life always remained serious – as a strong commanding presence as she consorted with the mighty titans of Israel and on the international stage. She grew in stature and the aura she gave off. And, as her cousin, the Honourable Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog said in his tribute speech to Shira, it was because her roots were so steeply based on love of family. So the slide show of her life ended appropriately with pictures of her with her son, Kobi, his wife, Shelby, and Shira’s two grandchildren, Olivia and Ethan. She beamed with sheer joy and happiness as basically someone who, in the end, was a mother and a savta at heart.

And heart was the central image of a tribute movie sent from Israel of people who threw around a balloon heart from one to another representing the wide range of causes in which she had been involved, from equal rights for Arab academics to Bedouin women and Ethiopian immigrants and, in the last slide, young children who represented the future of Israel. Shira, with all her management skills and micromanagement to the finest details of what she accomplished, always brought heart to an enterprise, a compassion for the underdog married with a strategic sense of how to make the world a better place.

Whether it was the Consul General of Israel, D.J. Schneeweis quoting from the Torah in an Australian-accented Hebrew and complementing Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl’s very secular tribute, even though Shira in her last years had returned to her grandfather’s love of Torah scripture as she studied with Rabbi Friedman-Kohl, everyone spoke to the same characteristics and virtues Shira exhibited in her life. She did so always with more than just a trace of Jewish mysticism, Though the highlight of the evening was the long and very personal tribute of Shira’s cousin, “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the Opposition in the Israeli Knesset, the message that ran through the evening was that realistic strategic planning, private and public partnerships, could be and should be married to a sense of justice and enhancing the lives and experience of those in need. Hence D.J. commentary on the Torah portion for the week Shira died on “Justice, Justice”.

The four themes of the evening – family, social justice, politics and communication – were all in evidence. Re the latter, Shira had been very active in the Canada Israel Committee, more as an educator than a lobbyist, had written a regular column in both The Canadian Jewish News and The Globe and Mail, had co-hosted with myself the weekly television program on CTS called Israel Today for eleven of its twelve years. She was a popular public speaker and analyst of Israel and of Canada-Israel relations. As Bougie acknowledged, with gratitude, but also with an ironic smile, Stephen Harper was a strong and steadfast friend of Israel, but, as we all also know, Shira was not a strong sympathizer of Harper’s sense of social justice.

The tone of the evening was set by Florence Minz, who was chosen from among Shira’s close group of friends, or her Council as she called them, a group of outstanding women in their own careers. In agreeing to chair, Florence brought her own extensive honours to the evening in which she modestly acknowledged she herself was honoured that Shira had chosen her. Florence might be a member of the Stratford Festival Board, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Nature, a director and former chair on the Board of the Royal Conservatory of Music since 1999, a former director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a member of the board of Opera Atelier, but her most outstanding contributions have been in the health field rather than her extensive involvement in the cultural life of Canada. For she has been chair and a director of the Board of Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a director of St. Michael’s Hospital, a director and former President of Oolagen Community Services, a member of the Fraser Mustard Task Force, more formally known as the Mustard/McCain Early Years Task Force for Ontario. All this has been the cap to her earlier career as an economic consultant and real estate developer. Most of Shira’s close friends had similar stellar lists of accomplishments.

What characterized them, and what characterized Shira, is that they are all dreamers who are also doers. They think and then they implement. They are visionaries and also strategic thinkers. They are, as Shira was, idealists who are also realists. That outlook stands in such strong contrast to many of the cynics involved in the quest for power and in politics.

A cynic in modern popular parlance is a person who believes that everyone is motivated by self-interest and they distrust anyone who claims they are not primarily motivated by such a force. These women were and are a testament to the falsity of that modern universal claim. For they are true Cynics in the Greek sense dedicated to “doggedness” – the literal meaning of “cynic” in Greek. The ancient Greek school of Cynicism founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, was taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium in Athens. That Cynicism stands in sharp contrast to modern cynicism – without the capital.

Shira, ironically given the modern use of the term, could be characterized as a Cynic in the Greek sense who believed in living in complete harmony with nature, but it was not a nature driven by an individualist tooth-and-claw existence. She was, for a long period of her life and to the very end, devoted to the exercises (and philosophy to some extent) of the German-born (1883) Joseph Pilates who espoused naturopathy or natural healing to deal with the realization and fulfillment of the whole human being. That is why when she was given a death sentence of 3-6 months six years ago, she fought it with self-healing as well as with chemotherapy. This may explain why she outlived all the prognostications of her doctors.

Of course, wearing a constant breathing machine in her final years may seem at odds with Pilates’ belief that bad health was often due to bad posture and inefficient breathing. Pilates was an advocate of balance – of body, mind and spirit – but rooted in physical balance that combined coordination with strength and flexibility, all virtues that Shira exhibited in all of her initiatives and tried to reinforce by her dedication to her mat exercises known as “Contrology”. Her mat would accompany her on her many travels and those exercises always invigorated rather than tired her.

