The horror of the past week is hard to process. Matt Gurney called it watching a pogrom livestreamed. In my family we passed down the stories of those pogroms. Like many young Dutch boys, my dad had his first chocolate from Canadian soldiers in Operation Market Garden. Like many of his fellow countrymen, his last name—my last name, my son’s last name—finds a home on the wall of the Righteous Among the Nations. Often around our adopted new home’s Remembrance Day, we would hear those stories again. Only about ten years ago my uncle on my mother’s side finally donated to a museum the Nazi hand grenades, Lugers, and uniforms from his old hay barn, abandoned there in their hasty retreat.
When we see Jews stuffed into vans, burned and mutilated, beheaded and dehumanized, it is an old story. We remember. It is hard to suppress those emotions or see past them. The raw response, hard to silence, blurring out clear thought or analysis, is for revenge: overwhelming and indiscriminate. It is a human response.
But my inheritance was not just that war, or its holocaust. In the bags my parents brought with them to distant shores, they packed a Dutch Calvinism—that same Calvinism that resisted the dehumanizing tyranny of the Nazis—of moral, theological, and political conviction. I am a student of that too, of what people like Simon Polinder, myself, and others have called an Amsterdam school in a much bigger tradition of Christian Realism. Among its number we could count great ethicists like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Martin Wight, Herbert Butterfield, Abraham Kuyper, and, yes, a good many righteous gentiles.
How can they help us understand the meaning of justice after such widescale atrocity? Can they help clear the fog of hate and despair, of recycled violence and revenge?
Gaza Is a Trap
Justice, like the just war tradition, is never abstract, which is part of the challenge of studying philosophical concepts. To know what is just is a matter not only of “right relations” but of practical context, constraints, and history. Herbert Butterfield famously thought of the work of diplomacy as a branch of applied history.
When we talk about Israel and Palestine, the story matters. The origin of the Jewish state after World War II, a major effort taken up by the international community and authorized in UN Resolution 181, did indeed dispossess many Palestinians. The postcolonial chaos after the British withdrawal, not unlike in many places where empires folded and departed overnight after the war (think of India and Pakistan), was violent and brutal. The eventual existence of a Jewish state was not a foregone conclusion. It was nearly snuffed from existence in 1967 again, when its Arab neighbours invaded. This Six-Day War was when Israel took control of Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. In return for recognition from Egypt, Sinai was returned in a peace process. Gaza was not returned, though it was originally under the control of Egypt and attempts have been made on several occasions to “return” it to Egypt. Again in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, of which this past weekend was a kind of perverse anniversary, a surprise attack, owed in part to a major failure of Israeli intelligence, nearly ended the country again. That war nearly escalated to nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Americans at one point surfacing their nuclear submarines to ward off direct intervention from other powers. It is a role that the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group in the Mediterranean today will find familiar.
Justice, like the just war tradition, is never abstract.
Since that time, the peace process has been nothing short of a disaster. Despite Israel evacuating from Gaza in 2005, and the subsequent elections of Hamas, no meaningful progress has been made on the originally planned two-state solution. Hamas maintains what to many would seem a surprising amount of support among the civilian population—they are not a minority fringe. And they are not, it should be emphasized, interested in two states. They are interested in driving a genocidal campaign of Jewish eradication. It is hard, in that context, to negotiate a middle ground.
None of which is to say Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza has not been a terrible failure. Israelis themselves say this, as one would expect in a vibrant and outspoken democracy. The dramatic expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the normalization of Arab state relations with Israel, and the pivot of the United States to the Pacific has meant for Netanyahu’s government that the Palestinian peace process is effectively a dead letter. There was no incentive to do more: Gaza would remain bottled up, perhaps a project for the United Nations or other Arab states to sort out (one does recall that until 1967 it was Egyptian and that it maintains a major land border with Egypt), and the West Bank—which seemed more Fatah and less Hamas—would slowly be converted into more and more Israeli settlements. The incentive to do more, especially in a coalition government with its own share of radicals, was low.
