If Samuel Johnson was right that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel—religion, presumably, being the first—the lowest form of nationalistic pandering is also the simplest: demonization of the other and “the enemy.” The current conflict between Israel and militant groups in Gaza provides a choice array of the ugliness and cynicism of demonization, with demagogues on both sides clutching frantically at the opportunity to whip up fear and hatred. Words matter. Words shape attitudes. Attitudes define actions. And actions can kill.
On the Israeli side, the ugliness has rarely been this crass. The Jerusalem Post recently published a commentary by Gilad Sharon, son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, that bordered on the genocidal. Sharon was as blunt as this: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza.”
If any Iranian official said such a thing about Israel, calls would resound for his indictment by the International Criminal Court. And Sharon was only echoing Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said that the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”
But it’s okay, Sharon explains, because, “The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.” Let’s not even bother with the obvious historical inaccuracy of this raving. Here’s the nitty-gritty: If Israel decides it’s in its interests to murder civilians in Gaza neighborhood by neighborhood, then they deserve to be killed.
All my life I’ve heard arguments from Arabs about there being no “civilian settlers,” and, occasionally, even no “civilian Israelis.” Last time somebody said that to me was in a car traveling at high speeds near Beirut. I demanded that he stop the car so I could get out on the middle of the highway. He refused. I contemplated hurling myself out onto the road to get away from him, but I figured I had made my point without actually courting suicide.
It’s just so easy to think like this: whatever we choose to do to the other side is entirely their own fault. They started it. They chose it. They’re not “innocent,” even if they’re civilians, non-combatants or, for that matter, children. Recall the settler rabbis’ book “The King’s Torah,” which religiously endorsed killing children who might possibly grow up to become enemies. So conscience need not make cowards of us, after all.
A similar tactic was pursued by noted Israeli commentator David Horovitz, who simply castigated Hamas as “godless killers” (that completely inverts their disturbingly theocratic hierarchy of values, of course). Horovitz makes the point that Hamas has behaved cynically, putting the people of Gaza, Israel and even the West Bank at risk. That’s true. But the death toll reveals a deeper, far more complex, reality: 131 Palestinians, at least, most of them civilians and many of them children, killed, as opposed to three Israelis.
Horovitz argues the conflict is a very simple one, especially in moral terms: “They are people who glory in death. Since we delight in life, we had better prevail.” It’s as simple as that. They are bad, evil, and must be crushed. We are good, decent and we must win. No complication. No effort to contextualize Hamas’s history, ideology, relationship with the Palestinian public, or anything else. They are simply “godless killers.”
But oddly enough those who “delight in life” have certainly managed to kill a whole bunch of innocent people over the past few days. Meanwhile, those who “glory in death” seem to have had most of this “glory” robbed from them by the Israeli military.
I’m focusing here on Israeli voices, but similar attitudes abound on the Arab side. And they are to be found in every conflict. The longer any conflict drags on, the deeper ingrained and more bitter they will become.
But they are a symptom of conflict. Not a cause. The substitution of an effect for a cause is an old technique and trick of classical sophistry. Indeed, it is the most common form ofmetalepsis, designed to confuse the audience. In this case, it’s designed to trick you into thinking that killing civilians or other war crimes are somehow okay because, for whatever reason, it’s the other side’s fault.
But it’s never okay. Not when Hamas, or any other Arabs or Muslims, commit crimes against Israelis, settlers included. And not when Israelis or their military commit crimes against Palestinians, or any other Arabs, including the innocent civilian population of Gaza.
No amount of hate speech or demonization relieves anyone of their moral responsibilities or justifies war crimes, even if Israelis and Palestinians, and their friends, are presently clambering over each other to try to prove Dr. Johnson correct.