In that sense, Shira may have been dedicated to Israel and her Judaism, but she was also married to the tradition of the Greek Cynics. Cynics are not cynics. Happiness – eudemonia in Greek philosophy – in this school of thought is a product of discipline and rigorous training. It also entailed a rejection of any desire for wealth or power, or achieving happiness only through sensual gratification or fame. Those goals as dominating pursuits detracted from living in harmony with nature. In other words, the beliefs of the Greek Cynics were directly opposed to the inversion of modern cynicism. In fact, Cynicism developed into a secular religion of asceticism that had a powerful effect on early Christianity. As it developed, Cynicism became a parody of itself with Diogenes famously living in the streets in his bathtub.

What Shira exhibited, an every one of the speakers noted, and what I directly observed when working with Shira on the show, Israel Today, was her absolute clarity and lucidity, not characteristics I always exhibit myself. Though sometimes a bit vain, she was totally averse to being conceited and always dedicated to being serious, even about sensual pleasures, and totally opposed to folly. She was modest even though hyper-rational because she knew that deformed reason could result in false judgements with enormous negative consequences. Most of all, unlike modern cynics, the ancient Cynics believed in self-sufficiency but through dedication to all of humanity. The ancient Cynics were early cosmopolitans.

Shira’s Cynicism was of the early Greek variety and she eschewed its deterioration into a cult of asceticism and total disregard for the laws, norms, customs and social conventions. Shira respected conventions except if they imprisoned her mind and prevented her from “thinking outside the box”.  Shira was totally opposed to modern cynicism.

Shira in her life was a shooting star.

X: Reconciling Strategy and Just War Norms

X: Reconciling Strategy and Just War Norms


Howard Adelman

Some military strategies are much more compatible with international just war norms than others. Some are totally incompatible. Thus, in Iraq and Afghanistan, an application of strategy that makes the battle for the hearts and minds of a population rather than one which regards the whole population as potential enemies is almost bound to be more sensitive to just war norms, at least for the dominant power. However, even a war based on the belief that the enemy population must itself be demoralized and force must be used to destroy support for its leadership, but which purports to follow just war norms, is not a strategy of “total war” in which a dominant power simply blasts a civilian population to smithereens. The latter is totally incompatible with the application of just war norms.

An insurrectionary military group, such as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (to be distinguished from the ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis), or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is not the same as Hamas. When Ramadan began, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced that henceforth the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would be known as the caliph and ISIS itself would be just the Islamic State. The Islamic State, which fights by directly exterminating civilian populations of those it regards as heretics, is not to be equated with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is not an advocate of “total war” from an insurrectionist perspective. Yet it is quite willing to reign rockets on the civilian population of Israel, but does not advocate the extermination of Israelis as heretics. The Hamas military arm is not even made up of Jihadists even though Hamas and Islamic Jihad often collaborated in the war against Israel.

But Hamas may be more dangerous than ISIS when the hearts and minds of Westerners enter the equation. After all, Hamas won in a fair election and has a degree of political legitimacy. Though Hamas has murdered alleged collaborators and even Fatah lackeys when Hamas first took power, it has not targeted uninvolved civilians for slaughter. ISIS cannot even get along with other terror groups like al-Qaeda or the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front. In contrast, Hamas has agreed to enter a coalition government with the Palestinian Authority without even getting any cabinet posts.

Whereas ISIS is fighting a bloody media war to gain recruits and conquer more territory and economic assets to become self-sustaining, the Hamas media war is aimed at the hearts and minds of Europeans and Arab states to gain support and help escape its economic isolation and its severely restricted geographical area. Hamas is an economic basket case with its society largely funded by external, including Western, donors, not an economically rich terrorist machine expanding its territory and sources of economic exploitation. Hamas is fighting a media war to win the hearts and minds of Europeans. Hamas has been able, in part, to rule for seven years because of Western “humanitarian” aid and Western human rights protesters opposed to the blockade, at least the blockade imposed by Israel.

The difference between the two organizations is best illustrated by the UN political attacks against Israel for firing rockets in its own self-defence against Hamas and Gaza while the UN largely silently cheers when a country like the US, which is not directly threatened by ISIS, uses drones and Western fighter jets to shoot up trucks loaded with armed jihadists as they cross the desert of Iraq. The UN even pays for the education of almost half the citizens of Gaza, openly criticizes Israel, and acts as an apologist for Hamas even though its schools are used not only to house refugees but to store rockets.

The most common thread connecting Hamas and ISIS is not the Muslim religion (which is so variable in the interpretations of its texts), but the reliance of each organization on the twin legs of militancy and martyrdom. Both are used to restore and enhance each organization’s popularity. Both are children of the modern age of communications. ISIS may broadcast its beheadings and Hamas may hide its kangaroo justice, but the reason in each case is the same – to selectively use different types of militancy to defend and advance their respective positions in the Muslim and then the larger world.