All of which is to say that Gaza is a trap. The atrocities committed in southern Israel—into territory originally part of the Resolution 181, and legally, internationally, not occupied territory—were designed for maximal savagery. All sides want that savagery in your feeds. It serves their purposes.
In their gleaming towers in Qatar, senior Hamas officials have candidly stated they are inviting—praying for—widespread reprisal. A ground invasion is their main objective (“We cannot beat their planes, but we have many very brave men who will meet them on the ground”), and the terrible humanitarian carnage that will ensue. Israel has invaded twice since 2005: in 2009 and again in 2014, but both operations were brief. This time, a land invasion would not be, and the dense urban enclave of Gaza will make it a tactical nightmare—especially since Hamas has had nearly a decade to prepare. Many, many more Israeli lives will be lost. Gaza will pay even more heavily, but, argues Hamas, these vengeful atrocities against Palestinian civilians will only escalate the conflict further. The goal is to escalate the conflict so dramatically that it will pull in Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria, and maybe even Iran itself. The goal, in other words, is a Middle Eastern war, one of extermination, targeted at Israel. In that war, Gaza is a necessary sacrifice to achieve the larger aim. The desolation of Gaza will make many glorious martyrs.
It is not, all told, a meaningfully different strategy from what al-Qaeda pursued against the Americans in Afghanistan.
The Ends Never Justify the Means
I met with a student on Tuesday who had just finished the CCCU’s Middle Eastern Studies Program. She had visited Gaza and the West Bank; she was hosted in Jordan. She had many friends from her time overseas. They were all celebrating this past weekend—the beheadings, the burnings, the rapes. They told her that these were necessary evils to achieve a larger justice, that this is what “decolonizing” looks like, and that insurrection against occupiers is bloody but heroic business. She is my student, and her moral confusion is the privilege of someone very young confronted with terrible evil.
This kind of pragmatism has permeated our moral calculus, and I am now convinced that this corrosive ethic is a cancer that cannot, under any circumstances, be tolerated any longer. It cannot be tolerated in our boardrooms or our families or our communities. The ends do not justify the means. It is never right, as Paul Ramsey so candidly put it, to do something evil in order to achieve something good.
On this, Keith Pavlischek provides a critical correction to Reinhold Niebuhr’s ethics of war. Niebuhr argued that war is evil, but a necessary one in order to restrain greater and even worse evil. Bad things need to be done sometimes to protect good people. But the violence of that slippery logic is manifest in Niebuhr’s curiously casual concept of nuclear war: it should never be done, unless it must, and then in order to achieve a larger good. That is the logic that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ethics in war, and just war in particular, exist specifically to argue that force is sometimes necessary, and that when it is used it must be used for the right reasons, in the right way, for a right outcome.
Contrary to Niebuhr, argues Pavlischek, the entire tradition of just war exists to refute this logic. Niebuhr basically accepts the pacifist argument that war is always wrong, and that killing in war is murder. If a soldier is sinning already, in other words, what’s a little extra sin to make sure you get the job done?
There is no religion on this planet that accepts this reasoning: not Judaism, not Christianity, and not Islam. Ethics in war, and just war in particular, exist specifically to argue that force is sometimes necessary, and that when it is used it must be used for the right reasons, in the right way, for a right outcome.
This is elementary ethics. It is so remedial that I am embarrassed to write it out. But I am sorry to say that too many inside our own societies, in Canada and the United States, seem to have rejected it.
Jus Post Bellum
The terrorism of Hamas was not just and could never be just. Even if we could agree that there is right cause for war—a fact on which there may be reasonable disagreement—these are not the right ways, and they are not aimed at a right outcome. This is, in fact, not war. It is terrorism, and it should be treated as such. This, finally, is the judgment on Hamas: the extermination of the Jews and the Jewish state is not a just outcome, it is not a just peace, and there can be no negotiated middle ground. There can be no just peace with Hamas. But there can be a just peace with Palestinian people.
