2. Gaza 2018: The Media War (c) Jewish Handwringing

There are more balanced and objective defences of Israel than those cited in the previous blogs in this series. However, balance in some sense is part of their problem. The other part of the problem is subjectivity, not objectivity, though there is plenty of distortion in the depiction of the events. These accounts focus on affects and moral tensions resulting from what took place in Gaza.

Using Yiddish to get the full flavour, there are what I dub the “verklepte kvetchers,” the emotional complainers, such as Rabbi Donniel Hartman in Jerusalem. These verklepte kvetchers express enormous compassion for the Palestinian victims while criticizing the Gazan government, identify with the pain of the soldiers who are forced to kill in defence of Israel, but issue a cri de coeur about Israeli government policies. But they do not undertake the analysis to link how policies produce those casualties and pain.


As Hartman wrote, perhaps in an attempt to be as poetic as Barghouti, “When we heard of the lives lost as protesters mixed with enemy combatants walked, or crept towards the thin wire keeping our cousins and uncles safe, we mourned: We mourned firstly for the lives lost, the youthful potential which was ended; We mourned for our Palestinian cousins, who are no closer to stability today than yesterday; And we mourned for the innocence of our soldiers, having to make life and death decisions – who had to aim to hurt and pray their shots were true.”

Quoting more fully from his essay written after 14 May and published in The Times of Israel,

“Gaza paralyzes me into silence.

“When I read reports or hear discourse about Israeli Army use of lethal force against demonstrators, I cringe. To call what is happening at the Gaza border a demonstration, is a perversion of reality as I know it…

“What is happening on the Gaza border is not a protest against the reality of life in Gaza, but an attack against the sovereignty of Israel and its right to exist. Palestinians have every right to view and experience the formation of Israel as their Nakba (catastrophe). They have every right to view the Six Day War and Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem as a deepening of this Nakba. When tens of thousands of people, civilians interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, march on our border with the intent to destroy it, and penetrate into Israel, and allow the terrorists to murder Israelis, it is not only not a peace demonstration, it is not a demonstration at all. It is a battlefield, where anyone who approaches the fence is a combatant…

“The challenge is that when it comes to Gaza, for Israelis our moral conscience is by and large, silent. We argue that our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, including its setting of the precedent of dismantling Jewish settlements, should have inspired Gazans to embrace or at the very least explore, the possibility of peace, instead of the path of war. It should have inspired the trade of goods and the fostering of economic ties, and instead it led to missile fire and the resulting partial blockade.

“We hold the Gaza population personally responsible for the choices they have made. We hold the leadership that they have chosen, a leadership that regularly declares its desire for my destruction and acts on it, as responsible both for the tragedy of Gaza and its rectification. And as a result, most Israelis believe that from this moment henceforth, our moral responsibilities are limited to our efforts at self-defense. The plight of Gazans is taken out of the equation of our moral discourse.

“Gaza paralyzes me into silence, for I am like most Israelis. I am not only saddened by the choices they have made and by the paths that they have chosen not to take, I am angry. I am a devout two-statist, who believes in the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty in their own state, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security for both of us. I am angry, because I believe that the hatred and violence spewing out of Gaza has possibly buried Israelis’ belief in the viability of the two-state solution in our lifetime. Any discourse about a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria is immediately rejected under the counter-argument: “It will just become another Gaza.” And this Gaza will be able to shut down all of Israel with mere mortar fire.

“But as my daughter’s phone call reminded me, we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed, and to create a moral black hole in our society. I do not believe that Israel is principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but it does bear some responsibility. I do not believe that our soldiers on the border of Gaza are firing on demonstrators but are engaged in a war. I do not believe that the Hamas-inspired action on the border poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. It does, however, pose a life-and-death danger for many Israelis. At the same time, 60 human beings were killed and thousands were injured in one day.

“While 60 human beings lost their lives, and Israeli soldiers were engaged in the horrific challenge of protecting our border, tens of thousands of Israelis converged on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to sing and rejoice with Netta Barzilai on her and our victory in the Eurovision contest…

“We do not need to take moral responsibility for the reality which is Gaza, but at the same time we cannot allow our humanity and moral conscience to be so inert as to sit down and drink, not to speak of dancing in our city squares, when we are causing, justifiably or not, death and chaos.

