Thursday 16 November 2023

Proportionality and the numbers mistake

This is not an article about international law. Proportionality and the laws of war are clear. There is little to be gained by engaging in that debate because it is, I think, besides the point. It has the unhelpful side effect of reducing war to a brutal calculation and that is best left to those responsible for actually making it. There is a certain coldness required to engage in any war and make that calculation, no matter how just or important that war may be. Instead, this is an article about numbers. Thousands of Palestinians have died. That is a tragedy. In one sense, if more died it would be more tragic and if fewer died, it would be less tragic. But in that sense, you once again reduce war to a brutal calculation, as if each life is not equally, intrinsically and absolutely valuable. There is an idea in Jewish thought that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the whole world and if you kill one life, it is as if you have killed the entire world. Every life is precious in and of itself. Sometimes we forget that.

This is an article about the folly of statistics, of numbers. One of Disraeli's three lies. Here is the accusation I level at those who point out how many lives have been taken: it is (mostly) irrelevant. Stop devaluing life. Even if only one Israeli and even if only one Palestinian had died, it would be a tragedy. It would be as if the entire Jewish people and the entire Palestinian people had died. The idea that several thousands of Palestinians have died and therefore Israel has acted poorly or that therefore a ceasefire is necessary misses the point. It suggests that there is an acceptable number. That, had 'only' 500 Palestinians died, Israel's response would be more okay. Or conversely, had 'only' 100 Israelis been raped and murdered and 'only' 10 hostages taken, that would be 'less' bad. 

That is why I leave the numbers to those responsible for actually making that brutal calculation. Because it is a calculation. The laws of war are clear: civilian deaths are 'permissible' (what a horrific idea) if they are not, "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated..." I cannot imagine being responsible for making that calculation, nor can I imagine how it must feel to be told that your child's death was 'okay' because it was not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Or, indeed, that you child's death was not okay because it was excessive in that context. Rather than because any death of an innocent is not 'okay' in a very real and important sense, irrespective of the context and laws of war.

Once you forget about the numbers, you can properly address the situation. A horrific, tragic situation where innocent civilians are dying. How many does not actually matter because every death would be wholly tragic even if there were no further deaths. I truly understand those clamouring for a ceasefire, who look at the numbers and immediately think, "Gosh, Israel is targeting civilians," or, "Israel must stop because so many Palestinians are dying." My previous article was about the blood libel that too many fall into when making that point, I am not going to repeat myself. I empathise, and I wish a ceasefire was the solution. The fact I happen to think that it is not, is besides the point. I am not a military strategist nor am I a politician. I am just a Jew, who cares deeply about humanity. Which means I resist the temptation to reduce Palestinian life to a number and worry 'too many' are dying and not just that a life has been lost. Which means I resist the temptation to think the situation is simple and engage in lazy, pseudo-intellectual thinking and, instead, face up to the brutal, horrific reality. It is easy to call for ceasefire without any attempt to understand or explain what happens next. Empathy, actually caring about people's lives takes real moral courage and deep thought.  

Jeannette Rankin said, "You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." This is undeniably and tragically true; there will not be any "winners" when so many have died. That does not mean a war is not just or that a war is not necessary or that a war should be abandoned. We are all going to die eventually; we should not just stop living. So I will leave the calculations to the military people and the politicians. I do not envy them their job. I will not, however, make the mistake of thinking this war or any war can be reduced to the numbers. 

It is far more complicated than that.

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Israel, the Diaspora and Blood Libel

I am somewhat of an anomaly amongst Jews who regularly visit and spend significant periods of time in Israel; I have never experienced a red alert. I have never had to rush to a bomb shelter. At best, I am ‘terror-adjacent’. My family has. My friends have. But I never have. Equally, I am acutely aware that I have never had a leaflet dropped on my house informing me that the place I call home is about to be the target of a bombing raid and, for my own safety, I had better leave, and leave promptly.

With those important caveats in mind, fully acknowledging that for me the war in the Middle East impacts me only tangentially, indirectly, I want to talk about something that I have experienced: antisemitism. Antisemitism that always rears its head when Israel is in the news but, of course, does not go away when Israel is having a quieter moment. I’ve had it on the streets of London when a cyclist screamed Jew at me, made a Hitler salute and pretended to shoot me. I’ve had it at football games where people have shouted ‘Yid’ at me. On the tram in Manchester when one passenger demanded that all the Jews (I was the only visible Jew) show their tickets. A tube platform when someone invited me to, “ and enjoy the music,” and when I didn’t immediately comply informed me that he knew, “...why Hitler had decided to kill the Jews.” I could go on, but by far and away the most common antisemitism that I have faced is online and ignoring the particularly vicious rabid Jew haters, the biggest subsect within that is from people I know or even call friends. 

