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The Rhetoric of War

Truth is the first casualty of war, said the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. There is something about war that lends itself to euphemism, political spin, and flat-out lies. The rhetoric of war gave us this humdinger from Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The goal often seems to hide the true horrors of war but it also allows each side to justify the horrors it commits. I have been in numerous arguments with people over the Israel-Hamas war. The more I think about it, the more my concerns home in on the language that is being used to justify or vilify one side or the other. Here are my opinions about some of the phrases that comprise the rhetoric of this particular calamity.

(Illustration by Alex Angelich, University of Virginia Communications)

Israel has a right to defend itself

Of course it does. Every nation under attack has the right to defend itself. So why do we hear this so often about Israel? One important answer is that Israel gets attacked a lot. But why do we always have to reiterate that Israel has a right to defend itself? My opinion is that it’s political cover for what we know will happen when Israel defends itself: it will cause 10 times the casualties it has suffered, as it has in the current conflict. Minus reiterating Israel’s rights, it looks like Israel is overresponding to for the initial attack, being too bloodthirsty, too militaristic, taking way more retribution than is necessary. And it looks that way because that is what is happening. Israel has organized, highly trained, and strongly motivated armed forces. They have the best of Western weapons equipment and a missile defense system that is the envy of the world. And they wield that might mightily. Too mightily for my taste. I believe Israel has a right to defend itself—but it does not have the right to cause enormous civilian deaths (which it does) and it does not have the right to keep causing widespread death and destruction once the initial threat is quelled (which it is doing right now).

I Stand With Israel

All things being equal, I, too, stand with Israel. I want Israel to remain a free and autonomous—and mainly Jewish—state. I am not a Zionist but I see no reason to take sides with anyone against Israel, given that it is here and it an important ally. But in war, all things are not equal. What does it actually mean to stand with Israel right now? Do I stand for the ultra-Orthodox making laws that demean women, question the legitimacy of Jews who are not Orthodox, and relieve themselves of the duty to serve in the armed forces? No, I don’t stand for that. Do I stand for decades of apartheid-like persecution of Palestinians living within Israel’s borders, bulldozing Palestinian homes to build illegal Jewish settlements, and restricting access to water, travel, and jobs? No, I don’t stand for that. Do I stand for the disastrously corrupt government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been trying to usurp the power of Israel’s Supreme Court? No, I don’t stand for that. Do I stand for the widespread murder of civilians? No, I don’t stand for that, either. So if I was to say “I stand with Israel” right now, what do I really mean? What am I standing with Israel about? As a Jewish American, I guess I’d be saying that I want Israel to exist and to keep existing. But with the US as its ally, Israel’s existence is never really threatened. So maybe it’s just my way of saying I’m Jewish and Israel is a Jewish state and that’s enough. Except that it strikes me as not being nearly enough. I want Israel to live, but I don’t want Israel to be like the Israel that it is right now. I want it to be the Israel it was promised to be, based on Jewish values. That’s an Israel I can stand with.

Free Palestine

I am absolutely in favor of a free Palestine—an autonomous, free state for the Palestinian people. I am also absolutely in favor of Israel adopting laws and policies that release the constraints it has placed on Palestinians in Gaza. But the idea of a free Palestine only works if it lives side by side with a free Israel. I don’t want the entirety of present-day Israel—“from the river to the sea”—to become Palestine, and I don’t want Gaza and the West Bank to become colonized parts of the Jewish state. Either share the land or be buried in it.

Eliminate Hamas

This is Israel’s stated objective. But it can’t be done. Like a lizard, if you cut off a limb, a new one grows back. Hamas is not a nation, it’s barely a government. What it is is a resistance focused solely on destroying Israel (which also can’t be done) because they have the land and the control that the Palestinians want. You can defeat an army but you can’t destroy an idea. Hamas is a terrible activation of that idea because it takes it to extremes. Instead of diplomacy it uses violence. Instead of promoting the dream of a free Palestine that co-exists with Israel, it seeks to effect a genocide and claim all the land as their own. How can Palestine hope to take its place among the family of nations with a terrorist organization such as Hamas at the controls? It can’t. Similarly, Israel can’t continue with the constant threat of attack coming from Palestinian territories. The choices are to make peace or make war. We see the horror of war every day. But it won’t end because Israel cannot destroy Hamas and Hamas cannot destroy Israel. And while Israel is continuing to dismantle Gaza in search of Hamas militants—instead of finding and freeing the remaining hostages—Yemen’s Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah are taking their own potshots at Israel, further complicating efforts to make peace. It’s true that Israel is surrounded by enemies, but do you know why you never hear about Israel engaging in hostilities with Egypt and Jordan? It’s because Israel signed treaties with them. The only thing that needs to be eliminated is war. Peace is the way. The only way.

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