The most significant difference is that Hamas is embedded in a dense civilian population; ISIS is not. The main strike force used by Hamas was not its rockets but its military units on the ground who fought soldiers of the IDF. However, the question in whether they used “human shields”, that is embedded themselves so deeply in the civilian population and in such various ways that it became very difficult if not impossible for their enemies to fight them without killing civilians either in total error, as when significant numbers of civilians were in a location where there were no militants nearby and Israel could not offer a strategic reason for targeting that locale, or because a belligerent was close by without the knowledge of the Gaza civilians and sometimes without the IDF knowing that civilians were close by. However, sometimes civilians were coerced or induced or even cooperated to host militants, in which case is the civilian complicit and therefore subject to being attacked by the IDF? In each of these different cases, the ethical criticism of Israel would be quite different as would be the application of the norms by which the action is judged.

In the case of the air war, the rockets and mortars shot off by Hamas had no guidance systems so could not be used unless civilian targets were acceptable. Even if Hamas wanted to discriminate between Israeli civilians and military units, it was unable to do so without totally disabling its storehouse of rockets. If the types of weapons available to fight an air war are such that they, by their very nature, cannot discriminate between civilians and militants, does that make what Hamas does automatically a war crime. However, if, in actual practice, those rockets and mortars kill and maim relatively few civilians, if, in fact, one application of just war theory would lead to the total immobilization of Hamas’ air weapons – its rockets and mortars – does the imperative of Hamas to use the weapons trump concerns about discriminating between civilian and military targets? The very fact that we can ask this question means that Hamas is not outside the bounds of international humanitarian law and is accountable under that law. Hamas, to repeat, is not an extremist warrior jihadist group indifferent to moral and legal norms.

Both the Israeli government and Hamas fought a war in which each side was governed by just war norms. Both sides targeted civilian buildings, but there seemed to be no intention on either side of using its military hardware and firepower to wantonly kill civilians on the other side in spite of what Israel has said about Hamas or what Hamas has claimed about Israel. As Benny Morris described with respect to the latter, Israel demonstrated “no willingness to exact a heavy price in blood from the enemy’s civilians.” Nevertheless, Israel was willing to tolerate more collateral damage to civilian targets and to civilians than would otherwise have been the case if Israel had adopted a strategy of trying to win the hearts and minds of Gazans. Hamas was willing to adopt military weapons that landed on civilian targets and maimed and wounded civilians on the ground when faced with the alternative of being almost totally defanged

The problem of applying just war norms in an impartial and detached manner is much more difficult when a war strategy includes civilian demoralization as part of its strategy versus a war that tries to win over a population and alienate it from its leaders. Nevertheless, unless a more forceful response was the dominant strategy, it is unlikely we would be concerned very much about just war norms. For the norms of discrimination between civilians and militants and the principles of proportionality would be much more scrupulously followed.

This means that, in the Gaza War, just war norms can be applied since there is no a priori way of condemning either side. On the other hand, on each side there are bound to be cases where it is crucial to look into whether the norms of discrimination between civilians and militants and of proportionality were attended to properly in the conduct of the war.  However, it is first necessary to understand whether the war was just in the first place.

In the case of Israel, the answer is fairly easy — unless one already has a built-in prejudice in one’s approach to the Zionist state. The 2014 Gaza War was clearly and unequivocally a war of national defence against a party reigning rockets down on its civilian population. This is true even if Israel might have provoked the war by rounding up Hamas operatives in the West Bank after the killing of three teenage Yeshiva boys by Hamas operatives, either as a rogue operation or one under the direct control of Hamas. What makes the Hamas position problematic is that its ultimate aim is to exterminate Zionism and destroy the product of the self-determination of the Jewish people. If Olmert had not imposed a blockade when Hamas came to power, the aggressive intent of Hamas would have been clearer. But Israel would have won a moral battle in international eyes but at the cost of a much stronger, better armed and more militant Hamas. Israel is unwilling to bet on Hamas becoming moderate in order to legitimate itself when, if Israel loses the bet, its very existence is put at risk.

Nevertheless, the existential threat to Israel does not permit Israel to engage in total war against the civilian population of Gaza. And it does not do so and has not done so. But Israel has chosen to ignore the hearts and minds of Gazans and to win each battle by diminishing its military capacity and enhancing the fear of Israeli reprisals. As a result of adopting such an approach, Israel is more tolerant of collateral damage than it would be otherwise, and many more civilians in Gaza were maimed and killed than if the alternative strategy were adopted. But unless one is a Rousseauian purist with human rights trumping everything, just war norms are not there to determine strategy but to determine whether the execution of that strategy falls within just war norms.

In some cases, the implementation of the strategy may not have conformed with just war standards. In general, Israel clearly went out of its way to spare the lives of civilians, once the caveat is accepted that it adopted a more militant strategy than an opposing strategy which would have encouraged more attention and consideration of just war norms. This does not mean Israel in its militancy abused just war norms. There may indeed be instances where Israel was careless or indifferent to the civilian collateral damage. That has to be ascertained by gathering case-by-case evidence and cannot be accomplished by a priori begging the question.  

Hamas has to be judged by the same norms and within the context of the strategy it chose to adopt. It could have, and I think it should have, adopted the path of peace that Fatah eventually adopted to seek a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the strategy it did adopt neither put it outside the application of just war norms nor allows independent judges to determine in advance that Hamas was guilty of criminal activity. Given the choices it faced and the military means at hand, could the killing of civilians be seen as collateral damage? However, if Hamas can be shown to have been complicit in the killing of the three Yeshiva students, that was a criminal act and should be seen as such. So probably was the kangaroo justice meted out to alleged collaborators. But given the context, the fact that either side chose to deal with the situation by a more militant strategy than I personally saw as imprudent and unnecessary does not mean either side broke the norms of just war.

