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An Israeli soldier patrols the outskirts of Hebron / Photograph: Israel Defense Forces
As a child brought up in the Jewish-Israeli educational system, I was taught that none of Israel’s wars was a war of choice. Like most Israelis, I believed that Israel uses its military might only to defend its citizens from imminent danger. This is the Israeli ethos of necessary violence: peace is our yearning; war is our plight. We never choose violence, Israelis believe, violence chooses us. Hence the name of our military, the Israel Defense Forces.
Today, I no longer believe this is true. I believe that we, Israelis, did and do have choices. But how might a whole society be mistaken about such a fundamental aspect of its existence? Conversely, how can individual members of society, such as me, come to doubt widespread, deeply seated belief? Sometimes actions most see as entirely reasonable are, in fact, abhorrent. At times, imperatives to which whole societies subscribe amount to mere prejudice; communities commit grave injustices while fully believing they are in the right. But suppose you live in such a time and a place. How would you know?
Perhaps you couldn’t. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon argues that we seek justice in order to seem as though we are just. We are asked to imagine a just man, “a simple and noble person, who . . . wants to be just rather than seem just.” But what if he should don the famous ring possessed by the Lydian king Gyges, which made its wearer invisible? Glaucon reasons that, without seeming just to others, “no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice.” The invisible man lacks the motivation to act justly, because the ring allows him to get away with injustice.
A version of this story is to be found in our world, without magic rings. In this version, a just person acting alone becomes effectively invisible not because of sorcery but because a flawed view of justice dominates his or her social environment. To society, this person’s actions and beliefs are abominable, and therefore his or her justice goes unseen by everyone else. Such a person’s body would be visible, but his or her justice would be unrecognized and thus unseen. The person would therefore be forced to test his or her “iron nature” against pressure to conform to the unjust social norm.
You have to choose between the relationships that give meaning to your life and the truth of war’s futility.
According to Bernard Williams, we think of such invisibly just persons as “morally autonomous: as reformers, perhaps, or as people who . . . will not follow a multitude to destruction.” But this is only apparent in hindsight or reflection; when we “try to wave to” the moral resisters “over time or through the glass of the thought experiment, we are assuming implicitly that they have some essential thing ethically in common with us.” Williams wonders, however, whether the autonomous resister would be justified in his or her moral certainty. These heroes cannot see us waving at them to confirm their sense of justice. They could not have known that their ethical peers awaited them at the other side of history. How, then, could men and women who face moral isolation tell whether they are, to use Williams’s phrase, solitary bearers of true justice or, instead, deluded cranks? Put another way, how might such persons be not only just but sane, not only moral but reasonable?
It may be difficult to believe that our own ethical community could run so grossly off course. We usually imagine scenarios of moral isolation in distant times and places, or in dystopian visions. But of course this is the point: in our reluctance to suspect our own societies, do we not succumb to the social forces that invisibly just, morally autonomous people overcome—against which they struggle for their very sanity?
In fact, many contemporary societies grapple with wrongs and mistakes committed at times of large-scale moral failure. To consider the possibility of solitary moral resistance, we must look at our own past in relation to our present.
In Israel, the paradigmatic example of a war of necessity occurred in October 1973. The Arab Coalition, led by Egypt and Syria, launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in Judaism, which occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. From the south, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal, the 1967 cease-fire line, into Sinai. The Syrian army attacked the Golan Heights from the north. But Israel was able to regain the upper hand and secure a cease-fire that ended the war. In less than three weeks of fighting, 2,500–2,800 Israelis and at least 8,000 Arab Coalition forces were killed.
After the war, Israelis heavily criticized their government and military leaders both for ignoring all warning signs and for dismissing Egyptian attempts to negotiate a peace agreement before the combat began. The military leadership was forced to resign, and eventually Prime Minister Golda Meir and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan joined them.
Yet today the Yom Kippur War is remembered as unavoidable. The same is true of all of Israel’s wars, no matter how poorly conceived or how many opportunities for de-escalation became known after the fact. Even military rule over the Palestinians, with its incremental but continuous expropriation of Palestinian lands, is viewed as an unfortunate but necessary status quo which has lasted for nearly five decades. Violence chooses us again and again. This deep-seated conviction is expressed in two infamous remarks attributed to Meier:
When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.
Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.
