Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza are at war. Palestinian forces have launched more than 1,500 rockets targeting Israeli towns and cities, and Israel has carried out aerial bombing raids on Gaza and deployed ground forces.
Watching news coverage of Palestinian homes destroyed, the scenes of human misery, and the mounting death toll, many people are despondent. Giving voice to that reaction, Trevor Noah argued on The Daily Show that we can gain clarity about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — if we can just “step away” from the complicated issue of “who’s good, who’s bad.”
What should we focus on? “Power,” he says: Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Its sophisticated missile-defense system, Iron Dome, can destroy in mid-air (many) rockets fired from Gaza. Israel, he observes, could “crush” Gaza. This vast imbalance of power, he notes, is evident in the lopsided tally of the injured and dead.
If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, Noah asks, how hard should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?
The answer he expects us to reach is that, essentially, the stronger side should turn the other cheek, refrain from defending itself assertively, dial down its response.
But this premise is a travesty of sound moral thinking, and it can only inflame the conflict.
Noah asks us to consider an adversary who brings a knife to a gunfight. But let’s step away from foggy metaphors, and ask what this premise means in reality.
Take an actual clash between two mismatched adversaries. The underdog sent only 19 operatives into a fight armed with literally only knives, against a far stronger adversary. Presumably in this conflict, too, Noah would exhort the stronger to dial down any response, perhaps even do nothing.
But who was that underdog? The squad of jihadists who on 9/11 hijacked passenger jets and murdered three thousand Americans.
By itself, the material inequality between two adversaries cannot guide thinking about a conflict. Sometimes the weaker side is morally right: for example, the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamists of Boko Haram. Or: the American revolutionaries, who were outmanned and outgunned by the English. But now consider the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017. They were far weaker than the police forces: should they be left to run amok?
The problem with Trevor Noah’s widely shared view is that it deliberately ignores the issue of justice. To form a rational view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argue in my book What Justice Demands, it’s necessary to start with the essential facts about the adversaries. Chiefly: the moral character of the two sides.
In keeping with their avowed ideology, the Islamists who rule Gaza have created a belligerent regime that systematically violates the rights of its own people. The animating goal of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) is to wipe Israel from the map and subjugate whomever it can under totalitarian religious law. They use the population of Gaza, many of them willingly, as human shields and cannon fodder. And, starting at birth, they indoctrinate their followers to embrace the idea of dying in the name of Allah, for the glory of slitting an Israeli’s throat or carrying out a suicide attack.
Why should the Islamists’ status as underdogs erase the fact of their barbaric, morally corrupt regime and vicious goals?
By contrast Israel is a society governed by rule of law and a basic respect for individual rights. By virtue of those features, it has become a dynamo of human progress and innovation, particularly in high technology, with an elevated standard of living compared to its neighbors. Israel, like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, has significant flaws and shortcomings. But Israel is on moral par with these countries, because fundamentally it protects the freedom of individuals. That’s a singular achievement in a region plagued by anarchy, theocracies, dictatorship, and monarchies.
Why should Israel’s military superiority erase the fact that it is a morally good society?
Trevor Noah, like so many people and policymakers, ignores a fundamental moral difference between tyranny and freedom, and the results are predictably tragic. The fighting now under way is precisely what Noah’s advice necessarily leads to.
Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas has repeatedly initiated wars against Israel — in 2008/9, 2012, 2014. But Israel agreed with the United States, the UN and European nations and stopped short of defeating the (weaker) Islamists in Gaza, going out of its way to avoid harming civilians, for instance, by issuing evacuation alerts and sending text messages warning of impending strikes. Instead of deploying its full might to end that threat, Israel only degraded the ability of Islamists to fight.
One Israeli official likened it to mowing a lawn. But grass grows back eventually. And eventually the Islamists dug new weapons-smuggling tunnels, adopted new tactics such as incendiary balloons, and rebuilt their cache of rockets. Then, once ready for battle, the Islamists latched on to some pretext to resume firing rockets at Israeli kindergartens, schools, shops, and homes.
Along with so many other people, Trevor Noah laments that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for upwards of seven decades. But as I show in my book, one key factor driving the conflict has been the attitude toward moral judgment that Noah himself is now pushing. Refusing to think rationally about what justice demands has only aggravated the conflict.
Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash