Moving Beyond Worse

What’s the worst thing that could happen? That question is meant to gently force someone who worries far too much to calm down. Let them say what that worst thing is, and then prove to them that what they imagine is going to happen is unlikely, even if vaguely possible, if a thousand interlocking elements, by chance, fall out just the wrong way, all at once. It’s best to be realistic, or to understand probability theory, and then there’s the fallback argument – even if the worst happens, even if that’s unlikely, there are always ways to deal with anything that happens, even awful things. Sure, everything will change. Everything was going to change anyway. The adaptable survive, and often prosper. Loss can be a gain. The good you didn’t expect is far better than holding on to the dead past. When God closes a window He opens a door, or as Alexander Pope put it, all partial evil is universal good that you can’t see, and so on. None of that may convince someone who has a severe case of worrying far too much, so tell that person to consider a career in writing amazing apocalyptic science fiction novels, which Hollywood will then turn into summer blockbusters that make hundreds of millions of dollars. They might as well be paid handsomely for their intense pessimism.

People really should calm down. The worst is never going to happen, or if it happens, it won’t be that bad – and then it does happen and it is that bad, with the most unlikely things popping up everywhere. Those unlikely things are popping up in Israel now, as their fourth week of military operations in Gaza begins. They need to wipe out Hamas, the nasty folks the Palestinians in Gaza elected to run the place, without wiping out the Palestinians, and that hasn’t been going well. They’re wiping out far too many Palestinians – hundreds of woman and children – because they cannot separate the two. They do tell the civilians to run and hide, to get out of the way by going to a safe place away from the bombs and rockets, but Gaza is small and there’s really no place “away” from the action – and Hamas is fighting for them against the Israelis who long ago closed their borders and cut them off from the world, keeping them poor and starving for decades, with no hope of ever seeing that change in any way. So Hamas is not only intermingled with them in that small strip of dust, physically, they also intermingled with them politically. The Israelis have a problem here. They don’t want to kill women and children, but they’re making a distinction – Hamas is not the Palestinians – where one cannot be made that glibly.

Many in Israel seem to be frustrated by the refusal by Hamas specifically, and the Palestinians in general, to differentiate themselves from each other, with different armbands or white hats and black hats or whatever, and by their refusal to stay in their proper physical places, for humanitarian targeting reasons. There is, however, no geographic room for the latter and sociopolitical impulse for the former, so Israel is kind of stuck, and things are getting worse and worse.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Okay, think about the central event that led to the creation of Israel in 1948 – the six million dead, Hitler, the Holocaust, the camps with the big ovens – and then imagine a number of items popping up in the Israeli press suggesting that Hitler may have been onto something, at least in terms of methodology. In the Times of Israel, there’s Yochanan Gordon arguing that, Hitler aside, sometimes genocide is permissible, and this is one of those times:

History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously. Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely? …

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide, is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

No one expected that, even if the logic of the situation meant that someone would say that sooner or later, and the newspaper moved quickly:

The Times of Israel said Friday that the blogger who penned a post advocating genocide is no longer with the site.

In a statement attributed to the Times of Israel staff, the publication elaborated on its decision to remove Yochanan Gordon’s widely derided blog post, “When Genocide is Permissible.”

“This blog post, which was described by our Ops and Blogs editor as both damnable and ignorant, blatantly breached the Times of Israel’s editorial guidelines,” the statement said.

Without referring to Gordon by name, the staff said that his blog has been “discontinued.”

The Times of Israel has what it describes as an “open blog platform,” a system under which bloggers are permitted to “post their own items” after they have been approved.

The Times of Israel’s editorial guidelines seem to be that no Jew suggests genocide as the Final Solution, even if Gordon didn’t use those two particular words. They were implied. Gordon’s approval was withdrawn, but they forgot about Irwin E. Blank riffing on Samuel 15:18:

Saul was anointed king of Israel by G-d and given the mission to join the tribes of Israel as one nation and to protect them against their enemies. This has been the primary job of leaders from the beginning of time-to defend their citizens and national rights before any other obligation. For without security, without the power to protect what is basically, the lives of one’s charges and the land that sustains the people, all else is of less than secondary interest or importance. A nation that will not defend itself, in whatever manner that the “king”, or the president or the prime minister is empowered to do, is not a civilization that will be sustainable or credible.

It’s time to do the right thing:

G-d might be meant to illustrate that voice of the people – the Vox Populi. In this case, G-d had demanded that Saul (or the “prime minister”) enter into battle with the Amalekites (Hamas and its savage partners) and destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat. The end of such a conflict must make it impossible for that enemy to rebuild and continue to vex one’s nation forever.

He does call for the destruction of all Palestinians, to the last child, cow and goat – although he probably is speaking of cows and goats metaphorically. They’re mentioned in the passage in Samuel, but Blank is referring to any means to feed oneself. He’s not picking on goats, per se. Goats are cute. They’re great fun, actually.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? How about Jews saying let’s be more like Hitler, to other Jews? That’ll do, but Israel’s Gaza operation did get much worse the day these two items were posted:

Palestinian militants sprang from the ground and confronted Israeli soldiers Friday morning, as they have repeatedly in recent days. This time, Israeli officials said, one exploded a suicide belt while another unleashed machine-gun fire. This time, two Israeli soldiers were killed and the militants apparently escaped with a third.

