It’s become common wisdom in American political discourse that what distinguishes Hamas’s military tactics from Israel’s is that Hamas deliberately targets civilians while Israel does not. Both halves of this assertion strike me as highly dubious. It’s hardly clear that Israel doesn’t target civilians, whether deliberately or recklessly, but let me save that topic for another day. What’s also unclear is that Hamas deliberately (as opposed to recklessly) targets civilians, but I’ll leave that one for another day as well. The assumption I want to focus on here is whether the targets Hamas is hitting are as unambiguously “civilian” as is widely assumed.
Put more precisely, the issue is whether the targets make or don’t make a causal contribution to combat, and if so, to what degree. A civilian leader who issues a command to his military may ex hypothesi be a “civilian,” but in his role as commander-in-chief of his country’s military forces may also be responsible for military commands, and in that respect be a morally legitimate target in warfare. An ordinary civilian who makes a self-conscious moral or material contribution to combat undertaken by others, but shrinks from engaging in combat in himself, does not by his reluctance to fight immunize himself from being targeted. He’s taken actions of a kind that mark him out for targeting.
With that preface, consider this article in The New York Times from a few days ago, which focuses not on military actions per se but on civil disturbances in the streets by “rogue” actors.
Despite the difference in context between the military and the “rogue” or paramilitary, I would say that the same basic principles apply, and the same basic issues present themselves. In reading through this story, what should occur to you is the ambiguity of the combatant/non-combatant distinction, and the ways in which the civilian/non-civilian distinction serves in many cases not to mark a clear moral distinction, but as a means of muddying the moral waters. There are many examples of this in the article, but consider just this one, which goes by very quickly (emphasis mine):
At least five synagogues have been burned in the city [of Lod], along with the religious school and an adjacent pre-military academy.”
The grammar of this sentence fails to make clear whether the religious school was affiliated with the five synagogues, or was just a separate educational institution with an adjacent pre-military academy. Not a trivial difference. So much for the belief that grammar is a trivial matter.*
Is a pre-military training academy a legitimate target or not? If it’s adjacent to a religious school, is the school not, given its proximity to a military target, being used as an “innocent shield” in just the way that Hamas is so often accused of doing? While we’re on the subject: why would people who know of the primitive nature of Hamas’s weapons decide to put a “pre”-military training academy (“pre”–meaning, a military academy for people too young to join the military) right next to a school? And if the religious school provides theological justification or motivation for what happens in the training academy, is the school really an innocent shield, after all?
Consider an Americanized example to help clarify the issue (or to shock you into realizing that I really mean what I’m saying here). You may not think of your local public high school as a military or paramilitary institution, but imagine that it has the following features or does the following things:
- It flies a POW-MIA flag outside, right under the American flag.
- It consistently invites military veterans from a pro-war veterans organization to sing the virtues of the US military and the moral imperatives of joining it (but never invites peace or anti-war activists to speak, and wouldn’t dream of doing so).
- It regularly brings military recruiters to campus, and recruits students into the military.
- It has a Junior ROTC program that likewise feeds the military.
This is not a purely hypothetical case; it’s a description of a local high school near my workplace, confirmed by the experiences of a high school student in another state who was a member of his high school’s Junior ROTC program. It’s far from obvious that a high school with these features remains a purely civilian institution. The students may be morally innocent of any wrongdoing (or may not be; I’m not sure), but in any case, they are being treated as innocent shields by the school’s adult administrators, who are functioning in a quasi-military capacity, and using the school in that capacity.
So it is, I would say, in Israel. Both Israelis and Americans are systematically oblivious to how thoroughly they’ve militarized what they delusionally call “civilian life.” The delusion is particularly sharp in Israel, where almost everyone is up for military service by conscription, where those who have done military service can be called up for reserve duty, and where social benefits (like gun ownership) are in many cases contingent on military service, and denied to the Arab minority that doesn’t perform military service.
