A fellow named Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S. from 2009-13, in an editorial in the Washington Post, posits, of John Kerry and others pushing for a cessation of hostilities in the current conflict, “To preserve the values they cherish and to send an unequivocal message to terrorist organizations and their state sponsors everywhere, Israel must be permitted to crush Hamas in the Gaza Strip.” (Carthago delenda est?) He also claims that in the past, when Israel was persuaded to end similar operations, the terrorists “won” (though admitting that the bar for these wins was “extraordinarily low”), moving on to what we think is inadvertently the author’s key line: “So the cycle continued.” He concludes with the most Orwellian sentence either of us has seen in print in many a year: “To guarantee peace, this war must be given a chance.”
We of course have to begin by opting out of the choose-a-team phase of issues like this.* We neither stand with the European school of thought that almost reflexively sees the primary villain as Israel, nor with a single man who would blow himself up in a café or on a bus in the name of symbolically “striking” his symbolical enemy (for no one who does this is ever thinking about other human beings qua human being, ever). And weighing the wrongs of the two sides is about as useless an exercise as “Where did history begin?” We all understand (Postmanisms hopes), that resolving history’s endless parade of Oresteian bloodshed cannot be accomplished by deciding who had the land first, or who hit who first. The virus of a hatred that will not be sated with blood is latent in us all, to a man and to a woman, given the circumstances. We all know actual humans who slither about on the energy of perceived wrongs.
But let us take a look at the language of the man who, all he is saying is Give War a Chance. (cf. Hamas leader Khaled Messhaal’s Charlie Rose interview, from, we believe, the safe luxury of a posh hotel in Qatar.) First, everyone is always sending “a message” with their bullets, bombs, rockets, and blood. What message? That for every one of “us” who dies, a hundred of “you” will die? (Decode, if you can separate it from his group’s egoistic obfuscations, the “message” Usama Bin Laden “sent” to the symbolic West on 9-11-01.) Then tell us how that message can be separated from the nightly b-roll on television of weeping mothers and grieving fathers and blocks of living quarters reduced to rubble? If death in this fashion is a message, the meta-message is, “This, every day, is what all humans are constantly in danger of doing to all other humans. The choice, to continue or to stop, is yours.” We’re in Hannah Arendt territory here, as far from philosophical understanding as we’ll ever be, which was her point.
He dreams of “crush”ing Hamas. Name us one reason human beings have come up with for killing one another that has ever, in human history, been crushed? Do you realize that, in South America right now, people are being persecuted for witchcraft, inflamed by fundamentalist missionaries and their belief in a literal devil? Also, we’re being asked to see the conflict in purely political terms, as if there doesn’t stand, behind and before politics, human nature. Before any reader gets humpty about that archaic-seeming phrase, we’re not saying there is any such thing as “human nature” that the majority of people in even the average church (much less nation) would agree on. Just that one’s conviction about what human nature consists of will determine what actions one deems just. Those who believe violence and hatred begin and end with politics*** are invited to get back to us years from now and show us how well that political solution (whether it be war or power sharing) worked out.
And then that key line, meant to denote the seemingly endless recurrence of this particular conflict (though it must be noted that it is also, broadly, the most exasperating feature of all such conflicts, the kind of thing that makes your parents go, “They’ve been killing each other for centuries. There’s nothing we can do about it.”). Ambassador says, not without a note of exasperation himself, “So the cycle continued.” Of course, the author seems to firmly believe the “cycle” can be ended, if we’ll just let a few more hundreds of innocent human beings die in the heap with a few dozen guilty ones. So let’s construct a counter-reality. What if the only way to end violence would be not to escalate violence, most especially when one is provoked to it (the actual meaning of Jesus’ “turn the other cheek”; and admitting that if Hamas can’t keep members of its populace from killing innocent symbolical teenagers, it is certainly never going to be able to sell peace; same goes for Israel’s “settlers”—putting all your angry, ready-to-kill zealots in the same community is also no way forward). But what if, as we saw in the first week when hundreds of lousy little rockets managed to kill exactly one Israeli citizen, the nation had not launched a war? Would that not be a much clearer “message”? (Look for tunnels all you want; put every armed citizen on tunnel hunt for a month—your border’s not much bigger than the Gulf Coast of Alabama.)
Violence is a mimetic disease of the human species, and communal violence was probably necessary in our ancient past to keep us from wiping ourselves out (other animals never do this; they are incapable of holding fantasies of everlasting vengeance and “crush”ing enemies, and they never come up with the idea that some other animals don’t have the right to live next to them***). Again, read your Oresteia. But at this late date, when every human who wants one can get their hands on explosive weaponry, is it really too much to ask to try a little positive mimesis? Just like with violence: someone has to go first, to “cast the first stone,” so the other throwers can feel justified. What might happen if someone tried to be the first, just for today (and then tomorrow and then . . .), to DROP the first stone and walk away? Are these not the “values” we should “cherish” if we have any interest in our species’ survival?
And there are and never will be any “guarantees”.
* Wow. Want to see how incoherent morality can be without a language for it? See Sam Harris, Commercial Atheist, in Salon. Because he believes Religion is Stupid, he disapproves of a “Jewish state” (using the word “unjustified,” as if there is some common moral concept our combatants share that would make that term meaningful). But because of, um, Muslims, there is an “obvious,” nay, “undeniable moral difference” between these two groups in this particular battle. (Any thoughts on Ukraine, Sam? No religion in that one.) His words come from moral discourse but have no ground that he cares to explicate in his essay, because in our post-Enlightenment world, they can mean nothing on a communal level except the expression of preferences (here, Jews over Muslims, and sorry about the dead kids). His language is “emotivism,” as McIntyre has it in After Virtue, assuming a consensus about their meaning that simply does not exist now. Without a moral language, which has a tradition, what you have is ideology and politics (or **), from which you just pick a side in your sovereign individuality, then yell as loud as you can.
** (or economics, or psychology, or our irrational “lizard brain”, or just a bunch of neurons firing away for no particular purpose other than what we gather in our individualities to freely pick and choose like shoppers at the mall)
*** Imprecise metaphor, although: consider lion-on-gazelle action. Lion gets full, quits for the day. Lion does not suddenly decide to kill every single gazelle on the veldt.