War Right Wrong — Impure (Gaza 2014)


These are some of the moral justifications used by rightwing (and also liberal) people supporting Israel in order to cloak the harsh reality of military violence against Hamas in Gaza. “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.” “The IDF deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.” “The IDF does not intentionally target civilians.” “Hamas hides military assets inside and under civilian infrastructure.” “What would any country do?” “Israel has the right and obligation to defend its own citizens from Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks.” “Hamas brings ruin upon its own people.”

Any one of these statements is more or less true, and some of them might be more true than others. Others are simply false by any reasonable standard. (Under any condition, no army deserves a Nobel Peace Prize). But they all obscure what seems to me to be a basic truth about military conflict, that the purpose of a military action, even the most justified, is first and foremost to project power by inflicting grave harm upon other people.

Tied up in moral knots, Noah Efron writes here about the conflict and its moral challenge this way. “And that is because these things don’t balance. The expectation that they might is based on the false assumption that the morality of this war is a “zero-sum” affair, and that to the degree that we are right, they (Hamas, the Palestinians and their supporters) are wrong, and the reverse. In fact, something like the opposite is true. Israel is right to defend itself. But as we do so, the Palestinians grow more right, too: right that they deserve an end to the suffering we are causing them. Our being right does not negate, but rather abets, their being right. And, equally, our being right leads us to do things that are, in truth, wrong.”  But if both sides are right, or have a right, and both sides are wrong, or commit wrong on each other, then maybe right and wrong aren’t the categories if we want to try to untie ourselves from these kinds of conceptual knots.

I would suggest another way to frame what’s at stake based on comments by friend-colleague Shaul Magid. Shaul argued on FB that war is inherently “sinful” no matter how justified. I would tweak the statement by only a hair. In the Bible, priestly authors describe the soldiers who went to war. The priests insist that whoever killed or whoever touched a dead person must purify himself before re-entering the Israelite camp Numbers 31:19-24. In the priestly strata of the Bible, to which this text belongs, contact with blood or with dead things, especially human corpses, is considered not sinful, but rather “impure.”

My takeaway from this biblical text is that even a just war or military action may or may not be sinful. Certainly they include moral sin. But what may be more to the point is that any military act, by its very nature, contaminates the person engaging in it. And it contaminates those who justify from close at home or those of us who watch from faraway. Tactile or visual, the very contact with blood, bloodshed, destruction, and death renders a person “impure.” The more steeped into the violence one gets, the more steeped in its discourse and rhetoric, the more compromised the position, the more compromised the actor. Maybe not morally, in terms of sin, but impure, in terms of gross contamination.

As readers of this blog might recognize, I have not been unsympathetic to the claims made by Israel about this war in Gaza, and that I have tended to place most of the onus on Hamas. I am sure I have disappointed many friends. My arguments with my friends and others further to the left of me is only to the degree that I think they moralize what is in fact political, that they tend to look at the Middle East in terms of sin, and that they seem to see only half the picture when they put that entire moral onus on Israel. In contrast, those on the right seem not to see even half the picture. I have been accused by another dear friend-colleague of posting nihilistic posts about Israel, Palestine, and Gaza.

Maybe the priests of ancient Israel were nihilists themselves. This is probably an apologetic, but I tend to think that impurity is a fact of life. Sometimes the contact is unavoidable and sometimes they are avoidable, as are these kinds of conflicts that we see over there in the Middle East from over here in the United States, a place not un-steeped in its own sin and contamination. The only thing I can say in my own defense is that I’ve never confused the pure and the impure. Unlike Rabbi Meir in the Babylonian Talmud, I’ve never tried to render something impure into something pure. More to the point, I’ve never considered myself to be uncompromised in any way, even when I think I’m “right” about this or that aspect of this particular conflict.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to War Right Wrong — Impure (Gaza 2014)

  1. Zach,

    I believe that the Israelis fought an unjust war unjustly, and that the Palestinians fought a just war unjustly. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides, and at least some times militants were fighting militants. Perhaps, as some have argued, the jus in bello laws of war are simply incapable of being applied in an asymmetric war where civilians must be involved.

    A very good piece explaining why the war was just ad bellum for the Palestinians and not for the Israelis is offered by the liberal political theorist and international relations scholar, Anthony Burke.


    You suggest that your approach is more “political” than “moral”. Well, Burke’s approach is grounded in international law, which, he feels, is inadequate in protecting civilians. As for politics, I don’t have to tell you that there are many realists who think that US’s continued support for Israel harms the United States, and isn’t good for the region either. But I plead guilty to being a moralist — justice is my concern as a human being and as a Jew. Of course, I do not wish to imply that everybody has to share my moral intuitions or judgments, and people can disagree about who or what is moral, within limits.


    • zjb says:

      As always thanks, Jerry. On an earlier post, I actually argued that both sides have their “right” in this most recent conflict, and as always the question revolves around the exercise of that right, i.e. the right to resist occupation and siege and the right to defend one’s citizens. The deep point around which we agree, if I may be so bold, is the way that asymmetrical warfare involving civilian populations has scrambled the laws of war. I think too that we share the same moral intuitions and even judgments. I think the disagreement between us remains political. If the difference was moral, I don’t think we’d be able to speak with each other.

  2. Well, if I ever say something that suggests we won’t be able to speak with each other, let me know and I’ll retract it after an apology!

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