Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, summed it up, “There is something fundamentally wrong with the war, where there are more dead children than armed men." Something very wrong indeed, but hardly limited to the tragic conflict unfolding before our eyes on the borders between Israel and Gaza to the south and Lebanon to the north. Nations at war have come to accept “collateral damage” as a necessity, albeit unfortunate, of conflict. I’ve always found it a pathetic euphemism that belies the real cost to real people, however nameless and faceless they may be to the combatants. The victims (and their families) don’t see themselves (or their loved ones) as collateral in any way, nor are they. What’s so terrible about this is that good nations founded on idealism and boasting a moral compass have succumbed to an ends justifies the means modality if not philosophy that is both immediately destructive and, in the end, self defeating.
War is a conundrum. It is often seen as necessary, justified as retaliation but tends more to harden positions than solve problems. In the Middle East that is particularly true complicated often by disingenuously stated goals and, all too often, executional stupidity. Frank Rich recounts our missteps in Iraq once again in his July 30 Times column. Israel, on the other hand, has clearly been fighting time and again – beginning with the day its Statehood was declared – for survival. But equally, sometimes pushed in that direction from its religious and political right, it has squandered opportunities and misread the mandate of its own military success. True it took the West Bank after an unprovoked attack by Arab countries, but it never should have held on, certainly no longer than was necessary to help Palestinians to gain a state with which it could be interacting today. It has cost them lives and has impeded their economic growth. It has, with every passing day, diminished an already fragile support around the world, or in many cases obviated the possibility of building support where none was present.
The sustained bombing with its high toll on innocent civilians in Gaza and then in Lebanon reminds us once again of both the horrific tragedy of war (regardless of how it starts) and the specific dilemma faced by a nation like Israel whose very foundation is built on moral values, on theory at least of not being “like every one else”. To same holds true for the United States as it wages war often paying hollow lip service to the tragedy of “collateral damage”, a moral dilemma that was compounded for all of us when we learned of the abuses, still not properly addressed, at Abu Grahib, Gitmo and other American run prisons carried out under the cover of that catchall “war on terror”.
The moral problem facing Israel is particularly vexing because so many of us grew up to believe that this state was indeed something different expressed in that bucolic aspirational image of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” now a beautiful metaphor that has little to do with reality. We had so hoped for a powerful antidote to the horrors of World War II without which sadly a Jewish state probably would not have come into being. Perhaps that was naïve and most certainly the violent attacks it faced at the start may have made it an all but impossible utopian dream. There is no question that Israeli leadership is terribly torn by this inconsistency which one can hear in the voices and words of both government spokesmen and individual citizens. But the most heartfelt words and inner conflict that lies behind them doesn’t resonate with the families who are burying their dead, just as the victims of rockets that fly in a kind of Russian roulette pattern over Israel can’t quite justify their suffering with the legitimacy of the other side’s cause. The truth is there are no moral equivalents when it comes to innocent death or injury.
At this point, the Moslem world thanks in part to our own misadventure in Iraq, is increasingly falling into the hands of violent extremists. Their deeds, often carried out in the name of God, can never be justified. And there is no question that the lingering stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians plays a huge role if not in causing the unrest, then in giving it cover. In this context, the State for which my parents generation dreamed and worked and in which so many of my people live has emerged as a country known as much, if not more, for its military prowess than for anything else. It is noteworthy that Ehud Olmert is the first Prime Minister in a very long time who has no substantial military background. There is something poignantly tragic about this bit of historical trivia.
We know why Israel is flexing its muscle; and their articulate spokesmen have rightly contended that other nations would do no less. Whether it is using that power to excess or whether such a strategy is working for them (or ever does) is open to debate. I will readily admit that’s easy to second guess them sitting at my computer here in the still mostly sheltered United States. In contrast, my niece Tammy and her family who live in the North have had to alternate between living a life in the cellar and when necessary fleeing south to safer ground. In all fairness, imagine rockets coming from Canada and hitting upstate New York, New England or Detroit, imagine them coming from Mexico and landing in our beautiful Southwest. What would our government do and would we as citizens expect any less than an all out, perhaps even seemingly over response? Probably not, but that in itself is a large part of the problem. We have come to expect that “shock and awe” will solve all problems when in fact the case against the long (and sometimes short) term efficacy of violence is pretty compelling. Being on the other end of a gun or bomb may intimidate today, but it leaves an indelible impression, a wrong to be righted at some point in the future. As that predictable anger builds it brings with it an unending vicious no win cycle which is precisely where Israel (and increasingly the United States) finds itself today.
Decades ago as a young rabbi, I presided over an assembly of school children in my synagogue. The auditorium was packed and the assembled were singing with great enthusiasm. Suddenly in the middle of the room, a boy with a shock of dark hair stood up and at the top of his lungs shouted, “stop!” The kid, as it turned out, had perfect pitch and simply could not abide the dissonance of what he heard around him. The children responded to his command and resumed their song only after the music teacher got them back on melodic track. Where is that kid today when we need him so badly? Nothing will change until someone has the understanding and most importantly the moral courage to stand up and say “stop!” I know it’s not as simple as that and know also all of the reasons why it hasn’t happened and may not happen. But in the end that’s what it will take. The wrongs of yesterday will never be righted, the blood can’t be unspilled neither of the combatants or of those collaterals who have been caught in the cross fire. Tomorrow can look different, but it won’t happen by itself. Let’s all say it together, “stop!”