On August 28 I posted an article about the conflict in Gaza from the perspective of a progressive Zionist. I appreciate David Harris Gershon’s response to my article. Open debate in the progressive community is good and distinguishes us from our right-wing-wackadoo friends. That said, I feel that Mr. Gershon’s response is misguided in a number of important ways.
First, I want to make a couple of broad points as a matter of housekeeping. The title of his article indicated that I “promoted” the war in Gaza as “noble.” That’s wrong; I wasn’t so much promoting the war as I was defending it. Furthermore, I never wrote that the war is “noble,” or even wrote that word at all. War is never noble. It is the manifestation of the worst in humanity and the failure of all better alternatives. It is, however, sometimes necessary, particularly in self-defense. That is the case here.
Additionally, Mr. Gershon repeatedly criticizes me for things I allegedly neglected to talk about. I would only note that I wrote this article intending that it be published by many different newspapers and websites all around the world. The newspapers limited me to approximately 750 words, the typical length of an op-ed. I felt it necessary to dedicate my limited space to the point that I, not Mr. Gershon, wanted to make, which was that progressives should support the right of Israel to defend itself against a brutal organization trying to kill it. I could certainly write a book on the broader topic. Mr. Gershon is wrong to imply that my failure to discuss a particular issue means that I don’t recognize or understand that issue.
Now, to the specifics. Mr. Gershon spends a good bit of time pointing out that Israel’s human rights record is imperfect. He acknowledges that “many of Israel's democratic principles should be celebrated as evidence of Israel's democratic promise,” but he finds flaws, some of them legitimate, in the current adherence to progressive principles. Here, (and not for the last time), Mr. Gershon misreads what I wrote. I never claimed Israel is perfect. It is not. Neither are we. In fact, no nation in the world is perfect, and, unlike Israel, most of them don’t face an existential threat to their existence every day. When the US has faced perceived threats, our record has not been good. If you look at our history you will find The Alien and Sedition Act, McCarthyism, and now, a disturbing propensity to bash Muslims and try to deny them the right to build mosques or even hold public office.
What I did claim was that Israel’s respect for human rights was dramatically superior to that of Hamas. Again, Mr. Gershon agrees with me, but in an odd way. He accuses me of “demonizing” Hamas’ human rights record. Usually, when someone accuses another of demonizing something, it implies that the demonization is unfair. But in the next sentence Mr. Gershon goes on to say that Hamas’ human rights record “rightly [has] been condemned by progressive human rights groups in Israel.” So apparently I was correct about the relative differences between the human rights records of Israel and Hamas. Thus, it is difficult to understand what Mr. Gershon’s complaint is about. One third of his article is a lot of sound and fury amounting to nothing. He agrees that Israel’s human rights record is dramatically better than that of Hamas, which I argued is something that progressives should consider in evaluating the conduct of the parties.
Mr. Gershon next claims that I used the disparity in human rights to “justify Israel’s killing of civilians in its assault on Gaza.” What? While, as I noted, debate is helpful, this sort of obvious misrepresentation of what I said is not. It’s false and it’s cheap. I never said, or implied, or felt in my heart anything close to what Mr. Gershon claims. Essentially, he argues that my position amounts to: “Hamas are bad people, so we can kill civilians to, oh I don’t know, maybe teach them a lesson?”
Let me be clear. Hamas could be the worst human rights violators in the world (a title currently held by ISIS) and it would not justify Israel, or anyone else, killing civilians in Gaza. Keep in mind that the people whose human rights Hamas violates are Palestinians in Gaza.
That which does justify Israel’s use of military force, which will inevitably result in civilian causalities, has nothing to do with Hamas’ human rights record. It is because Hamas is shooting rockets into Israel, and building tunnels underground into Israel in order to target civilians and kill Jews. It is self-defense, rather than some tut-tutting about Hamas’ human rights record, that justifies Israel’s military action. Any good-faith reading of my original article makes that clear.