It is not that the Israel Defense Forces is so named because it is only used defensively; rather, for Israelis, every use of the Israel Defense Forces is by definition a defensive act.
But the fact remains that Israelis have criticized their government for going to war. As in the case of the Yom Kippur War, in the wake of many Israeli wars there came a disenchantment. The military campaign on which Israel embarked in June 1982, and which devolved into the 1982 Lebanon War, at first enjoyed widespread public support. By September the Israeli organization Peace Now had assembled one of the largest rallies Tel Aviv has ever seen, to protest the war and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Initially the 2006 Lebanon War against Hezbollah was also seen as justified and necessary, but afterward the government appointed a retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd, to investigate the conflict. The Winograd Commission harshly criticized key decision-makers.
Like the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Israeli wars are preceded by a widespread sense of necessity and followed by damning public criticism. What explains this cycling of perspectives, the ritual of affirmation and rejection that endlessly loops? Why are we so bad at learning from our past mistakes precisely when it is most important that we do so?
The tendency for retrospective condemnation cannot be fully explained by the information made public in the aftermath of war, nor by the leisure of hindsight. Too many mistakes in judgment have been repeated too many times for such an account to satisfy. Consider Israel’s ongoing campaigns in Gaza, which continue to escalate in spite of obvious errors. Any reasonable review of these engagements reveals a consistent, perhaps obsessive, repetition of mistaken estimates, failures of foresight, unjustified use of force, and lack of clear objectives. If anything, strategic mistakes and moral failures have worsened with every campaign. The number of casualties illustrates this most poignantly. In the Gaza War (December 2008–January 2009), more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. During the last campaign, the 2014 Israel–Gaza Conflict (July–August 2014), more than 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed. A comparison helps to clarify just how disproportionate Israeli actions were: in the first three weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the American military destroyed 1,600 armored vehicles; in Gaza in 2014, Hamas had no armored vehicles, yet, on average, an Israeli tank fired seven times more shells per day than did an American tank in the invasion of Iraq. Israeli helicopters loosed twice as many Hellfire missiles as American helicopters did in those three weeks of 2003. Yet no one in Israel doubts that another war in Gaza, probably harsher than the last, is in the offing.
Whatever is the case with Israel and Israelis, the perspectival shift I have described—from war’s initial apparent necessity to recognition of its unbearable futility once the dead are buried and life (whose life?) goes on—is by no means unique to Israel. I dare say that this shift is a defining characteristic of war. For it seems to me that anyone who has a sense of the reality of war must recognize that war involves a radical distortion of one’s values, as well as one’s judgments of right and wrong. Indifference to pain and loss—one’s own and others’—is a prerequisite of war. Entire societies must grow numb to suffering.
As Elaine Scarry has shown in The Body in Pain (1985), the language of war often serves to conceal the deed itself, the better to induce an etherized state. We give benign names to weapons and campaigns, such as Defensive Shield, Protective Edge, and Pillar of Defense. We “neutralize” or “liquidate” enemy forces, “sterilize” or “clean out” cities and villages; “produce results” and cause “collateral effects”; “disarm” rather than “injure”; portray war as “the road” to “freedom” or “security”; and we describe the loss of life as “the cost” incurred “on the road” to such goals. The army is imagined as a giant creature with a body of its own, and military units—though comprised of individual human beings—are described as organs of this giant body. As Scarry puts it, “The ordinary five to six foot vertical expanse of the adult person now becomes a colossus with, for example, one foot in Italy, another in northern Africa, a head in Sweden, an arm pulling back toward the coast of France, then suddenly punching forward toward Germany.” All these deadening metaphors, deceptively descriptive proper names, and hollow strategic terms conceal the pain, suffering, and loss that make war what it is. A person who has experienced war and yet subscribes to such vocabulary is either disingenuous or else has lost touch with moral reality.
War commands a radically different common sense, and a different sense of justice. It punishes sanity and rewards insanity. As individuals, we do not make war but subject ourselves to it. We lose ourselves in it. The language of war overflows with assertions of control and power, which desperately mask the helplessness of a prolonged fit of rage. To return from war, you must find your participation in it incredible. If only for a period of time, you must struggle to believe that you took part in it. You must confront your moral insanity if you are to leave it behind. A person who has participated in war and then simply gone on with her life, seemingly untouched by the transition, has never in fact returned from war.
Sometimes the collective moral insanity of war is justified. Even those who are reluctant to see the Allies’ engagement in World War II as the epitome of justified war may agree that stopping Nazi Germany from conquering the world might justify all-out war. At other times, war’s insanity is unjustified but excusable. There may be circumstances in which false evidence tragically leads us to conclude that war is the only way to prevent an even greater ruin. It is also possible that making war is justified but blameworthy—for instance, if we miss the opportunity to peacefully prevent circumstances from deteriorating to the point where war becomes the only option.
Wars have a way of seeming impossible right up until the moment when they quite suddenly are (or at least seem to be) entirely necessary. It is as though once war becomes a plausible option—a live option, as William James would call it—it is then irresistible. For when war is merely an option, not a necessity, then of course we should avoid it. But if so, then war is never an option we may reasonably decide against: it is a necessity, or it is nothing at all. At most, there is a brief moment in which the matter may still be decided either way; a moment in which the live option of war can be quashed or realized.
Even when war is warranted, its destructive mindset is not continuous with one’s conception of oneself before war wreaks havoc and after order has been restored. The shift from the belief that war is a necessity to a retrospective awareness of its futility signals the suspension and subsequent return of sanity. In order even to celebrate winning a war, we must first deny that we have fought it—that is, we must ignore the horror, destruction, injury, pain, loss, and deaths that were essential to the war we fought. We overwrite the rotten bodies of the dead and the circumstances of their deaths with massive, clean, geometrical monuments, with flowers and pictures from the fallen’s unspoiled youth. Every war in which we engage, most especially a war we initiate, is a war we imagine as something else, something that makes sense, that has a meaning controlled and contained, understood and endorsed. A decent person cannot fully endorse even a justified war. This is not to say that a decent person should refuse to fight in one, but rather that the moral reality of justified war comes clearly into view only when we are of two minds about it.
It must be noted that since the practice of conscription was abandoned in most Western countries during the latter part of the twentieth century, wars have been fought on behalf of citizens, not by them. The moral experience of war has been outsourced to professional armies—often drawn from the poor and underclasses—who fight far away, indeed, as far as possible from the fresh air of the homes they purport to serve. Like many other facets of contemporary life, today’s wars rely on a division of labor that insulates most Western citizens from the moral significance of their choices, actions, and way of life. Wars have become so impalpable that we may not know whether and how many wars are fought on our behalf at any given moment. Not surprisingly, for the wealthy and bourgeois, this has made war both more abstract and, in a sense, less objectionable. More often than not, they do not know anyone serving as a soldier. To overcome this structural cluelessness, we must seek to understand the experiences we are spared.
When the possibility of war becomes real and comes to one’s home, one experiences a collapse of meaning that correlates with a sense of rapidly growing danger. Places that used to be safe—the grocery store, the way to the school or playground, the bus, coffee shop—are suddenly threatening. Things that seemed important—a family dispute, an exciting new job, a final exam, a date with someone you like—become negligible. One yearns for that which, until a moment ago, was taken for granted. Everywhere you go, you encounter people who feel that things cannot go on like this, that something (security, respect, deterrence) must be restored. And it is completely clear to everyone that whatever has been undermined can only be reinstated through violence.
When everyone around you succumbs to this “necessity,” to this call of violence, it is very difficult not to surrender to it yourself and even harder to publicly disown it. It is as if everyone has lost their minds all at once and made you into a madman, or worse, a potentially treasonous madman. When everyone around you thinks you are crazy, then you really must be crazy to believe you are sane. You must be crazy to think you are the only one to see clearly, even if you are in fact the only one who does.
You then have to choose between alienating yourself from the social relationships that give meaning to your life and alienating yourself from the meager, silent truth of war’s futility. By holding on to this truth you are losing everything you care for—you are losing your mind. Unless you find others who see reality as you do, you are bound to capitulate; you will support the war. The necessity of war is simply stronger than you. It descends upon you as a force of nature. This is its own “fog of war,” this sense of necessity that clouds the collective mind until it embraces the insanity of war.
In the early 2000s, when I was a soldier in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, my comrades and I took no interest in politics. Occasionally we had political arguments—I thought the occupation should end and that the Palestinians should have a state of their own—but we held no clearly articulated views about the justification for the military rule we were enforcing. We did not really care whether things could or should be otherwise, because things were not otherwise. The occupation was—it still is—a fact, and we were in the middle of it.
We did understand, however, the internal logic of the occupation. We considered every non-Israeli a potential enemy, a potential terrorist, and knew that the only way to control 2.5 million Palestinians who lacked citizenship and basic civil rights was to make them fear us. We “showed our presence” by using force, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Any use of force, arbitrary as it may have been, was called “prevention”: by intimidating the civilian population with arbitrary violence, we diminished the risk of violent resistance to our rule, thereby preventing attacks. Almost any person or action could be, or could be portrayed as, a threat warranting punishment. Decisions about who posed a threat and what punishment the threat merited were all determined by our “clear-headed judgments,” which were in turn supplied by our gut reactions. These reactions became more impulsive the longer we endured this predicament of complete uncertainty. As we harmed and injured more and more innocent people in order to prevent conceivable attacks, we felt the hatred toward us intensify and the threats multiply. We knew the danger we sensed was, at least partly, a reflection of our brutality, but knowing this did not make the danger any less real or alarming.
We knew that the danger we sensed was, at least partly, a reflection of our brutality.
That is what we knew, or thought we knew, and that was enough. We did not feel the need to defend the legitimacy of the military rule we were enforcing. We were simply sons and daughters of our society. We wanted to please our parents and our friends; we wanted to be respected, esteemed, and desired. We wanted to be good Israelis, salt of the earth. For most of us, refusing to serve would have meant giving up all of this, becoming failures in the eyes of those we cared for, those who cared for us. Back home we were decent people, but the occupation was different; it required harshness. We planned to return to decency once we finished our three years of service. We were involved in a nightmarish break from reality, to be endured before returning victorious to our society.
Social necessity, not conviction, made possible my morally impermissible service as an enforcer of Israel’s military rule. Still, I should not have done it. Today I know others who, unlike me, refused to serve as occupiers. It was they who responded to war with conviction.
Conviction need not be war’s ally and might well be its foremost adversary. By “conviction” I mean what John Locke described, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, as the life and power of true religion. “The care of Souls cannot belong to the Civil Magistrate, because his Power consists only in outward force,” Locke wrote. “But true and saving Religion consists in the inward persuasion of the Mind; without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” The point was that force cannot, and therefore should not, be used in order to influence or change the faith of individuals.
Locke also wished to bar religious leaders from using religious beliefs as instruments of political power. The alignment of religious conviction and political interest, he believed, was the source of religious strife in seventeenth-century England. By restricting political power to the civil interests of “life, liberty, health, and indolence of body,” Locke hoped to protect the innermost self—the place of conviction—from political power.
The self whose convictions Locke defended is the self compelled by war’s necessity. If conviction is kept separate from civil interests, then individuals may rely on it to resist the lure of war. For, in making up their minds about war, individuals may resort to a worldview removed from the perspective of their political institutions. Religious communities and other ethical communities lacking direct political power may counteract collective madness. The separation of state and church can protect us from the tyranny of politics as much as it protects us from the tyranny of religion.
Conviction can be nurtured in an ethical community of one’s neighborhood, but equally by one that extends across time and place, such as a religious or artistic community—even when we have no physical contact with other members of the community. The important point is that, for conviction to endure, there need be no immediate recognition of its validity, only the real possibility of recognition. We need to address someone who might actually listen, even if at present they cannot hear. They might be distant, but we must believe, if our conviction is to make sense to us, that there is a real chance they will receive our message. Conviction relies on a community, real or really possible, that subscribes to different standards than those of the majority. To be sure, I do not mean to support Glaucon’s cynical view, according to which we act justly merely in order to seem just, as a means of acquiring social status. But I believe Glaucon’s view is a caricature of an important truth: that the real possibility of seeming just to others is essential to our ability to act justly and understand ourselves as doing so.
A possibility of recognition offers an external point of view on the necessity of war and on politics more generally; it may account for individuals’ resilience in the face of social pressure. Conviction of this sort allows individuals to recognize themselves—their souls—even when no one else actually does. Those who act from conviction can rebel against what they think they know by siding with what they know without thinking. Thus conviction is what we need most when the fog of war taints our common sense.
But the capacity to reject the seemingly indisputable has a dark side, too. It is the capacity Abraham exercised when he conceded to God’s demand to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. Somewhat against rabbinic tradition, I interpret the Binding of Isaac (Akedah) as a reminder that when conviction is abused, it may facilitate evil. Abraham’s boundless love of God morphs into his unfathomable betrayal of his son. Isaac’s question for his father—“Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”—is the question of common sense asked against the backdrop of absolute devotion. There are horrors only conviction can bring about.
