Moral Clarity about the Israel-Hamas War

Morality is often a one-way street depending on one’s perspective and, more importantly, depending on the result one seeks to achieve

By Anil Madan

Which side is morally right in the Israel-Hamas war? A week or so ago, a friend asked me that question. I pondered with my hand over my mouth, as if shutting myself from speaking too soon before thinking. Recently, the editor asked me to write on this subject.

The truth is that I do not feel particularly equipped to speak about morality. Yes, I know the definition of “moral”: concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour and the goodness or badness of human character. Or holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.

Moral Clarity about the Israel-Hamas War. Pic – The Daily Beast

My view of morality is tempered by a pragmatic sense of reality. First, ever since I can remember, I have struggled to understand man’s seemingly infinite capacity for hatred and evil. Second, I know intuitively that if Germany had won the Second World War, there would have been articulation of the concept of crimes against humanity or of war crimes. Certainly, there would have been no Nuremberg war crimes trials.

When I read the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture known as The Song Celestial, I was struck that its theme is that God, Lord Krishna as he is known, is conveying to Prince Arjun that it is acceptable for him to kill all one hundred of his half-brothers because it is his duty to kill them: one can kill only the body but not the soul because the soul is immortal. The idea of morality is given fleeting short shrift.

When it comes to killing, much of morality as we know it today is concerned with the killing of the body. Little attention is paid to the soul. And if there is a notion of just war, the notion of necessary killing washes away the unnecessary impediment of morality.

A day of horror, a day of mixed moral messages

October 7, 2023, a day of horror, was a day of mixed moral messages for Israelis. It is not unfair to say that Hamas unleashed a day of moral turpitude and evil, the likes of which has seldom been seen in the history of mankind. Comparisons to the Nazis immediately sprang to mind. But, as Douglas Murray, a journalist at the Israel-Gaza border explained to Piers Morgan, it was dimensionally worse. Morgan began, in his usual self-important, pugnacious and ill-informed way: “But what concerns me about what Israel is doing, is not their efforts to get rid of Hamas, but because of the particular nature of Hamas embedding themselves among the civilian population with the massive amount of civilian casualties that will inevitably come, and that figure will grow and grow and grow, are we not, as Barack Obama warned, creating here, just an opportunity for far greater radicalization of all those young Palestinians who watched their loved ones getting killed? Why would we imagine that at the end of all this they would want to do anything other than to become a new version of Hamas in wanting to exact revenge for what happened to their families?”

Before I get to Murray’s response, I want you to ponder the one-sided nature of this question. When Hamas committed its atrocities and young Israelis watched their loved ones getting killed, why would we imagine that at the end of all this they would want to do anything other than to exact revenge for what happened to their families? And if the Israeli nation writ large is a proxy for those who cannot avenge the killings, should we be surprised at the response we have seen?

Murray’s answer was twofold. First, he pointed out that if you follow the logic of what Obama said, then you shouldn’t do anything if you are Israel. You should just sit back and say, “We’ll just wait for the next one.” Second, he pointed out that Morgan’s question supposes that there is a peaceful population in Gaza that would just love a two-state solution, and then a few bad apples in Hamas. He asseverated that this is not true. A young German Jewish girl at the music festival was raped and murdered and taken into the Gaza, a mob of ordinary Gazans were spitting on her body, hitting her body, and mutilating it. He added that during World War II, the German soldiers who were ordered to execute Jews, felt remorse, and often were known to drink heavily to deal with what they had done. The Hamas assassins and attackers, on the other hand, appeared to enjoy what they did and to take pleasure from killing Jews. And the Gazan population displayed no inkling of moral rectitude as they attacked a corpse. 

Let us look at this from the other side. The Palestinians believe deeply that their land was stolen from them in 1948. They consider their displacement the “catastrophe” or Nakba. They have long nurtured the idea that their struggle against the very existence of Israel is morally right. Killing Jews is, therefore, not a moral wrong.

