Moral Equivalence Redux
by Aron Trauring
Suppose you came across the following text:
You would immediately assume this is a typical argument that might be put forth by Israeli politicians or military spokespeople, or some pundit defending Israel. Except, the above text was taken straight off the Hamas web site! Of course, I substituted some words according to the following key:
IDF = Hamas
military actions = resistance
Jews = Palestinian civilians
Palestinian terrorists/terror = occupation
Jewish = Palestinian
terrorists = Zionists
Judaism = Islam
Here is the original text:
I don't need to convince my Jewish friends when I say this about the Hamas. It is so much harder for them to accept that the IDF, "the most moral army in the world," is acting immorally. But sticking ones head in the sand, refusing to face the reality of the situation, makes one complicit in the crime. In this recent article by Amira Haas, she carefully and clearly points out the yawning gap between the words of the Israeli army spokesperson and the reality on the ground. As time passes, this gap grows wider and wider. The Israeli army, which Israeli see as the vanguard of society, is losing all moral restraints.
In an article in the weekend paper, Amos Harel, Ha'aretz' military correspondent, notes how the army is convinced it is "winning the war."
Most of those killed yesterday were armed, but the number of dead, apparently the result of coincidence, is evidence of the campaign underway in the territories far from the public eye. It's a stubborn, sometimes dirty war, in which both sides are investing much effort to win points - and which neither side appears to be winning.
When Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon was commander of the forces in the West Bank in the early 1990s, he used to tell company commanders, "As long as we are on page 19 of the newspapers, everything's okay."
In recent weeks, it was just that. Three Israelis have been killed so far in December, compared to 44 in November and 22 in October. That's the result of the enormous pressure on the wanted men - and on the Palestinian population among which they live.
Of course, this was written before the most recent attack which killed another 4 Israeli civilians, and left many more wounded. So we are up to 7 dead Israelis, and the month not yet finished. But Harel goes on:
In the last four months, more than 50 terrorists have been killed in the West Bank. In Gaza, 220 have been killed since Operation Defensive Shield in the spring.
But Ya'alon wants more than that. In internal army meetings, he is talking about the need for a decisive victory and 2003 is being described as "the year of decision." It won't only by a by-product of the American assault in Iraq, but rather, he hopes, the result of the ongoing pressure on the Palestinians, including more arrests and many more demolitions of terrorist homes.
Since September, 78 houses have been demolished and the army believes it is the most effective deterrent it has found to foil terrorism. Army commanders speak about fathers who turn in their sons before the youths manage to commit terrorist attacks and the army destroys the family's home.
Essentially what this says explicitly is that the Israeli army openly and clearly believes that collective punishment against the Palestinian civilian population and the commission of war crimes are its most effective tools. In other words, the army is justifying the use of terror to fight terror. Once again, moral equivalence. Or rather, the lack thereof. "The most moral army in the world" no longer even pretends to be moral. And the next paragraph just drives the point home:
The "argument" used on both sides to justify terror, is that we are fighting to save the lives of our own innocent civilians. But the reality is, that terror breeds counter-terror. And even the army people, who are proud of their terrorist actions, admit this, as Harel continues:
Suicide bombings will continue, say the officers, because it's "the Palestinian Scud," and the threat could get worse with the start of a war in Iraq, when Palestinians will want to identify with the Iraqi people.
Those who argue against making a moral equation between the Israeli army and the Hamas, say that by doing so we are being moral relativists - not seeing the difference between good and evil. But in fact, I would argue exactly the reverse. Targeting civilians for a political goal is absolutely evil and immoral, no matter what your motivation for doing so. Both the Israeli army and the Hamas are guilty of such behavior and both must be condemned without equivocation. Those who see the violence of one side in this conflict as good, and the violence of the other side as evil, are justifying immoral behavior and so are being moral relativists.
A while back there was an interesting piece by Judith Shulevitz in the NY Times which addresses this issue. Shulevitz argues that we must judge people who do bad by their actions, not their intentions.
Another advantage of this position is that it allows us to admit what has seemed obvious all along: that Al Qaeda members and Palestinian suicide bombers are genuinely, sincerely, convinced that they are doing the right thing. That doesn't make them less evil, but it does make them more terrifying, since they force us to face the chilly reality of a world in which sincerity and morality have nothing to do with each other. How strongly you believe in something is irrelevant; what matters is whether your beliefs are the correct ones, and we figure that out that by examining what your belief leads you to do.
And that view demands humility,
since it holds as true for us as it does for our enemies. If there is
only a single standard of good behavior, then no matter how honestly we
believe in our causes -- in democracy, for instance, as opposed to
tyranny or religious totalitarianism -- we are never allowed to stop
worrying about our own morality when we march forth to defend them.
I would add the Israeli occupation government and army to Shulevitz'
list of those who are "convinced they are doing the right thing," but
are in fact doing something evil and immoral.
Sadly, intellectual honestly won't let me end here. Recently I was
having a discussion on the issue of intention vs. action with a friend.
I put forth the proposition that in Jewish thought, intention does not
matter when we do something good. The goal is to get people to do good
actions, whatever their motivation, with the hope that over time the
external will become internal. On the other hand, when people do bad,
intention does matter. For if not, we are all eternally condemned. All
of us have engaged in immoral actions at one time or another in our
lives, probably more often than we care to admit. As I have written elsewhere,
I myself participated in the immoral Israeli occupation. If intention
does not matter, than there is no hope for repentance, redemption or
Which leads me to this: while we can condemn actions absolutely, we
should never condemn actors absolutely, because actors are human, and
all humans are flawed. We must always leave open the hope that even the
most evil person can change and be redeemed. This does not mean we
condone or justify evil actions. This does not mean that we don't try
to prevent or stop them. What it does mean is that we leave open the
possibility for reconciliation and true peace, even in the most violent
of conflicts. Equally important, we leave open the possibility of
reconciliation and true peace in our own flawed lives.