What might some practical steps toward such a just peace be?
- The IDF should not invade Gaza by ground, and Israel should reopen fuel, electricity, and water via the Rafah border with Egypt. Tactically, it rarely makes sense to do what your enemy wants you to do. A ground invasion of Gaza will be a humanitarian catastrophe. Already, air strikes have crippled infrastructure and killed many civilians. Israel is at war with Hamas, not Palestinians. Hamas is labouring to erase that distinction; their abominable use of civilian shields and civil infrastructure for weapons depots are their tactics. The United Nations and its proxies can obviously no longer be trusted to provide humanitarian or logistical supports. Israel must leverage its newly normalized relations with Arab states to facilitate humanitarian aid through the Egyptian border. I do not suggest reopening the Israeli border. That border may never open again, and that is a tragedy for economic integration and development. But in the short run, Christian Realism counsels restraint rather than revenge. Arab states may not cooperate. Some bear more than a little responsibility for the desperate poverty and radicalization of the Palestinians. But the offer should be transparent and public.
- Hit Hamas in the money and encircle Qatar with the help of the United States until senior leadership is relinquished. This may mean escalation with Iran. I have no interest in dismissing Obama’s or Biden’s foreign policies. The JCPOA, pursuing normalization with Iran, reducing its enrichment program, resets with Russia, exchanges with China—these were always aspirational diplomatic efforts. In retrospect they look naive and idealistic, if not dangerous. But hindsight has many benefits, and a Christian Realist is always on the front lines of diplomacy for a just peace. 9/11, like the Yom Kippur War, is a bad metaphor in many ways for this weekend’s events, but in one respect it is right: the terrorists, their trainers, financiers, and safe harbours, must meet justice. It is not revenge, it is justice to degrade Hamas. That trail may start in Gaza, but that is not its ultimate source.
- Leverage restraint in Gaza for stronger normalization with the Arab states and press hard on Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It has always been true that the road to a Palestinian peace runs not just through Tel Aviv but also through Riyadh, Cairo, and Amman. Hamas’s desperation was driven in part by the loss of leverage in Arab capitals as normalization in relations with Israel picked up pace. Don’t let Hamas steal the Palestinian cause: expose them to their own people as the criminals and terrorists that they are. This is what an ultimate strategic defeat of Hamas looks like: a normalized Israel, increasingly accepted by and integrated with the other Arab states of the Middle East; a Jewish state, respected, secure, thriving.
When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them
We are now entering a very dangerous, but also a morally clarifying moment. As one colleague of mine from Bar-Ilan University said to me in an email, paraphrasing the now famous aphorism, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” As the pundits have put it, the only thing worse than an American world order might be the post-American world order.
Now is the time to listen. Christian Realists are long on systems and institutions, on Augustinian dilemmas and just peace, but at root they are, as Herbert Butterfield liked to think of himself, historians. They are people listening to stories, to how actions are justified, morally calculated, cosmically accounted. The moral confusion around language of settlers and decolonization, the equivocation around violence and “distasteful” methods: these are notes to listen for. Let the hearer understand. We are on a dangerous path of moral equivalency and slippery pragmatism, and it is a moral rot as much at home as it is abroad. This weekend the Jews, again, paid an ultimate price for our indifference and complacency. To be sure, they have—and will—point plenty of their own fingers, at their government, their intelligence, their failed peace process. If there is one thing you can trust an Israeli with, it’s to get to the bottom of who is to blame. Accountability will be exercised. But we, too, should be listening. I wish the world had become the interconnected liberal democracies of our most dizzying post–Cold War dreams. It didn’t. We have built our best systems and institutions, and still the rapacious, restless evil of human hearts roams this earth. We should still build those systems. We should still repair those institutions. But we should also listen. A new world order is coming. And the Jews—the Ukrainians, the Armenians, the Uyghurs—are only the first.