But Americans and Israelis like to see militancy in others, never in themselves. They see nothing wrong in condemning Hamas’s exploitation of children while themselves taking for granted that youngsters should be inculcated in military values, pretending when they do that it’s something cute and patriotic–or a matter of material benefits and social respect–rather than a case of treating their children as cannon fodder in the latest imperial adventure dreamed up by some office-dwelling civilian. Take a cold, hard look around you some day, as I do each time I hit the road, and count the number of bumper stickers, billboards, flags, signs, etc. you see proclaiming wholehearted support for the US military and what it does. “My son is in the Navy,” “My daughter is a US Marine,” etc. etc. Are such proclamations really the mark of a civilian society? If they have meaning, it’s because they make a moral-psychological contribution to the nation’s military endeavors. But can a person who makes such a contribution really claim immunity from the consequences of the endeavors which he so loudly and explicitly endorses?
Americans and Israelis are also systematically oblivious to how reckless they are with non-American and non-Israeli lives. Anyone interested in the Israeli version of this obliviousness is advised to read the works of Norman Finkelstein, Amira Haas, or Sara Roy, to read the work of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, or to watch any of the dozens of documentary films on the topic, starting with my “favorite,” “Tears of Gaza.”
But perhaps attention might be paid right here at home. How many Americans give even the slightest shit about US drone policy (now almost two decades old), or know what a “signature strike” is? When I taught the subject at Felician University (for several years), it often elicited little more than bored yawns from my students. Code Pink and Medea Benjamin aside, it’s not as though the topic is on every American’s minds or lips. But if you yawn your way through the lives taken in your name, don’t be surprised when your adversaries yawn their way through the lives of the ones they take in God’s name, including yours. How different are you from them? How different are they from you?
Should Hamas be targeting civilians, deliberately or recklessly? No, it shouldn’t. No one should. But I have to laugh when I hear Americans lecturing the world on that topic, as though they had somehow earned a moral standing on the topic of civilian immunity that others, like Hamas, had conspicuously lacked. After the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General MacArthur’s atomic threats during the Korean War, Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, and decades of commitment to Mutually Assured Destruction–to say nothing of Israel’s five decades of military occupation, use of cluster bombs in Lebanon, and widespread carnage in Operations Returning Echo, Pillar of Defense, and Cast Lead in Gaza–Americans are getting on their moral high horses about Hamas rockets landing in Israel.** Please. Some jokes cease to be funny, and at this point, American moral exceptionalism is one of them, followed closely by its Israeli counterpart.
Heres’s my advice for my fellow Americans. Feel free to binge-watch the latest episode of the gruesome series known as The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Or turn it off if you can’t take it. But spare us the sanctimonious “concern” for “civilians.” Millions of Palestinian civilians have lived under Israeli occupation for fifty-some years with the eager acquiescence and material support of the “civilians” of the United States of America. How many Americans have so much as noticed the everyday savagery of that state of affairs, a state of affairs paid for by their tax dollars, and proudly supported by the votes of their representatives in Congress, in state legislatures, and even in local town councils? The same people who celebrate a Revolutionary War fought over a two year occupation of a single city somehow feel free to deride the militancy of people resisting fifty years of occupation by Israel. Never mind the civilian lives taken by the Revolutionary Army in the Revolutionary War, or the deliberate assaults on civilian life undertaken by the Union Army in the Civil War.
It’s really too late for Americans to pretend that they care about “civilians.” What they really seem to care about is the victory of their civilization, which they claim to share with Israel, over what they regard as its inferior competitors. And in adherence to the ethics of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli, they seem to regard victory against those competitors as confirmation of their own moral superiority. The professed concern for “civilian life” expressed in this context is pretty transparently a pretense, about as full of crap as the fresh graves of Gaza are full of corpses.
Anyone sincerely wanting to demonstrate their bona fides on the subject of “civilian life” might do well to learn what civilian life has been like for Palestinians under Israeli rule since the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. It’s not a pretty or edifying sight, and not one that does much credit to that State. If you want a book recommendation, I’d suggest Charles D. Smith’s Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 10th ed (2021), a well-written antidote to the abject propaganda that pollutes American discourse on this subject.