I recognize that I am interpreting the application of just war norms from a contextual or Grotian perspective and not an absolutist Kantian perspective that makes human rights the absolute ruler in applying international norms to the exclusion of any real genuine concern with military strategy. The Kantian or deontological approach has become the reigning doctrine in human rights organizations and for international legal experts and philosophers, but it is not the dominant outlook for teaching the application of just war norms in military colleges. For obvious reasons. Military colleges are there to teach people how to win wars and to do so with sensitivity and consideration of just war norms. They are not there to prevent armies from adopting strategies and methods which might lead them to lose.

On a personal note, it is relatively easy to combat the realists who would totally ignore and subvert just war norms, and the moralists who also subvert just war norms by trying to use them to rule out war but in the end merely support the weaker party in a conflict and, thereby, indirectly contribute to the civilian death toll. What is really difficult is trying to uphold just war norms in the face of more militant strategies, whether employed by the Israeli government or by Hamas, but applying those norms in as impartial and objective way as possible.

Part IX: Application of Just War Norms to the Gaza War

Part IX: Application of Just War Norms to the Gaza War


Howard Adelman

On 23 July, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations set up the Schabas Commission (A/HRC/RES S-21/1 which can be found at A-HRC-S-212-I_en-1(1).doc) The resolution was not set up just to look into the possibility of war crimes committed in the conduct of the 2014 Fifty Day Gaza War between Hamas and Israel. The war would not end for another month. The Report was entitled, “Ensuring respect for international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.

Though Bill Schabas insisted to me that the preamble was just UN boilerplate, the mandate clearly biases the inquiry in at least four ways:
a) presuming that Gaza is occupied by Israel – the preamble explicitly emphasized “the obligations of Israel as the occupying Power to ensure the welfare and safety of the Palestinian civilian population under its occupation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip (my italics), and noting Israel’s wilful abdication and rejection of its obligations in this regard;
b) inclusion of the West Bank and East Jerusalem where no war took place;
c) exclusion of Israel where thousands of rockets fired from Gaza landed;
d) a clear lack of balance between the overwhelming focus on Israeli actions and the few sideline references to actions of Hamas in Gaza without once mentioning Hamas.

But clashes did take place over the war in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On Thursday evening, 24 July, just after the Inquiry Commission was set up, protests took place in East Jerusalem. 20 protesters were arrested for throwing rocks. The Border Police prevented men over 50 years of age from attending the al-Aqsa Mosque just as Ramadan was ending.

In addition, there were a number of protests in the West Bank where Palestinian civilians were killed. On Saturday 26 July, one of the last days of Ramadan, Eid Fdilat from the al-Aroub camp near Hebron and 14-year-old Nasri Mahmoud in Beit Faijar near Bethlehem, who were killed in clashes the day before, were buried. In Beit Omar, two men aged 27 and 47 were killed in protests. In Hawara south of Nablus, two young men aged 21 and 22 were killed. In total, 10 Palestinians were killed and 200 wounded in those Friday protests following prayers in which protesters threw both rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and, according to Israel, even used live ammunition. Fearing a third intifada and determined to suppress it at once, Israeli Border Police fired stun grenades, and both rubber and live bullets at the protesters.

The main catalyst for the protests was the killing by an Israeli missile on Thursday 24 July of at least 10 civilians who had taken shelter along with 3,000 other Gazans in an UNRWA facility as described in an earlier blog, though, as I said there, the depiction has been challenged as a staged event following a misfired Hamas rocket but with only prima facie evidence and insufficient proof.

This time it was not only mullahs giving sermons in mosques that had stirred up the protests in a “day of anger” against the almost 1,000 Gazans (BBC reported 800) killed in the Gaza War in just over two weeks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heretofore had been silent and acquiescent concerning Israel’s reprisals, first against Hamas in the West Bank and then against Gaza, now called for demonstrations, demonstrations which were organized mainly by Hamas supporters if the number of Hamas flags held up in the protests offered any indication.

However, the commission covering the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Gaza was set up before the clashes and deaths of Palestinians in the West Bank. Further, these killings were not part of just war international law but only human rights law. The effect, at the very least, explicitly conjoined human rights and international just war law into a single inquiry. The preamble to the inquiry affirmed “the applicability of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.”

However, one clause in the preamble could have referred to Hamas behaviour in Gaza – the reference to the fact that “the deliberate targeting of civilians and other protected persons and the perpetration of systematic, flagrant and widespread violations of applicable international humanitarian law and international human rights law in situations of armed conflict constitute grave breaches and a threat to international peace and security.” However, the clause immediately following referred only to Israel; Hamas is never explicitly mentioned.

Deploring the massive Israeli military operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, since 13 June 2014, which have involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks and resulted in grave violations of the human rights of the Palestinian civilian population, including through the most recent Israeli military assault on the occupied Gaza Strip, the latest in a series of military aggressions by Israel, and actions of mass closure, mass arrest and the killing of civilians in the occupied West Bank.

