The New York Times’s Charles Blow writes:
I believe Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to the eradication of Israel, that its Oct. 7 attack against Israel was ghastly, and that all the hostages taken in the attack must be returned.
So far so good. Now the “but”:
At the same time, I believe the carnage in Gaza—thousands of civilian deaths, including thousands of children—is unjustified and unacceptable, even in war. Relief agencies continue to warn of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and as the International Court of Justice ruled last month, Israel must “take all measures within its power” to avoid violations of the international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
If you’ve been reading Letters Blogatory, you know I think that even one civilian death in war is tragic. But I just don’t agree that large-scale civilian death in war generally, or in this war specifically, is always “unjustified and unacceptable.” To judge something like that, you need to think hard about questions like, why is a war going on now? Who started it, and were those who started it justified? And you also need to think hard about questions like, what are the military objectives that each side is trying to win, how important are they relative to the harm, and are the combatants really trying to avoid harm to civilians?
I think I might well agree, in broad strokes, with Mr. Blow on the first question. He doesn’t say outright that Hamas started the war and that its attack was unjustified, but for now, tentatively, I’ll settle for “ghastly” and “terrorist organization committed to the eradication of Israel.”
But what to make of Mr. Blow’s answer to the second question? If, as he suggests, Israel does live right next door to a territory ruled by a terrorist organization dedicated to its destruction, and not just dedicated in word but in deed, then how can he square those facts with his view that the costs of the war are “unjustified and unacceptable?”
Maybe Mr. Blow has another military solution to the problem of Hamas that no one has thought of and that does not result in high civilian casualties. I wish that were so, but if it is, he doesn’t say so.
If not that, then what? Mr. Blow’s answer is the bien-pensant answer, the New York Times answer, that we hear from all corners of society. He “adhere[s] to a fundamental humanism,” which says that we should side with the “child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child.” He writes that the “conflict is complicated” and he rejects “simplistic” answers. Let me pause to note that it is relatively easy to focus on the complexity of the issue, on “fundamental humanism,” and so forth, when it’s someone else’s nation-state whose existence is at risk. The bottom line: I’m sorry, Israel, you cannot take military action necessary to eliminate the existential risk at your doorstep, or even to stop the thousands of rockets being fired into your territory from civilian areas and sometimes protected sites that have killed and maimed and that have caused you to evacuate hundreds of thousands of your citizens from their homes, because the number of casualties is too high for us to bear, never mind the fact that the number of casualties is a consequence of the unlawful way the enemy chooses to fight.
Okay, so Mr. Blow’s views are a problem. But the problem is one Israel has always lived with. It’s the naïveté of the West. I’m sorry for using two French loan words in one post. None of us has any experience living next to heavily armed genocidal maniacs, and so we don’t think clearly about what we are asking of Israel, which is something that almost certainly we ourselves would be unwilling to do. When the rockets start coming over the Niagara River and we have to evacuate Buffalo, and someone tells us to think about the poor Canadians, then we’ll be in a position to understand. Of course, the example is absurd, because Canadians and Americans get along just fine and because unlike Israel, our own country is so big and so protected from its enemies by the oceans that it is impossible to imagine its national existence ever being really threatened from the outside by non-nuclear war. But Israel is about 20 miles wide from northern Gaza to the West Bank, and about 10 miles wide from Netanya, on the Mediterranean, to the West Bank.
But naive views are not the problem. The problem is the people who don’t answer the first question in the same way that Mr. Blow answers it. It’s the people who don’t think Hamas is a terrorist organization, who don’t think October 7 was ghastly, and who are rooting for the murderers in Gaza, the pirates in the Red Sea, and the mullahs in Iran. The new experts on international humanitarian law who chant, “Yemen, Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around,” ignoring one of the oldest rules of international law, that pirates are hostis humani generis. The widely-known commentator who, when discussing October 7, said: “Violence is not a violation of international law. Resistance is not a violation of international law.” The professor who reposted comments that treated the Hamas atrocities as morally righteous acts of decolonization.
These folks are the problem, and it’s a problem we need to deal with quickly and decisively. If a significant part of what passes for our intelligentsia today is on the side of the common enemies of humanity, the terrorists and the pirates, then we as a civilization are in big trouble. We can live with the inability of the befuddled liberal to acknowledge the reality of groups really determined to destroy a state and a people, at least in the short term. I am not sure we can live with trendy nihilists who want to burn it all down, starting with Israel and the Jews but surely not ending with them.