“We can believe that the events in Gaza are a war against Israel, support our soldiers, and still desire a public debate over the means necessary to win this war. I don’t value Monday morning moral philosophers, nor expressions of ‘concern’ for loss of life. I do value serious moral reflection on how to ensure that we live up to our military moral code, which demands that even when force is used in self-defense, we only use the amount of force necessary and in proportion to the danger that we face, and that we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties. I do desire an Israeli society which welcomes and engages in this discourse.

“I do not believe that our soldiers are violating international law, yet I am interested in a public discourse about what our soldiers on the front lines in Gaza are experiencing. I am interested in defending our soldiers from being placed in situations where their orders are not clear, and thus placing our soldiers in morally compromised situations.

“Gaza paralyzes me, because human beings are dying at my hands, and I do not know how to prevent it. Gaza frightens me, because it is so easy to forget it and sing, regardless of what is happening there. Gaza challenges us, for it is in Gaza that our commitment to the value of human life is and will be tested.

“We may not be principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but like all moral human beings, we must constantly ask ourselves whether and how we can be part of the solution. As Jews, we are commanded to walk in the way of God, a God who declares, ‘My creation is drowning, and what are you doing about it?’ ”

Though I agree that our responsibilities should not be limited to self-defence, the responses of fright, anger and cringing are also inappropriate. So is stewing in misplaced moral dilemmas. So is placing full responsibility on the political policy process and the military orders of the general staff. For those soldiers in the front lines also have moral responsibilities instilled in them by the IDF. But some of them may not have incorporated those norms as guides for their conduct. What is needed are:

  1. More accurate depictions of what took place.
  2. A more accurate definition of the real moral problem.
  3. A more accurate analysis of the Palestinian objectives.
  4. The real source of the moral tensions many Israelis experience while they continue to celebrate life and not that they continue that celebration.

Hartman links the possible use of lethal force by the IDF against the Palestinians by denying there were demonstrations. The action was one of militancy generally. But the behaviour of the Palestinians has to be dissected. The vast majority were engaged in peaceful demonstrations. Such a depiction is not “a perversion of reality” but a more accurate depiction. Others were engaged in an attack and not just a demonstration against Israeli sovereignty. IDF snipers did use lethal force, but they mainly targeted militants who attacked and tried to break through the fence.

Many of the attackers were unarmed in any military sense. Some who did not try to break through the fence were also wounded. There is a legitimate question about whether the IDF and/or individual soldiers followed international norms when engaged in conflict. At the same time, it is inaccurate to say that “tens of thousands of people, civilians [were] interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.” It would be more accurate to write that Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were undoubtedly mixed in with the peaceful demonstrators. But the focus of the IDF use of lethal force was not against the demonstration, but against militants who tried to break through the fence.

Further, though the Palestinian objective was said to be breaking through the fence to initiate the destruction of Israel, the real objective was to produce martyrs to win a public relations war. There was a peaceful demonstration. There was also a battlefield. They existed within a few hundred metres of each other. One does not have to affirm one (the militancy) by denying the other (the peaceful demonstration).

There is an additional problem. Hartman thinks that the problem for most Israelis is that they have pocketed their moral compass when it comes to Gaza. Why? Not because some soldiers may have wounded non-militants, but because many Israelis insisted on getting on with their lives and celebrating Netta Barzilai’s victory in the Eurovision contest. But it is Hartman who has misdirected part of his moral compass.

Why? Because he fails to acknowledge that some IDF soldiers may have possibly killed or wounded non-militants, not as collateral damage, but intentionally. That should be the focus, and I believe is the hidden concern of most Israelis. Hartman is simply wrong to direct his moral outrage against Israelis who celebrated Barzilai’s victory. Hartman is absolutely correct when he writes, “I do value serious moral reflection on how to ensure that we live up to our military moral code, which demands that even when force is used in self-defense, we only use the amount of force necessary and in proportion to the danger that we face, and that we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties.”

Analyses that connect circumstances to policies and actions are required. This might prove that, indeed, little can be done. Or the analysis my point to openings that can be exploited. What we do not need is emotional paralysis.

With the help of Alex Zisman



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