Often, humans who have suffered moral injury are powerless to do anything about it. Witness the Tibetans and Uyghurs in China, the population of Hong Kong, the Native American population, the Aborigines in Australia — there are a thousand other examples in the annals of humankind. So, it is that Palestinians lament their fate. In such situations, proxies rise to fill the vacuum because there is an opportunity for exploitation, profit, control, and power.

The difference in the Middle East is that from the outset, the Arab countries were champions of the Palestinians and avowed enemies of Israel. They tried but failed to extinguish Israel’s very existence. Now, there is a new reality and with it a new morality: Israel is more valuable as an ally than fearful as an enemy. Morality be damned. There is one major exception: Iran. Among the Ayatollahs, morality is nonexistent as we have seen. They see their own populace as vermin to be controlled by harsh rules. And Israel is a convenient scapegoat.

The need for moral clarity

Israeli leaders often speak of the need for moral clarity. So, when students in American colleges rally in pro-Palestinian gatherings and marches and university presidents fail to condemn Hamas unstintingly, this is seen as a lack of moral clarity. While it is true that many university presidents have been lily-livered as they have tried to pander to both sides, the truth of the matter is that the university should be the place where opinions are expressed. In the morality of free expression, there should be no expression of an institutional opinion other than that the free expression of opinions and peaceful debate on them is its mission.

When it comes to condemning Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians, I have no hesitation in finding the moral clarity to declare that it was yet another example of animals in human form rising to new heights of depravity. There is simply no justification for what happened. None.

After 75 years of Israel’s existence, one would have thought that notions of destroying the nation would have passed. They have not. The journalist Murray’s observation, referenced above, leads us to wonder if Israel should sit back and wait for the next one or whether the morality of existential struggle should rule the day.

Then there is the issue of proportionality. Let us not dance around this. There is nothing proportional about more than 11,000 civilian deaths among which are almost 5,000 children, in Gaza. As I have written, the recognition of Israel’s right to self-defense is not the same as saying all of its actions are moral. Indeed, the articulation of the notion that Israel has not only the right to defend itself, but the obligation to its citizens to do so, transcends the morality question. Putting it in stark terms, if an Israeli Prime Minister were told that the choice is between the extermination of 10 million Jews in Israel or the lives of 2 million Gazans, the answer is not difficult to grasp. And, on other hand, if one were to ask a Palestinian to choose between 2 million Gazans and 10 million Jews, the answer is again not difficult to imagine.

Morality is often a one-way street depending on one’s perspective and, more importantly, depending on the result one seeks to achieve.

The sad truth is that in the history of mankind, all too often, the elimination of Jews is not seen as a moral wrong, or amoral. For too long, in the history of Israel’s existence, this point has been overlooked.

I am struck by two thoughts here. First, some days ago, I read a comment by a Jew. “We pray for peace. We do not pray for the death of any other people, or their destruction.” And a quote I read on Anu Garg’s Wordsmith website today: “He who, when called upon to speak a disagreeable truth, tells it boldly and has done, is both bolder and milder than he who nibbles in a low voice and never ceases nibbling.” — Johann Kaspar Lavater, poet, writer, philosopher (15 Nov 1741-1801).

That last leads me to disclaim any idea that I endorse the killing of civilians and children in Gaza. As I wrote immediately after Hamas’ attack on October 7, how to respond would be a test for Israel which will find itself in danger of committing genocide.

Israel has passed the test of its own existential survival. Has it passed the moral test? My answer is sadly, no.

Ultimately, morality is a luxury of the victorious sometimes displayed by grace in winning, just as charity is often a luxury of the affluent but doled out by those who have the least.

This war is another example of humanity’s failing the morality test. The Palestinians who pray for the destruction of Israel will end up weaker both physically and morally. Israel will come out stronger in its existential struggle but diminished in its moral struggle. And yet, there are those who will say that its existential struggle is the only morality its leaders need to ensure.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 November 2023

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