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.

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