My occasional pen-pal Phil Weiss, he of the Mondoweiss website, that lair of American-hating Antisemites, wrote to tell me he was troubled by a short message I posted a few weeks ago on Twitter. This may be the time to admit that contrary to what you might think given our rather different public personas, Phil and I are cautiously civil with one another in private. We're not close buddies, and many months can go by with nary any contact between us, but when we are in contact it's usually civil, and sometimes even almost friendly. If it weren't for his absolutely totally inexcusably repulsive website. i.e. in another life, he and I might even be friends. Anyway, as I say, he was troubled by that message and wished me to explain. So I did. Next thing I knew he had posted our exchange on his website (perhaps he thought I knew he was going to do this though in the past he hadn't and he didn't say he would).
As of this writing, 24 hours later, 136 of his readers have commented on the post. I used to follow his commenters regularly, so I can say that the comments were rather subdued compared to standard viciousness at Mondoweiss. They mostly agreed that I'm a Nazi, and Israel's being a Nazi state is a given at that website, but not a single one of them made any intellectually interesting challenge to my note.
(The reason I used to follow them by the way, was to learn about contemporary anti-Semitism. When I was researching my doctorate many years ago the Nazis I was following were mostly dead and I learned about them from documents. The Mondoweiss hordes are alive and active, and I can provoke them and learn how they respond).
A few hours later, Elder of Ziyon copied the entire exchange onto his fine website, perhaps as a public service so people might read it without giving Mondoweiss the traffic. And here's the point I'm meandering towards: that the precise same set of arguments, actually, a cut-and-paste copy, is comfortable at two diametrically opposing websites. Phil put my mail online to demonstrate to his gang how far gone those Israelis are; Elder put it online to demonstrate how defensible Israel's actions at war are. Both readerships came away with the conviction they're right. Let it be clear: there's no moral equivalence between the two groups. Phil himself isn't quite an antisemite, but the crowd he travels with and hosts are indistinguishable from the swamp of European Jew-haters at the turn of the 20th century, plus Twitter. Elder's readers are the profoundly despised Jews themselves (and many comrades in spirit). Yet most of the people in both groups live in the US, and just about all of them, I suppose, live in Western countries which were formed by the Enlightened philosophers of the 18th century.
Those Enlightenment philosohers were complex fellows who had many thoughts (some of them hated Jews, for example). Yet one of the most fundamental thoughts they had was about the power of reason. They were convinced that humans could use words to understand reality in universal ways, which is to say, in compelling explanations and concepts which would make sense to any thinking person irrespective of their ethnicity, gender or social status (none of those terms existed in the 18th century).
They were wrong, it appears. Words don’t have the power to create anything resembling universal mutual comprehension. Since the Enlightenment is the fundament of the democratic West, this is a problem.
Anyway, here's the Mondoweiss link; here's the Elder of Ziyon one, and here's the entire text, up now also at my own place.
The original tweet:
Lesson of this war: The Jews will defend themselves even if it means killing children.Just like every warring nation in history.
— yaacov lozowick (@yaacovlozowick) August 4, 2014
Phil's mail to me:
This strikes me as a somewhat crude slogan– given that you’re an intellectual at the highest level.
And secondly, you omit me in your declaration of what “The Jews” do. I’m a Jew and I don’t want to be part of a collective that makes these types of determinations. And I feel great concern about having anyone — even the distinguished state archivist of a “warring nation” — announce to my non Jewish neighbors how many children I need to kill to keep my nation going. It’s actually a kind of blood libel– again from a distinguished state archivist.
Also: what does it mean to be a “warring nation”? Really, is that a category that any citizen would embrace? The history of “warring nations” doesn’t offer a lot of hope. It seems to me you are making Israel a Sparta [cribbing Hannah Arendt]. Or as my friend Golda once said to me in Rehavia, We’re going to have one war after another after another, till they accept us. It’s not a vision for a future. Yet 95 percent of Israeli Jews have embraced the Gaza onslaught out of this understanding. Which only increases the responsibility of American Jews to say, Not in my name!
And my response:
1. The Jews: It is an objective and implacable fact that Zionism is the largest and most significant Jewish project in at least 2,000 years, probably more. There are non-Jews who are Israeli citizens, there are Jews who intensely dislike Zionism, there are even a handful of anti-Zionist Jews in Israel. None of these facts can change the fundamental truth: in Zionism the Jews set out to re-create a national existence on the political playing field, in their ancestral homeland, and Israel is its expression, or outcome, or whatever you wish to call it. The fact that about 50% of the world’s Jews live in Israel strengthens this, (the proportion will soon tip over to more than 50%), and the fact that a majority of self-identifying Jews among the non-Israelis are Zionists, bolsters its strength, but doesn’t change it. You can’t have Jews pining for Israel over millennia and then going there, and not have it be the most important development in all those millennia.