Their antisemitism is of the anti-zionist variety and before you cry ‘but anti-zionism is not antisemitic’ or ‘criticism of the Israeli government is not antisemitic’ or a variation thereof, I do not wish to address anti-zionism. Whether or not it is antisemitic is not the point (it is, but I cannot be bothered to argue into the void on this point) nor is it the type of anti-zionism that I find the most nefarious or, indeed, confusing. That honour goes to a particular flavour of anti-zionist sentiment: modern day blood libel. The criticism of the Israel that goes something like this: 

“Israel is using very heavy bombs to destroy what it says are military targets, without being too bothered about the fact that sometimes large numbers of civilians are killed at the same time.” - Jeremy Bowen, BBC (see here, last accessed 07/11/2023: My emphasis.)

“Israel is murdering civilians, children, babies. Innocents and does not care” 

“But Israel is bombing Gaza indiscriminately and deliberately targeting civilians” 

“Israel is committing war crimes and disproportionately murdering Gazans. Look how many more Gazans have died!!”

Or words to that effect. People so callously, so casually, accusing Israel of targeting civilians, murdering children with impunity and deliberately. People who, some in good faith and some not in good faith, see the impact the war is undoubtedly having on innocents in Gaza who are dying and immediately rush to accuse Israel of being indifferent to human life. The truth, of course, is far less dramatic and far more simple: people, tragically, die in war. The laws of war do not, and cannot, aim to eliminate all civilian death. While, obviously, say, firebombing Dresden during WWII (an obviously just and necessary war against Nazis) clearly would not comply with the laws of war, the fact that civilians die, often in tragically huge numbers, does not mean that the laws of war are not being followed. I’ve written previously on that question of numbers, as if had more Israelis died the Palestinian deaths would be more justified or less tragic; as if the Palestinian deaths are only tragic because of their number; as if even if only one Palestinian died, it would matter less somehow. That’s not the point I wish to make here. Equally, the point is not (just) that the accusation that Israel is deliberately committing war crimes with impunity is both false and absurd (Israel has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world; if her aim were the murder of civilians, it is monumentally bad at it).

It’s far more nefarious and dangerous than that. Jews are used to being accused of doing unspeakable things: we killed Jesus; poisoned wells during the Black Death; backed Christian children blood into Matza during Pesach/Passover; sold the Germans out at Versailles and were responsible for its ills in the interwar period; control the banks; control Hollywood; brought down the twin towers; control the media; control the world and Western governments. The list goes on and now includes deliberately murder Palestinians. Because let us be absolutely clear, the charge that Israel acts with impunity and contrary to the laws of war as evidenced by the number of Palestinians that have died (read, been murdered by Israel) is just the latest in a long line of blood libel and conspiracy theories levelled at Jews. That this preposterous accusation is repeated so casually by supposedly thinking people just demonstrates how pervasive antisemitism is, how seemingly natural the urge to blame the Jews is. It’s so easy, so obvious. Of course, Israel is targeting civilians, don’t you watch the news? Obviously, Israel is murdering Palestinian babies, haven’t you read the BBC? This is your reminder it is possible to mourn Palestinian innocents being killed without engaging in blood libel just like it is possible to mourn those murdered on 9/11 without blaming the Jews. 

But, as with most conspiracy theories, accepting it becomes a condition of entry into the discourse. Jews are not allowed to comment on Israel until they’ve condemned Israel. The price of admission to this particular circus is making it clear that we don’t agree with Israeli actions or Netanyahu. We cannot mourn our dead, pray for the release of hostages, condemn Hamas until we’ve met certain conditions. I am deliberately resisting the urge to pay this price, not because I don’t sympathise with the plight of Palestinians failed by their terrorist leaders in Gaza and the West Bank (and before you cry that the Palestinian Authority aren’t terrorists, they use aid money to pay salaries to terrorists based on how many Jews they murdered); not because I don’t mourn for every innocent lost. No, it is because I should not have to accept the terms set by those who so casually repeat blood libel. 

So no. I don’t know what it is like to have bombs dropped on my home or rockets fired at me. But I have experienced antisemitism regularly, ranging from violent threats to the more insidious blood libel I speak about here. And it has to stop.