The attack, at the start of what was supposed to be a 72-hour pause in the fighting, escalated the deadly 25-day battle between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates the Gaza Strip.

It did escalate:

Israel responded with an assault that killed 70 people and injured 350 around Rafah alone as troops sealed the area to hunt for the missing officer amid mounting pressure from Israeli politicians and the public to expand the military mission.

They’re really going to bring down the hammer now. All bets are off now, even if Hamas has said they don’t have any Israeli shoulder in their hands right now, and Israel went all Private Ryan in the media:

Israeli military officials said they were uncertain of the condition of the officer captured on Friday. They identified him as Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, of the elite Givati Brigade. Lieutenant Goldin has a twin brother who until Friday was also fighting at the front, according to Israeli news reports, and he had proposed to his girlfriend during the war, scheduling the wedding in two months.

His father, Simcha Goldin, said the family was confident the Israeli military would “not stop under any circumstances until they have turned over every stone in Gaza and have brought Hadar home healthy and whole.”

That tugs at the heartstrings, but no one knows what’s really going on here, other than that things got much worse:

“It’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through,” President Obama said on Friday at the White House. He called the killing of civilians in Gaza “heartbreaking” and said, “It’s possible we may be able to arrive at a formula that spares lives and also ensures Israel’s security, but it’s difficult, and I don’t think we should pretend otherwise.”

Both Mr. Kerry and Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, demanded an immediate and unconditional release of the Israeli officer. Mr. Ban described the attack as “a grave violation of the cease-fire” that called “into question the credibility of Hamas’s assurances to the United Nations.”

Nothing good is possible now, and Slate’s Joshua Keating now expects the worst:

A few days ago, it seemed possible that Israel might be on the verge of simply declaring its military goals accomplished and pulling out. But rescuing a prisoner likely being held somewhere underground in Gaza is going to take a lot longer than simply destroying tunnels. The violence seems likely to continue for some time now, and a long-term reoccupation of Gaza – a scenario called for by some senior Israeli officials – now seems a lot more likely than it did a few days ago.

This iteration of the long-running Israel-Hamas conflict seemed as if it was likely to end with cease-fires and a return to the grim status quo after a few weeks, like previous iterations in 2008 and 2012 had. But it’s starting to look like we’re witnessing something much worse.

A detail in the Washington Post’s coverage gives one reason now:

For militant groups like Hamas, one captured Israeli soldier is vital currency. Israel rebukes Hamas for not accepting the offer of ceasefires brokered by outside parties, but the ceasefires on offer did nothing to satisfy Hamas’s longstanding demands regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners… the loosening of border controls in heavily blockaded Gaza and the payment of salaries to some 40,000 public employees in Gaza. …

Hamas was not in a particularly strong position to win any of its demands – that is, until it claimed to have captured another Israeli soldier.

But they’re not claiming that now. No one is sure why. Hamas may not have approved this. One of their cells might have been freelancing – that seems to happen a lot. No wonder a number of Israelis would just as soon see all these people gone, and their cows and goats too. These things get out of hand, and Slate’s William Saletan sees the classic mission-creep here:

First the IDF was just going to hit Gaza from the air. Then it went in on the ground, but Israel assured everyone that the target was just the tunnels. Then Hamas killed a bunch of Israeli soldiers in a surprise attack, and Israel retaliated with widespread shelling. This week, the Israeli air force has been hitting 100 to 200 targets a day. How does that fit a campaign against tunnels? The strikes are on suspected weapon storage sites and “homes of terrorists.” Israel keeps moving the goal post, redefining the conditions that would meet its vague objective of “sustainable quiet.” That’s the beginning of mission creep. Where does it end?

Maybe it ends with the Final Solution, or maybe doesn’t end, but the support for the war among Israeli Jews is effectively unanimous:

The Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan Israeli think tank and polling outfit, conducts a monthly poll of Israelis on peace and security issues. Unsurprisingly, July’s poll focused on the war in Gaza. It asked Jewish Israelis (Israeli Arabs were not polled), during both the air and ground phases of the campaign, whether they thought the Israeli operation was justified. It also asked whether they thought the Israeli Defense Forces were using too much, too little, or the right amount of force.

The results are staggering. An average of 95 percent of Israeli respondents say that they think the operation is “completely” or “moderately” justified. About 80 percent say it is “completely” justified. For some perspective, about 72 percent of Americans supported the 2003 Iraq invasion when it was launched.