I cited Pearl Harbor as an example of a justified war where civilians are inevitably killed. However, once again Mr. Gershon adds to what I’ve actually written in way designed to buttress his argument. However, his buttressing fails because it’s based on a falsehood. Specifically, Mr. Gershon says the following:
“Here we have a 'progressive' elected official citing a historical stain, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japanese cities in World War II which killed nearly 200,000 innocents, and using that stain to justify Israel's killing of Palestinians in the name of defense.”But I never mentioned atomic bombs. Mr. Gershon and I could have a lengthy discussion about the morality of President Truman’s decision, but he can’t just make stuff up. What I was arguing was that after being bombed on December 7, 1941, the USA had the right to fight back in some fashion. Mr. Gershon seems to deny even that right, atomic bombs aside.
Mr. Gershon then attacks my “real worldview” (amazing how he can discern that in my 750 word op-ed that does not explain my real worldview). He writes:
“The passive construction belies his real worldview: civilians who have died via American and Israeli warheads have not been killed by those countries. Instead, they were the inevitable victims of necessary wars – victims the Japanese and Palestinians forced America and Israel to kill.”Where to begin? Certainly the civilians who died in Tokyo and Gaza were killed by America and Israel. We dropped the bombs, we fired the torpedoes. But the entire point of my article (which Mr. Gershon seems to have missed) is that when you are attacked, whether you live in Hawaii or Tel Aviv, you are not required to just sit there and take it. You can defend yourself. You can legitimately, legally, and morally fight back. If you do that, it is likely that innocent people will die. But unless you are a pacifist, who opposes war in all circumstances, even for self-defense, then you must recognize that this is, tragically, how war works.
Indeed, when Mr. Gershon musters all of his righteous indignation to sarcastically claim that the “victims” forced America and Israel to kill them, it is difficult not to conclude that Mr. Gershon does not recognize the legitimacy of any war, even war fought in self-defense, in which any civilian might die. In the current situation, this would leave Israel with no choice but to just sit back and wait to be slaughtered. You’ll forgive them if they don’t find that prospect appealing.
Mr. Gershon then explains that “unlike the United States in World War II, [Israel] has taken great pains, when striking, to minimize civilian casualties.” But then he goes on to attack Israel, and me by extension, based on Israel’s “disproportionate response.”
How do we know Israel’s response was “disproportionate?” Because Mr. Gershon says so? He does not enlighten us as to what makes it disproportionate, or whether one country that is under attack owes a “proportionate” response to the other side, or what exactly a proportionate response would be to 15,000 rockets fired into Israel, and 32 tunnels being dug across the border to enable kidnapping and murder. We are just supposed to accept the Hamas talking point that it can shoot as many rockets into Israel as it can get its hands on, but that Israel isn’t being sporting in its self-defense. This is, of course, preposterous.
Mr. Gershon then says that Israel is “bracing for war-crimes investigations.” Again, he offers nothing about how he knows what Israel is and is not “bracing” for, or what “bracing” even looks like. He also neglects to mention that Hamas is also the subject of possible war-crimes investigations, or that an “investigation” is just that, and not a finding of guilt, or even an accusation. The fact is that despite his protestations that he is a “progressive two-state solution Jew,” it is really breathtaking to behold the extent and comprehensiveness of Mr. Gershon’s bias against Israel.
Finally, Mr. Gershon follows his usual Daylin’s-arguments-are-correct-but-Israel-still-sucks template when he writes: “I'm also glad Leach is willing to condemn Hamas' vile charter, which is a truly disgusting, outdated document of hate which must be changed.”
How does Mr. Gershon defend Hamas while condemning it here? He cites one interview by Hamas political director Khaled Meshaal. In that interview, between defending the Hamas Charter calling for the destruction of Israel, smiling while being coy about how many missiles Hamas has to shoot into Israel, and saying that there was “no difference” between Israel and Nazi Germany, Mr. Meshaal hints that he might accept a two-state solution.
Good for him. That is not the official position of Hamas, nor of the pro-Hamas protesters I have personally seen in the streets of Philadelphia who chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” There is not much room for a two-state solution there.
But all of this is beside the point. The Gaza conflict happened because Hamas was shooting rockets into Israel. Whatever (well) hidden beneficence may be in Mr. Meshaal’s heart, Israel had the right, and the obligation, to defend itself.
Mr. Gershon’s reply to my original post is nothing more than a poorly constructed defense of the indefensible. The folks in Hamas are not nice people. They are not the sort of people that progressives have any business defending. And it’s sad that some people still feel compelled to contort themselves in order to apologize for evil.
Senator Daylin Leach represents Pennsylvania's 17th Senate District.