Israel is, again, locked on the horns of a dilemma. Having been indicted by the “world community” (in the guise of the Goldstone report) for alleged war crimes in its conduct of last winter’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, it faces unenviable and unacceptable choices.
Goldstone himself suggested Israel could partly exculpate itself by conducting its own investigation into the conduct of its soldiers. But that presupposes an outcome to the investigation that, presumably, satisfies the world community – and such an outcome is unlikely in the extreme.
If the investigation reveals that the Israel Defense Forces went above and beyond the norms of warfare in its regard for civilian welfare – notifying thousands of civilians in advance of any attack through leaflets, text messages and even cell phone calls – then the conclusions will be dismissed as a whitewash.
If the investigation reveals that some civilians were killed – an avoidable consequence of every war – Israel will be castigated and its soldiers and politicians deemed war criminals and international pariahs. Conventional wisdom would therefore dictate that an investigation is futile – a classic no-win situation – as a biased jury has already prejudged the outcome.
This is underscored by the blatant hypocrisy that fuels the entire process. The contempt that most of the world community has for Israel is so pronounced that it would rather rewrite the rules of warfare than concede that Jews have a right to self-defense – i.e., a right to not have an enemy fire missiles with impunity on the heads of its civilians.
And so the Goldstone report argues, in an unctuous way completely divorced from the realities of warfare, that an attacked party cannot respond if enemy civilians might be harmed – a most novel, unprecedented and bizarre interpretation; one that would revolutionize warfare as we know it and a standard that obviously no nation has any intention of ever applying to any country except to Israel, and certainly not to itself.
It would be the stuff of comedy and farce if the stakes were not so serious.
Nonetheless, handled correctly, we have arrived unwittingly at what President Obama likes to call a “teachable moment,” a moment in which the Jewish people can assume our natural roles as moral educators to the rest of mankind. Stated another way, it is a “J’Accuse” moment – a chance to upend the tables at the anti-Israel festival that is unfolding before our eyes and startle the world with the recitation of uncomfortable truths – as did Emile Zola when he exposed the framing of Alfred Dreyfus.
Israel should investigate its conduct of war – and preface its report with a brief history of the norms of warfare, with the prohibition of deliberately targeting civilians, with the horrific fate of civilians that is so typical in battle, with the challenges of fighting an enemy that utilizes civilians as weapons, and with the conduct in warfare, even recently, of some of Israel’s leading accusers.
The report could cite Sudan, a proud member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, and its murder of millions of innocent civilians in Darfur in the last decade. It could cite Russia, and its brutality against tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Chechnya, and China, whose own civilians are subject to imprisonment and deprivation.
It should note the case of Syria, which leveled its own city of Hama in 1982 and in the process killed approximately 20,000 civilians, and Turkey, which for ninety years has stonewalled its massacre of more than one million Armenians. The report can mention, delicately, of course, the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of civilians were killed – not because of malice or malevolence but simply because dead civilians are the unfortunate collateral damage of every war.
Less delicately, the report could mention that the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed civilians almost exclusively – and, ironically, saved both American and Japanese lives, as the human toll taken by a land invasion would have been much greater. Similarly, the Allied bombing of Dresden and other German cities in 1945 killed tens of thousands of civilians, and also hastened the end of the war. Certainly Germany’s record in treating civilians in wartime is well known, except perhaps to the Iranian government, itself a wanton murderer of civilians during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
These nations and most others – past and current perpetrators of ferocious violence against civilians they now regard as sacrosanct – deign to sit in judgment of Israel, which never targeted civilians; which fought an enemy that disguised itself as civilians (against international law), used civilians as human shields and hid its weapons and rocket launchers in hospitals, mosques and residential areas; which killed at most several hundred civilians – civilians who had voted into power the despots who launched the incessant war against Israel. Civilians? Yes, for the most part. Innocent civilians? Hardly.
As the report continues, Israel can then refer to the unprecedented measures it took to avoid civilian casualties – the warnings, the notifications – all of which impaired its operational abilities and the successes of its missions as it informed the enemy of the locations of Israel’s counterattacks. It can note, with sadness, that half of Israel’s own war resulted from friendly fire, an even more unfortunate consequence of the fog of war.
Israel should certainly regret its error in surrendering Gaza to the forces of terror – as the “world community” had encouraged, of course, guaranteeing then – then, not now – that Israel would always retain the right of self-defense in case of aggression launched from Gaza.
Israel should then express its pride and admiration at the humanity, morality and skill of its fighting forces, and the inherent difficulty in fighting an enemy that targets civilians and cares not at all about its own except to use them as cannon fodder.
And in conclusion, the report can state what is patently clear to any impartial observer: that this indictment is just another weapon in the Arab war against Israel – a classic attempt by those who are waging asymmetrical warfare to demoralize the people of Israel, and induce it to make additional territorial concessions that will garner short-term praise but engender long-term vulnerability.
Israel should state unequivocally that it categorically rejects the double standard the world is employing and should insist that the judges first judge themselves before sitting in judgment of others.
Israel should declare that it will not play in a macabre game in which the rules change in order to coerce an outcome deleterious to Israel’s strategic position and existence; that “peace” negotiations are not warranted and “peace” itself not feasible in the current, hostile environment; and that Israel will continue – despite the world’s hypocrisy and duplicity – to aspire to moral goodness, and to highlight, as is our divinely-ordained mission, what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral, what is the word of God and what is the falsification of the word of God.
The report should not refer at all to any specific acts during the recent battle, as the findings will convince no one and accomplish nothing productive. Israel must reject the impression that it is sitting in the dock, but rather stand with pride behind the preacher’s lectern and lecture a world whose moral compass is severely askew, once again.
Urging this band of haters to look in the mirror may not inspire them to either repentance or honesty, but it will clear our consciences and strengthen us with new resolve for the battles that loom just over the horizon.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen, 2009). He blogs at Rabbipruzansky.com.