It would appear that the Human Rights Council had already prejudged the outcome of an inquiry by pronouncing in advance that Israeli actions in the Gaza War were disproportionate in its use of firepower and did not properly discriminate between militants and civilians. If the preamble indicated bias, the singular focus on Israel in the mandate clauses pulled no punches. The Human Rights Council in its 23rd of July resolution in its second clause,

2. Condemns in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014, particularly the latest Israeli military assault on the occupied Gaza Strip, by air, land and sea, which has involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks, including aerial bombardment of civilian areas, the targeting of civilians and civilian properties in collective punishment contrary to international law, and other actions, including the targeting of medical and humanitarian personnel, that may amount to international crimes, directly resulting in the killing of more than 650 Palestinians, most of them civilians and more than 170 of whom are children, the injury of more than 4,000 people and the wanton destruction of homes, vital infrastructure and public properties;
The prejudgement in advance of the inquiry and in setting up the inquiry is as explicit as one could make it. It is as if a trial of an alleged criminal began with the explicit condemnation of guilt not just by the prosecutor but by the court. The UNHRC assumes its role to be one of prosecutor, judge and jury rolled into one entitled to draw conclusions of guilt before a truly independent investigation had been held and certainly before any trial.

The mandate may appear to be balanced when the next clause condemned “all violence against civilians wherever it occurs, including the killing of two Israeli civilians as a result of rocket fire.” But the mandate no sooner makes this brief and indirect reference to Hamas rocket fire than it implicitly restricts the inquiry to the very few situations in which civilians in Israel were killed. The mandate takes away even an appearance of balance by immediately subsuming Hamas’ actions within the same clause by referring to the obligations of “all parties” concerned to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Another clause of the preamble reaffirmed the findings of the Goldstone Commission and placed this new inquiry clearly as a continuation of that previous one, especially in the context of the Commission making statements on the Gaza War that Israel was deliberately targeting civilians, in spite of Goldstone’s own retraction of that finding..
Gravely concerned at the lack of implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict of 2009, and convinced that lack of accountability for violations of international law reinforces a culture of impunity, leading to a recurrence of violations and seriously endangering the maintenance of international peace,
The preamble even made reference to Israel’s construction of the security barrier and the Council’s conclusion that this was a violation of human rights. For the Human Rights Council, “systemic impunity for international law violations has created a justice crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory that warrants action, including accountability for international crimes.”

The mandate does not call for a cessation of rocket fire from Gaza but does call for “an immediate cessation of Israeli military assaults throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and an end to attacks against all civilians, including Israeli civilians.” Clause 6 of the mandate explicitly “Demands that Israel, the occupying Power (my italics), immediately and fully end its illegal closure of the occupied Gaza Strip, which in itself amounts to collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population, including through the immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of the crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from the Gaza Strip, in compliance with its obligations under international humanitarian law.” Of course, this was precisely the objective of Hamas in initiating the war. One would never have a clue that humanitarian aid continued to flow across the crossing points into Gaza throughout the war or that Egypt had closed the crossing into Rafah completely.

There is no reference to the three Israeli Yeshiva teenagers abducted and murdered, but the mandate does explicitly refer to the murder of one Palestinian boy by extremist Jewish thugs, for the mandate “Expresses grave concern at the rising number of incidents of violence, destruction, harassment, provocation and incitement by extremist Israeli settlers illegally transferred to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, against Palestinian civilians, including children, and their properties, and condemns in the strongest terms the resulting perpetration of hate crimes.”

If the mandate was really serious about investigating the use of civilians, it would not only call on Israel to protect civilians as much as possible, but would call on Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, to ensure civilian protection. The mandate explicitly ignores this fact and makes no reference to the possible use by Hamas of “human shields”.

So when the Human Rights Council

Decides to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, whether before, during or after, to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and to identify those responsible, to make recommendations, in particular on accountability measures, all with a view to avoiding and ending impunity and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable, and on ways and means to protect civilians against any further assaults, and to report to the Council at its twenty-eighth session;
one can only sigh and despair at the total surrender of principles of neutrality and impartiality. One can only raise one’s eyebrows in wonder at the use of the word “independent” when the commission of inquiry is to operate under the auspices of the Human Rights Council and to be conducted by individuals appointed by the President of the Council.

When the only party to vote against this overtly totally biased and disreputable resolution was the United States, and when pusillanimous states, such as Austria, Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Korea, only abstained along with a few other small countries, it is little wonder that Israel has virtually no trust in the procedures of the UN. When the countries supporting the resolution and ensuring its majority include Algeria, Cuba, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, one has to ask how and why Bill Schabas would accept such an appointment. The mandate and the process exceed any decent norms of fairness. Why Latin American countries — such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica — also supported such a resolution has to be of concern to Israel and those who believe in a UN run as much as possible, especially in the area of human rights, on as impartial a basis as possible.

