I do not like Hamas. I detest religious fundamentalism and the use of suicide bombers. I find the group’s anti-Semitism and ruthless silencing of internal Palestinian opponents repugnant. The rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are a war crime. But this does not negate the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance to the long Israeli siege and occupation of Gaza.
The moral scum of any society rises to the surface in war. Those who have a penchant for violence and an access to weapons dominate the landscape. It was the criminal class and gangsters who first organized the defense of Sarajevo. It was the thugs of Gaza who took control to confront the Israeli army. This is nothing new in wartime. Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause. But there are moments when a people face the terrible tragedy of resistance or obliteration. This was true in Sarajevo. It is true for the Palestinians. It does not make it pretty or good. It is what happens.
The condemnation of the Palestinians for the use of force ignores the long violence of Israeli occupation. Those who call on the Palestinians to embrace nonviolence preach an airy utopianism. Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that the rise of fascism in Europe had to be countered by force, broke with liberal humanists over the issue of pacifism. He attacked pacifism as “simply a version of Christian perfectionism.” And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolence during the civil rights movement, never finally claimed to be a pacifist, although he understood and warned about the moral contamination of violence.
“If we believe,” Niebuhr wrote in his essay “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” “that if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of 2 percent of conscientious objectors to military service, Hitler’s heart would have been softened and he would not have dared attack Poland, we hold a faith which no historic reality justifies.”
“Yet most modern forms of Christian pacifism are heretical,” Niebuhr wrote. “Presumably inspired by the Christian gospel, they have really absorbed the Renaissance faith in the goodness of man, rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin as an outmoded bit of pessimism, have reinterpreted the cross so that it is made to stand for the absurd idea that perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory over the world, and have rejected all other profound elements of the Christian gospel. … This form of pacifism is not only heretical when judged by the standards of the total gospel. It is equally heretical when judged by the facts of human existence. There are no historical realities which remotely conform to it. It is important to recognize this lack of conformity to the facts of experience as a criterion of heresy.”
Pacifism, in times of war, always falls swiftly out of favor—indeed it is often branded as a form of treason—and the myth of human advancement, backed by war and violence, becomes the dominant ideology. The myth of human advancement is ironically often kept alive by pacifists in peacetime. This myth is used to feed the aggressiveness and cruelty of those who call for the use of violence to cleanse the world, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, of “the evildoers.” The danger is not finally pacifism or militarism. It is this latent aggressiveness and cruelty, wedded to the poisonous belief in the possibility of collective moral progress, a belief that defies human history and human nature. The belief that we can use violence to advance the world morally becomes especially dangerous in a crisis when human beings feel, or are made to feel, threatened and afraid. It informs and enlarges our innate human aggression. This is our disease. It is the disease of most Israelis.
This aggressiveness, as Sigmund Freud wrote, “… waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”
It is fear, ignorance, a lack of introspection, a failure of empathy and the illusion that we can create a harmonious world that lead us to sanction the immoral, to embrace Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil.” This is what Israel is doing in Gaza. It is what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And pacifism, ironically, subtly feeds these illusions.
The American and Israeli doctrine of pre-emptive war, disproportionate force and ruthless occupation to bring about peace and harmony is a fantasy. Such a doctrine regurgitates the old arguments for 19th century European colonialism. Violence and force will not make Israel, or us, safe. It will not turn foreign cultures into carbon copies of our own. It will not make possible our perverted and narrow ideal of human advancement. The violent subjugation of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans will only ensure that those who oppose us will increasingly speak to us in the language we speak to them—violence. The rockets fired into Israel are a response to the siege and occupation. They are a response to the language Israel uses when it addresses the Palestinians. And as long as the siege and occupation continue, as long as Israel speaks to the Palestinians through explosions and airstrikes, so will armed resistance to Israel. Once the dogs of hate and force are unleashed—and it is we and Israel who unleashed them—armed resistance is inevitable.
The Palestinian reaction to Israeli occupation should be familiar to Israelis. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, says that the Israeli government will have no dealings with Hamas terrorists. But Tzipi Livni’s father was Eitan Livni, the chief operations officer of the terrorist Irgun Zvai Leumi, which fought against the British occupation of Palestine. The underground Jewish group set off a massive bomb in the King David hotel in Jerusalem, a blast in which 91 victims were killed, including four Jews. These Jewish terrorists hanged two British sergeants and booby-trapped their corpses. Irgun, together with the terrorist Stern gang, massacred 254 Palestinians in 1948 in the village of Deir Yassin. Tell me the moral difference between Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Stern gang and Hamas. I fail to see one.
Israel hopes to cut a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. But the Israeli government squandered the chance to make a deal with Fatah. Israel once could have negotiated with the Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat, but it steadfastly refused. Arafat’s life ended with him surrounded by Israeli troops and unable to leave his bunker in Ramallah. Hamas, because of Fatah’s corruption and incompetence, won the Palestinian election in 2006. And all the bombing and shelling will not make Hamas, or some even more radical version, go away. Israeli will have to negotiate with Hamas or with no one.
War always opens a Pandora’s box of new problems, new disasters, increased suffering and dilemmas. It becomes its own culture. It radically alters reality through massive acts of industrial slaughter. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. Hamas is a distasteful and morally bankrupt organization. But the utopian project to bend Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan by force to our will has created a hell on earth for Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians and only enflamed these conflicts. The killings carried out by the United States and Israel dwarf the massacres carried out by Saddam Hussein, including his genocidal campaigns against the Kurds and the Shiites. We have become terribly efficient killers and the most potent recruiters for the region’s jihadists.
The echoes of Israel’s ruthless slaughter in Gaza, and our slaughters in Iraq and Afghanistan, will reverberate in the months and years ahead in expanded acts of terrorism and a new implacable militancy by the Palestinians and the Muslim world. There is a cause and effect. And those who tell the grieving families in Gaza or Iraq or Afghanistan to use moral suasion and nonviolence to counter tank blasts and airstrikes in crowded neighborhoods are as self-deluded as pro-war Israeli and American politicians who think they can blast their way to a solution.
The military occupation of Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan has failed. It has furthered the spread of failed states. It has increased authoritarianism, savage violence, instability and anarchy. It has swelled the ranks of our real enemies—the Islamic terrorists—and opened up voids of lawlessness where they can operate and plot against us. It has nearly scuttled the art of diplomacy. It has left us, like Israel, an outlaw state creating more outlaw states.
The rise of militarism is a familiar path taken by collapsing states. Militarism arrests social decay. It shoves this decay underground where it cannot be challenged by critics and social movements. Those who launch crusades hold out beautiful fantasies of freedom, liberation and peace. But the impossibility of these utopian dreams always turns these projects for human advancement into squalid justifications for atrocity. Realism, as John N. Gray writes, “requires a discipline of thought that may be too austere for a culture that prizes psychological comfort above anything else, and it is a reasonable question whether western liberal societies are capable of the moral effort that is involved in setting aside hopes of world-transformation.”
It is realism, an unflinching acceptance of our stark and severe limitations and an end to self-delusional utopian visions—those that embrace force and those that do not—that we must accept if we are to survive as a nation and finally as a species. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. We have to stand in the shoes of those we brand as the enemy. We have to see ourselves as others see us. Israel must negotiate with Hamas and end its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank to secure a lasting peace. We must withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and negotiate with those arrayed against us to find stability. Until this happens, we all remain trapped on a merry-go-round of death.