Our convictions are deeply and inevitably fallible and yet they are what we are most certain of. This certainty in the face of fallibility makes conviction dangerous, but can also make it a safeguard of our political conscience. To the same degree that conviction can prevent us from yielding to good common sense, it can also be what keeps us sane when engulfed by insanity. Conviction does this by making possible a point of view removed from our immediate social environment. For example, some of the most influential right-wing politicians and activists in Israel are religious or of religious background. Yet, equally, some of the main activists in Israel’s anti-occupation movement are religious or had religious upbringings. Religious conviction has enabled activists on both sides of the political map to draw on resources beyond the ethos of necessary violence in order to shape Israeli politics.
Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. Hebron, or al-Khalı̄l in Arabic, is a large Palestinian city in the West Bank and the only Palestinian city with a Jewish-Israeli settlement at its center. The Jewish settlement in Hebron is one of the most extreme in the West Bank. Its residents aim, explicitly, to expel all Palestinians from Hebron and thereby hasten the coming of the Messiah. About 215,500 Palestinians and 600 Jewish-Israeli settlers reside in Hebron. The settlers attack their Palestinian neighbors, invade their property, and enjoy the protection of the IDF while doing so. The Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and therefore do not have the benefit of IDF security. But there have also been Palestinian attacks on the Jewish community in Hebron. In response, the IDF makes a regular practice of evacuating Palestinian houses and businesses near Jewish houses. The settlers take advantage by occupying vacated structures. The IDF then steps in to defend the occupying settlers from possible retaliation and expels more Palestinians from the surrounding area. This has become a method of expansion for Hebron’s Jewish fundamentalists.
In 2007 Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist and Hebron resident supported by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, rented a house in the middle of the Jewish settlement. The house was owned by a Palestinian family that had been forced out by the IDF. It stood deserted until Issa moved in. Fellow activists, myself included, half-jokingly called it “the first Palestinian settlement.” The house had to be repaired and renovated, and it was important to have Israeli activists on site in case settlers harassed or attacked the Palestinian workers. We took turns guarding the house with video cameras, ready to document any abuse.
One night three of us walked up a-Shuhada Street, on our way to take the midnight shift at the house. A-Shuhada Street leads to the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is built around the Cave of the Patriarchs, and used to be a thriving market. In 1994 after a Jewish settler massacred Muslim worshipers in the mosque, the street was closed to Palestinians in order to protect the settlers from retaliation. It remains a Jewish-only street. We climbed the hill to the Jewish neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, at the edge of which stood Issa’s house. It was close to midnight and everything was quiet save for a group of Jewish teens sitting around a fire, singing songs.
As we walked by them, they recognized us as Israeli Jews and asked where we were going. We said “Tel Rumeida” and kept on walking, trying to avoid further questioning. The kids persisted: “Which family are you visiting?” they shouted from behind us as we walked away. We ignored them. Then one of them had an idea. He whispered something in his friend’s ear and ran after us. “Hey! Are you crazy?” he said. “What are you doing walking here, in Hebron, in the middle of the night, without any protection? The Arabs will kill you! You will be slaughtered!” We were not alarmed. We knew we were not in danger. We were more worried about the settlers than the Palestinians. Observing our reaction, the kid turned to his friend and exclaimed victoriously, “I told you they are leftists!”
You see, as young as he was, the boy understood that, within Israeli society, only settlers and activists know Hebron for what it really is. Neither group subscribes to the Israeli ethos of necessary violence. The settlers condone and choose violence in the service of religious and ethnic causes; the activists condemn and reject it for moral and religious reasons. But both settlers and activists act from conviction rather than fear. For only conviction—the inward and full persuasion of the mind—can withstand the capriciousness of politics.
Oded Na’aman is a fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows and, starting in 2022, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a longtime member of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of veterans who collect testimonies of Israeli soldiers’ from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His essays and works of fiction appeared in Haaretz, Alaxon, Ma’ayan, the Guardian, the Nation, Le Monde, Huffington Post, Foreign Affairs, and The Point. His 2014 Boston Review essay “The Possibility of Self Sacrifice” was noted in Best American Essays.
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