It’s easier to wring one’s hands about the “civilians” who seem “just like us” than to spare a thought for the civilians who don’t. But it may be worth a try doing the latter.
*I find it telling that in a Guest Essay in today’s Times by Yossi Halevi Klein discussing this same event, the reference to the military academy drops out entirely. What we get is:
Young Arab men firebombed Jewish homes and burned five synagogues, chanting slogans calling for Israel’s destruction; Jewish extremists counterattacked.
Note by the way the unargued assumption that the Arab firebombing was initiatory, whereas the Jewish vigilante action was responsive. How do we know that it was? And what about the military academy?
Postscript, May 22, 2021: There seems to be some real, ingrained resistance to acknowledging the fact that the “pre-military academy” in Lod was hit. Here is Michelle Goldberg, in a NYT column otherwise very critical of Israel:
A unique and harrowing aspect of the violence now shaking the region has been the intercommunal clashes between Jews and Palestinians within Israel proper. In Lod, at least four synagogues and a religious school were burned. “Jewish mobs were seen roaming the streets of Tiberias and Haifa looking for Arabs to assault,” reported The Times of Israel.
From “at least five synagogues” in the May 13 New York Times article I mentioned at the outset of this post to “at least four” in a May 17 column in the same newspaper. A pre-military academy is mentioned in the May 13 article, but disappears in the Goldberg column. What happened to the extra synagogue, and to the missing military academy?
The New York Times revisits Lod in a piece datelined May 21:
At that time, some 40 Orthodox Jewish families fled their homes as angry mobs rampaged in the streets. Many needed police protection when they fled and rioters set fire to cars, apartments, synagogues and even a religious school during three nights of unrest. About 30 families had returned by Wednesday.
How many synagogues, again? From “at least five,” to “at least four,” to, well, “synagogues and even a religious school.” Again, what happened to the pre-military academy? In fact, given the grammar of the relevant sentence in the original reporting, couldn’t a reader wonder whether the synagogues themselves (and/or the school)–however many there were–were connected to the military academy? How, by the way, do we account for the synagogue-subtraction in this reporting? How did we start with at least five, then move to at least four, then move to an indeterminate number? Are synagogues that hard to count?
These “pre-military academies” are not a minor feature of the Israeli social landscape. They’re “at least as” entrenched within Israeli society (to borrow a phrase) as JROTC is within American society.
The mission of the Pre-Military Leadership Academies (Mechinot) is not only to help young Israeli’s prepare for meaningful army service but to train leaders for civil society after the army. Whether in the private sector or public we already are seeing “mechina” graduates becoming leaders in their communities. This is a powerful force consisting of Israelis from all sectors of society who while recognizing differences in world view nonetheless work together for the good of the community and nation.
We hope to expand the “mechinot” from the 46 we have at present (from the Upper Galilee in the North to the Arava in the South) which include 3300 students a year, and to deepen their impact on Israeli society and on the Jewish People. We are proud of the fact that 90% of the graduates of “mechinot” serve in meaningful positions in the IDF (as required by the “Mechinot” Law passed in the Knesset in 2008).
Meaningful jobs primarily include combat units, and special units that directly support combat operations. It is important to note as well that “mechinot” participants make up 25% of the graduates of officer courses, and 10% of the graduates of the prestigious pilots course in the air force. Battalion and Division Commanders seek “mechina” graduates because the year of study and volunteerism prepares them to be mature leaders ready to take responsibility, lead by example, and deal with complicated situations and dilemmas with a high level of morality and humanity.
Note the deliberate blurring of civilian and military functions and roles. Of course, since most Israelis are subject to conscription into the military, it’s almost beside the point to dwell on these pre-military academies: almost all Israelis are citizen-soldiers; military values are woven into the fabric of Israeli “civilian” life. But the blurb for the pre-military academies makes clear that the grooming for military life is self-conscious, and starts early.
**I mentioned MacArthur’s atomic threats, but couldn’t have invented this.
Thanks to Ryan Neugebauer for helpful discussion of Junior ROTC in American high schools.