The appointment of Bill Schabas to head the commission also has to be regarded as a serious disappointment, He is certainly an excellent scholar and expert on international law, but when it comes to Israel, he had already pronounced on the illegality of Israeli actions in Gaza. He should have recused himself as a scholar given our commitment, however imperfectly, to the academic values of impartiality, objectivity, detachment, disinterestedness and open-mindedness, especially when charged with an inquiry into such a contentious area. Now it is clear that there can be no objectivity in an absolute sense since objectivity is itself a value commitment and is to be understood against a background that defines and enjoins neutrality in approaching contentious issues. This approach requires judgement, so there is no absolute neutrality and impartiality. There is, however, a big difference between the effort to maximize neutrality and impartiality both in appearance and substance and the virtual absence of these criteria. There is very little sense of neutrality and judgement in the terms of reference of the Commission or in its appointees.

Neutrality and impartiality are the key ingredients with respect to any adjudication, particularly when there is a conflict between two parties. These two qualities are especially important if the “neutral” party is to influence the actions and behaviour of the belligerents. However, the Commission seems obsessed with scoring points against Israel, countering “impunity” and holding Israel “responsible” rather than enhancing the rule of international law to truly protect civilians, especially in times and places of war.

What could have been done? A three person commission made up of a very respected Israeli academic on international law, an equally highly respected Palestinian academic or jurist with expertise on international law, and a third appointment drawn from the international community with an equally stellar reputation and agreed to by both the Israeli and the Palestinian appointee could have been charged with looking into specific alleged charges of possible breaches of international just war laws. Any of the three would have to recuse him or herself if they had made any public pronouncements on the illegality or immorality of the case. This may be akin to finding precious gems or locating a fair jury in a highly publicized murder trial where the depiction of the alleged murdered was widely distributed, but it is difficult not impossible. And it is the first principle of ensuring justice. But “justice’ seems to be a word unfamiliar to the Human Rights Council.

The human rights of Palestinians in the territories should not have been merged with a just war inquiry if only because there is already a debate among international law experts on whether just war theory is merely a sub-category of universal human rights or whether it has to be understood in conjunction with the reality of war which in its very essence is not an activity primarily concerned with human rights, though, in my view, and that of many others, going to war and conduct in war should be bounded by certain limitations governed by just law principles, but these are neither subordinate to nor subsumed under human rights principles.

This alludes to a much larger issue – the effort of cosmopolitan international philosophers and legal theorists to subsume all international ethical and legal issues under a human rights rubric versus those who consider that human rights law is not a monotheistic secular religion but exists and lives among various overlapping constellations of ethical principles — such as those governing the conduct of war or those regarding the treatment of refugees. The irony is that it seems to be the cosmopolitan theorists who are most likely to allow bias and partiality to infect their analyses whereas ethicists or lawyers, for example, conjoined to the military in th United States, for example, seem far more capable of a detached approach when examining specific cases in which accusations have been made about abuses of the norms of just war.

Tomorrow: Part X Reconciling War Strategy and International Law

Part VIII The Blame Game

Part VIII – Monday Morning Quarterbacking – The Blame Game


Howard Adelman

For a more thorough review of the Gaza operation one must await the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Commission of Inquiry set up by Ze’ev Elikin, chair of that committee. Given his strong credentials on the right and his criticisms of Netanyahu for not taking more forceful action against Hamas, one might worry about a built-in bias. But that committee includes a cross-section of the Knesset. Further, its conduct is covered by protocols to offset propensities to political bias. In any case, to understand the work and results of that committee, it is helpful if one first tries to make one’s own assessment of the strategy of the war.

In the military post-mortems after the end of the war, fundamental questions will be, and already have been, raised about Israeli policy. With the exception of humanitarian supplies that had always been permitted entry, had the Israeli blockade that Ehud Olmert placed on Gaza on 15 June 2007 when Hamas came to power been more counter-productive than useful in ensuring Israeli security? Certainly, lifting the blockade was the main military objective of Hamas. On 27 July, Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military commander who disappeared from public view after his wife and children (and perhaps himself as well) had been killed by an Israeli rocket, insisted that lifting the blockade was a bottom line before Hamas signed any cease-fire. The cease-fire agreement was signed without any firm commitment to lift the blockade.

In addition to the moralists, strategic critics of the blockade argued that the economic blockade had not protected Israel from barrages of rockets, had not lead to the overthrow of Hamas by disgruntled Gazans, and had not bankrupted Hamas. In fact, the latter had been accomplished, but only once the blockade had become complete when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, eventually effectively closed the Rafah crossing and destroyed the tunnels. Egypt cut off both imports of domestic and military hardware as well as eliminating a main source of revenue for Hamas. The problem, perhaps, was not the blockade but its incompleteness. The Egyptian military coup and its tacit alliance with Israel made the blockade’s strategic objective work, though Israel bore the brunt of both international condemnation and rocket reprisals from Hamas. However, it worked by bringing the Gaza economy and Hamas to its knees, but without destroying Hamas’ commitment to martyrdom and resistance. The latter brought Hamas increased support, especially in the form of a backlash against Israeli military reprisals, the very opposite outcome that Israel supposedly wanted.