That’s not to say these folks are in favor of wiping Gaza, and the planet, clean of all Palestinians, in favor of responsible genocide, but they’re moving in that worst-case direction, but as Saletan also notes, the collapse of this seventy-two-hour cease fire, in the first ninety minutes, in this way, just might be a worst-case thing in and of itself:

This didn’t just kill the cease-fire. It killed the cease-fire process. If you’re Israel, you’re shaking your head and resolving never to get suckered into another deal. If you’re the United Nations, the United States, the Palestinian Authority, the deal-maker for Hamas, or one of the Arab or Western diplomats who struggled to put this deal together, you’re wondering how you can sustain a cease-fire when this or that cell or militia can decide unilaterally to trash your work for a military score. The most worrisome analysis of the Gaza militants isn’t that they’re coherently evil but that they’re too fragmented to sustain any kind of peace.

Don’t expect peace. Expect the fighting to get a whole lot more serious now:

The last time an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Gaza militants, in 2006, the abduction took place on the Israeli side of the border. The captive, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was taken back into Gaza through a tunnel, and the abductors had a two-day head start to move and hide him before the IDF invaded Gaza. This time, the IDF is already inside Gaza, in the area where Goldin was taken. It’s possible for the IDF to seal and search the area, killing whoever gets in the way. That seems to be what’s happening, judging by the artillery fire and deaths in Rafah. I doubt the IDF will stop until it recovers its man or gets him killed. God knows how many civilians will die along the way.

In short, the worst did happen:

The crisis empowers extremists on both sides. The diplomats who negotiated the deal look like impotent fools. The screamers on the Israeli right are getting the rampage they wanted. The dead-enders in Gaza are getting the bloodbath and Palestinian fury they wanted. Each side vindicates the other.

That is odd, but each side just wants to survive, in peace, and has toyed with the idea of responsible genocide to achieve that peace. Hamas had long talked about wiping Israel off the face of the map, but has backed off that recently in favor of talking about the rights of the Palestinian people, while Israel has long talked about finding a way for everyone to get along, but now random folks in the media there are talking of responsible genocide, to wipe the Palestinians from the face of the earth. The two just met in the middle of the street, momentarily, while driving in opposite directions. It might be best to just step out of the way.

Paul Waldman suggests that really is possible:

Once you stop worrying about whether you’re pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you can judge the Israeli government’s decisions, developments within Israeli society, and other questions related to the country each on their own terms.

You can also make judgments about the conflict that are freed from the necessity so many feel to continually compare the Israeli government’s actions to Hamas’ actions, or the opinions of the Israeli public to the opinions of the Palestinian public, with the only important question being which side comes out ahead. Those comparisons end up dulling your moral senses, because they encourage you to only think in relative terms.

If you’re still stuck being pro-Israel or anti-Israel, you end up asking questions like, “Which is worse: for Hamas to put rockets in a school in the hopes that Israel will bomb it and kill a bunch of kids, therefore granting Hamas a momentary PR victory; or for Israel to bomb the school anyway, knowing they’re going to kill a bunch of kids?”

If you’re pro-Israel, you’ll answer that Hamas’ action is worse, while if you’re anti-Israel, you’ll answer that Israel’s action is worse. But if you’re neither, then you’ll give the only moral answer, which is: who the hell cares which is worse? They’re both wrong. Questions like that end up only being used to excuse one side’s indefensible decisions.

And it’s not just those individual indefensible decisions, one after the other. It’s the indefensible positions those decisions lead to, like talk of responsible genocide. What’s the worst thing that could happen? That might be it. It’s enough to give anyone a severe case of worrying too much, or not enough.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Moving Beyond Worse

  1. Rick says:

    Maybe the reason the Times of Israel overlooked Irwin E. Blank’s apparently-similar appeal to genocide was that, at the bottom of his rant (which included his reminder that “G-d had demanded Saul (or the ‘prime minister’) … destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat”), he tried to mitigate it with this:

    “** I sincerely regret causing anyone to think that I am advocating genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza — absolutely not. I only mean to say that the threat posed by Hamas must be eradicated and any civilian casualties, are a human tragedy. No one is as hopeful for a true peace agreement between Israel and all her neighbors as I am. To those whom I have offended, I apologize for your discomfiture and I meant nothing of what some of you have construed.”

    Well, hey, you coulda fooled me!

    The problem with genocide being, at times, “permissible” is that all those other, more evil people who commit it can claim that they’re also against the whole idea of mass murder in principle (especially if those being murdered are themselves or their people), but still argue that it’s okay to make certain exceptions to the rule, in “special circumstances”, such as theirs.

    Or, to turn that around, contrary to the opinions of too many people, there is no such thing as “Israeli Exceptionalism”. Rules apply to everybody — and that means to you, too, not just the other guy. To argue that it’s okay for the Israelis to destroy a people is to argue that it was okay for the Nazis to destroy a people — but it wasn’t, and it isn’t.

    And while we’re talking about some folks not being able to make any sense whatsoever of their moral compass, don’t you find it odd to hear somebody arguing that it’s okay to utterly destroy a people “to the last child”, and yet, in the same breath, is himself afraid of incurring the wrath of “G-d” if he were to commit the sin of spelling His whole name out, without coyly inserting hyphens?

    Rick

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