You can rail against this for every remaining day of your life (until 120, as we Jews say), and it still won’t make the slightest difference, not even if you gather around you thousands or tens of thousands of like-minded American Jews. I think it was Abe Lincoln who once said in court something about the strength of a fart in a blizzard or some such. Live with it, Phil, because there’s nothing you can do to change it. Nothing.
(Apropos numbers: there were more Jews at the funeral of Max Steinberg last month, which I blogged a bit about, than all the committed Mondoweiss Jews together, and it was just one funeral).
2. Will defend themselves: Look, I know you’re convinced Israel is the once and always, perpetual aggressor. Of course this doesn’t explain how if we’re such aggressors the Palestinians keep multiplying and acquiring new assets such as the PA, parts of WB, all of Gaza, international standing etc etc. We must be really really bad at getting our job done. But as we both know, you and I can’t agree on the basic facts of this point, so let’s leave it as I said: A majority of the Jews worldwide and a total majority in Israel know we’re defending ourselves from enemies who would eagerly destroy us if they had the power, just as happened in the past. (Lots of non-Jews agree with us, by the way, either because we’ve got them under our thumb as you see it, or because it’s a simple fact, as I see it).
3. Even if it means killing: My PhD was about Nazis, and I know more about them than most people, so Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply to me. I can speak about Nazis as a scholar, not a demagogue. So here’s a thought experiment. Say that in order to end Nazism you had to kill 70,000 (not a few hundred) innocent, non-German civilians, Frenchmen, say. Would that be defensible? 70,000 dead French civilians, all innocent, many children, to end Nazism and as a by-product also end the Holocaust? Would that be moral? Permissible? Defensible in some later discussion? I ask because it’s not a thought experiment, it’s what the USA and UK did in 1944 as they went through France so as to destroy Nazism in Germany. Some goals, my friend, justify even horrible side effects, or collateral damage, or whatever you wish to call it. The reason being that the alternative, of allowing Nazism to stay in place, would have been far worse.
So If Israel has to chose between its own safety or refusing to kill any innocent bystanders whatsoever, we’ll choose to defend ourselves. You bet. Of course, we can seek shades of gray, alternatives of greater or lesser destruction, and we can argue about those and indeed, we must seek them and argue about them. But the basic framework remains solid. Our safety is to be assured even if there’s a price to it, even if some innocents die. As few as possible, hopefully, but the inevitably some, yes.
4. Just like every warring nation in history: Simple. Every single nation in human history, including in the 21st century, which finds itself at war, has one of two options regarding the moral dilemma in the preceding paragraph. Either it accepts that it will kill some innocents in order to protect ts goals, or it doesn’t care. The Syrian don’t care. ISIS certainly doesn’t care. The North Vietnamese probably didn’t care, so far as I can tell. I don’t think the North in your Civil War much cared. The US in WWII didn’t care at all when it came to German civilians in bombable towns. Hamas certainly doesn’t care – well, actually it does. It regrets it doesn’t manage to kill more Jews and Arabs who live among them.
Americans nowadays do care, as do the British, and a small handful of other mostly enlightened nations, Israel among them. Yet whenever they chose to go to war, they also accept they’ll be killing at least some innocent bystanders – and they then do. In Serbia in the 1990s, in Kuwait in the 1990s, in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, and yes, I’m sad to tell you, against ISIS in 2014 (and 2015? 2016? 2025?). No-one has existentially threatened the US since the 19th century, or maybe even ever. Which isn’t to say the US hasn’t fought just wars. But they were never about its very existence. And in every one of them they have killed civilians. Tragic, but true. And as long as the US continues to be at war, for whatever reasons, it will continue to kill civilians. As few as possible, one hopes, and one assumes they’ll take great efforts to limit the numbers, but to pretend you can go to war and not kill civilians is being willfully blind.
Israel, unlike the US, faces enemies who proudly broadcast their intention to destroy it, in the most basic meaning of the word “destroy”. So Israel must choose: will it defend itself even if thereby some number of innocent civilians die, or will it not defend itself, and thereby large numbers of its own civilians will die.
The answer is clear. Any other answer would be immoral.
So, that’s it. I know your methodology, and that of your fans. You’ll now turn to all sorts of other objections and whatabouttery. But I’ve responded to the questions as you posed them, and that’s enough. The whatabouttery is, by definition, about other matters.