See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Wrestling With Israel

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:22-28 (ESV)

The Israel-Hamas conflict is not the most important story going on right now. It isn’t even the most important story about the Middle East going on right now. ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State, has literally crucified people, converted people under threat of death and is demolishing religious shrines in their war path.1 The world is on fire in too many ways, and it is too much for anyone to really handle. But the Israeli-Palestian conflict has always drawn my attention in a way that other issues don’t. Perhaps it is because it seems the most tragic, or where emergent and curated evils mix freely, or because of the irrational surety with which so many of my friends have settled on an easy answer of who to blame and who to hate for every last dead child.

It’s easy to want an easy answer. Children are dead and dead children unsettle the mind. They ought to. One of the greatest achievements of modern civilization has been to bring child mortality rates down to the point where we think that children dying is strange.2 Dead children mean that we have failed, and dead children due to war is all the more horrible because there is nothing that drives Man to war without the complicity of Man. If there is someone to blame, to indict, to condemn – to hold “accountable” without having to truly do an accounting then maybe, maybe, maybe we can hold onto our hope in face of our failure. I have no answers, a mixture of feelings. Anger and fear, admiration and loathing, thousands of competing intuitions and a deep, deep disquiet.

Of course, these mixed feelings are exclusive to Israel in the Israel-Hamas fight. I don’t feel rage towards Hamas, despite the monumental evil they are and further evils they represent. I cannot grasp the enormity of the evil produced by an organization that commits war crimes by the gross while debasing a desperate people even further. There is no moral outrage that can ever be sufficient and no moral outrage is necessary. It is the threat of a deranged madman, full of hatred and ire and danger, a perfect fusion of the animal self and the diabolic self at expense of the human. No anger, no hatred, no shock. I do not wrestle with Hamas. Whatever their claimed motivation, their intent is to kill Israelis civilians, and their favored means are unguided rockets suicide vests. There is only the numb determination to get to the necessary bloodletting.

Israel is nation-state surrounded by enemies and bad friends.3 Enemies is perhaps too mild of a term. For the Americans, comfortable between two oceans filled with the mightiest navy ever to exist and the longest undefended border for a roof the term “enemy” usually refers to an opponent to one of our international policy choices. We can pick fights with France over invading a country where the worst that happens is a bunch of nitwits in our Congress rename “french fries” to “freedom fries.” Israel is immediately surrounded by hostiles opposed to their very existence. If I could murder every member of Hamas with the flick of a switch, I’d probably do it with tears in my eyes and drink the memory away until the end of my days. If Hamas could murder every Israeli, they’d cheer. They have cheered, and the Europeans have looked on with a shrug. So to say Israel is in an intractable political situation, with serious military problems is understating the case. I’m glad, proud even, that my nation protects Israel from the other side of the world, even if we have all of the blindness of family when we do so.

The U.S. – Israeli alliance is something of a source of heartburn as well, and not just because of the unseemly way our politicians bow and scrape to the national interests of others. In my heart of hearts lurks a fire-breathing nationalist arm-in-arm with a cold-eyed realist – Israel is our ally, but it is also our client state.4 So, considering the resources spent on Israeli arms and political capital burnt defending Israeli pride in the United Nations, I think we’re entitled to boss them around a bit without getting the international politics equivalent to “you’re not my real dad!” in return. Perhaps, more to the point, I feel somehow responsible for every dead child killed by Israeli fire, much as I feel somehow responsible for every dead child killed by American fire. And yet, in the brutal light of day, dead children are sometimes the cost of operating in the world-that-is.5

In the cold moral calculus of military action, there are only a few weights on the scale to consider. The first is military gain: what are the objectives, what can be advanced, what tactical and strategic goals can be met? The second is military risk: what tactical and strategic advantages are risked, what opportunities foregone, what materiel and personnel will be lost? The third is collateral risk: how many civilians may be maimed or killed? Weighing civilian life highly is how we ask civilized nations to act, just as we ask civilized men to respect innocent life, even at increased military risk and decreased military gain. We ask this even when the opponents are uncivilized, when the enemy gathers civilians to cheat the equation. It’s how America should ask her allies, especially her clients to act.

Depending on who you ask, the civilian death toll in the Gaza war ranges between 800 and 1370, which is just a way to try to put numbers on the horror of far, far too many. That is an entire American high school dropping dead. Yet in that cold calculus of war, it may just be acceptable if the military gains were great enough. Thousands and thousands of rockets intended for Israeli citizens (and being unguided munitions, it seems like any Israeli will do) have been destroyed. Miles of underground tunnels set up to invade Israel have been found and destroyed. Those are real gains and perhaps collateral damage is a fair trade – but is it really? If a military conflict means that enemy life is less precious than yours it does not in turn follow that any civilian life is any less precious than another. If it is acceptable to kill a high school’s worth of Palestinian civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time it has to be acceptable to kill a high school’s worth of French civilians at the wrong place and wrong time, or a high school’s worth of American civilians, or a high school’s worth of European Jews. The cold moral calculus of war has no room for sentiment.

So I am left as I began, in deep disquiet. A number of writers I respect deeply have said they cannot answer a question until they write about it. Writing, they say, is the detritus of thinking. I have thought, and I have written, and I am no closer to a conclusion. I have nothing that can answer dead children.


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