What became evident is that when Hamas was unable to target its number one enemy, Egypt, it took its rage out on the next party down the line, Israel in this case. When Hamas was unable to weaken Israel in any significant way, alleged collaborators were rounded up in Gaza and summarily executed. But perhaps violence by substitution and deflection would have been unnecessary if Israel had responded positively to the messages Hamas sent to Israel indirectly — that if Israel lifted the blockade, Hamas would stop any terrorist actions aimed at Israel. Shlomi Eldar, who had interviewed Ghazi Hamad, the spokesperson for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas Gaza government, reported that Hamas favoured open contacts and agreements with Israel provided the crossings were opened.

The fact was that Israel did not trust Hamas and believed, with good evidence, that Hamas would use such an opportunity to arm itself to a greater extent than it had through the use of the tunnels into Egypt. Hamas’ ultimate goal, the elimination of Israel, was an integral part of its charter. Hamas showed that it was willing to sacrifice the economy of Gaza and the lives of its citizens to foster its ideology and maintain power, though Hamas was clearly, on pragmatic grounds, willing to make some accommodation with Israel. 

In retrospect, and in spite of the rhetoric of Netanyahu, Israel did not contemplate the military overthrow of Hamas. It was unwilling to accept the greater sacrifice of its soldiers’ lives that such an objective would require. Instead, the Israeli government thought, with good reason once Sisi came to power, that it could win a war of attrition against Hamas. Whether or not this was the best strategy, in its implementation, Israel made numerous errors.

Before the war started, Israelis believed that it would be irrational for Hamas leaders to go to war with Israel. However, Hamas deliberately went to war for their own views of survival. Further, Israel, like most of the world, believed that Hamas stumbled into war when the accumulating evidence suggests that it was a rational desperate option in the face of what Hamas leaders believed to be, for them, even more untenable choices. Israel misjudged Hamas’ intent.

Israel was also inadequately prepared for tunnel warfare even if Military Intelligence had some knowledge of the tunnels and even if the logistics, training and discipline of the IDF had improved. Israel had been prepared with its bomb shelters, warning apparatus and Iron Dome against the rocket attacks. Its army was prepared to handle terrorists who entered Israeli territory. The IDF was not prepared for tunnel warfare and, consequently for Israel, lost a significant number of soldiers. Why did the IDF not prepare better for tunnel warfare? What were the IDF priorities that pushed such a focus down the line?

One possible answer is the mega-strategic picture. For Israel, the battle began as an operation; for Hamas it began as an all-out war. The situation – not Israel — posed an existential threat to Hamas. Hamas was not an existential threat to Israel, which is one major reason why Bibi had his main focus on Iran.

Unlike Operation Cast Lead in 2009, which was well planned and began with the destruction of 12 Hamas bases, and Operation Pillar of Defence which began in November 2012 with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Deil’s predecessor as head of Hamas’ military wing, Operation Protective Edge seemed clearly an unintended enterprise from the Israeli perspective. Otherwise, why not take out Deil at the beginning rather than targeting the military command group in the final act of the war?

Further, how did Israel, which had a blockade around three-quarters of Gaza, allow Hamas to import 40 CN Towers worth of cement as well as thousands of long range rockets? Why did world leaders contribute so much to the rehabilitation of Gaza when Gaza was spending such an inordinate part of those donations on its military build-up? How could such an economically dependent territory, which was virtually an economic basket case, afford the sophisticated underground and air military system it had developed? Will the economic rehabilitation of Gaza be bled this time to fund the military resurrection of Hamas?

Further, UNRWA is funded through international sources, including Canadian funds. Yet UNRWA schools were used to hide Hamas rockets, which, when discovered, were turned over to Hamas with a slap on the wrist. UNRWA schools were used as booby traps as when three IDF soldiers at the end of July were killed when the UNRWA building exploded on top of them. At the same time, UNRWA was very vocal in accusing Israel of war crimes and of deliberately attacking UNRWA facilities. Thus, when an Israeli rocket aimed at three fleeing Gazan rocketeers on their motorbike evidently hit an UNRWA facility housing 3,000 Gazan refugees, killing 10 and wounding 35 others, Ban Ki-moon called the airstrike “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. The US State Department decried it as “appalling”. One or even two strikes against UNRWA facilities might possibly be collateral damage. But six? Unless some of those missile explosions were the result of misfired Hamas rockets or else were deliberately staged as one claimed even about the incident described above. The challenge that the incident was staged was based on comparative photography but from a source totally opposed to Hamas. That is why each case must be thoroughly investigated by a truly independent party and judgements not made on the basis of second-hand evidence.

A short humanitarian cease-fire immediately followed the strike on the UNRWA facility described above. It was to begin at 10:00 a.m. on Monday 4 August just after the disastrous breakdown of the 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that was supposed to begin on the previous Friday.  The new one held. Why?

