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A War for Moral Wars

July 25, 2014

This week, former Tikvah fellow Yishai Schwartz offered an idiosyncratic moral defense of the ongoing Gaza war in The New Republic. Schwartz first posited that justice requires the reasons for the war be “morally compelling” and the “less-destructive alternatives” be ruled out. To the first demand, Schwartz answers that, yes, Israel is right to defend itself from rockets above and tunnel attacks below. But the second demand is trickier. While Israel can try and minimize destruction by warning noncombatants of impending strikes, loss of life is inevitable, especially given the brutal and cynical way Hamas places its weaponry near or inside hospitals, schools, and residences. As Schwartz asks and answers:

We are thus left with a paradox: Morality demands that Israel fight this war, but allows no way to fight it morally. In this conflict, reason itself seems to fail.
There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.
But there is an alternative. We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.


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