There is another critical question to ask concerning the media war, which, for Hamas, was the main event. Israel at the beginning of the war had widespread world support. It lost a considerable part of that support when it resorted to the ground war as the physical destruction and casualties rose considerably – for both sides. European countries were particularly scathing in their criticisms of Israel. The mainstream media in America also jumped on the bandwagon. After a week or two of delay, the Israeli media itself caught up to that shift and also began covering the widespread destruction and the pictures of the wounded and dead civilians. This shift became very evident in the coverage at the time of the Cairo negotiations. Further, the look back at the conduct of the war prefigured two different strands, first, the retrospective replay of the Goldstone Inquiry via the Schabas Inquiry, and, second, the surprising prospective re-birth of the peace talks and even the Arab initiative.   

However, the most explicit and unspoken consequence of the war was the new de facto alliance of Egypt and Israel. How did Egypt succeed in a far more severe blockade on Gaza without receiving the brickbats thrown at Israel? And how did it do so without directing significant military assets towards Gaza? Further, though Israel first opposed the unity government in Palestine, its own efforts — with the aid of Egypt — seemed to help consolidate that government.

With regard to Egypt’s re-emergence as a regional power, Egypt was the clear and unequivocal victor in the war even though it was not a belligerent. It won in terms of status, security and even economically, as Egypt refused to carry any of the burden of Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood was further weakened with the political diminution of Hamas. Israel continued to get the blame for the blockade. And it was all done at no cost to Egypt in terms of significant money or lives lost. Israel, in contrast, lost in terms of status and money, but it did emerge a victor in terms of security. Hamas is much weaker than it was after either Operation Cast Lead or Operation Protective Shield. But the war probably cost the Israeli economy five billion dollars and once again Israel will be subject to a UN Commission of Inquiry.

Commentators like Ben Caspit, who opined that Israel paid a stiff price without accomplishing anything politically or strategically, are just dead wrong. The strategic balance of power has shifted radically in the Middle East to a much stronger Egypt, a stronger Israel and a much weaker Hamas. As the Middle East in its wider scope has shifted power from extremists to even greater extremists to Israel’s east, Israel is now more secure when looking west. Further, the war between the different extremes takes some of the pressure and focus off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s military strategy has also indirectly been altered by the war, in my estimation generally for the better. Instead of expecting a decisive outcome, as it did in the old wars with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the outcome after the 2014 51 Day Gaza War remains vague, but, in contrast to Lebanon, the war did not leave behind the equivalent of a still powerful Hezbollah. On the other hand, given the threat to Israel’s air communications revealed by the war, Hezbollah has watched the war unfold. If a war is resumed on Israel’s northern front, Hezbollah will undoubtedly rain down hordes of missiles on Ben Gurion airport. Israel should learn that Iron Dome has to be strengthened to prevent a massive attack. 

Secondly, Israel is learning how to fight a war of insurrection rather than one of frontal battles and that is to its benefit since this is the type of war it is most likely to face in the future rather than the swift and decisive battles of the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars. Israel has learned that decisive victory followed by occupation has greater long term costs than an ambiguous victory and no occupation. Third, hopefully Israel has learned that it cannot rely on deterrence in the face of a trapped enemy that bases its strategy on martyrdom and resistance. 

Another result was the further alienation of Europe in spite of general initial support. I am not sure how a war can be fought to defeat an enemy, with all the consequences of collateral damage to civilians, when the collateral damage to its relations with its major trading and democratic partners are severely challenged. Would a war that is far more considerate of its effect on the civilian population, one that had clearer and more targeted objectives without employing massive firepower, been more effective both in “winning” the war in Gaza as well as the international media war? Israel’s strategic planners will have to zone in closely on the apparent paradox of the greater military force used, the smaller the victory. This attention is critical, especially with respect to the growing chasm between Israel and the American White House, a chasm that manifested itself most clearly on the Iran issue. 

There has also been an unintended indirect effect. Bibi in the spring of 2014 was almost obsessed by Iran. The talks on disabling Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons, while still facing some significant hurdles, has progressed significantly. Though Iran has not surrendered its desire to remain ambiguous about the future military use of its nuclear capacity, in spite of its clear rhetoric disclaiming any intention to use its nuclear capacities for strategic or military purposes, and though there have been some delays in the implementation of the interim agreement, the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant has not been made operational. Iran has not produced any more hexafluoride enriched uranium above 5% and has diminished all its stocks of 20% enriched stocks to 5%. These are momentous achievements. Most importantly, other than its strictly military facilities, Iran has opened all its nuclear enrichment facilities to international inspection. The Gaza War distracted Bibi and, more importantly, the world from Bibi’s stubborn recalcitrance on this mater. The war allowed Bibi a face-saving way to skirt the topic. Will he take advantage of this opportunity for saving face and mending his relations with the Obama administration?

As the United States administration seems – with the stress on “seems” — to have been proven right in placing its bet on negotiations, at least, thus far, the schism between the USA and Israel has widened given America’s half-hearted backing and occasional tongue lashing of Israel during the war. Most important of all, the USA has almost been completely sidelined in the cease-fire talks. I do not know how this deepening and growing chasm between the US and Israel will turn out, but it is the most worrisome outcome.

There is a great deal to ponder in the aftermath of the war and I have only touched on some major issues. How does one weigh the losses against the gains? I am in no position to do so and am not even sure it is a worthwhile exercise. The importance will be whether one learns from the failures and takes advantages of the successes.