OpinionIsrael at War

Civilization is not a suicide pact

When faced with a supremely evil foe, the most “just” thing you can do is win.

An IDF artillery unit fires into the Gaza Strip, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.
An IDF artillery unit fires into the Gaza Strip, Oct. 15, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.
Gil Troy
Gil Troy
Professor Gil Troy is an American presidential historian and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.  

Predictably, world sympathy for Israel is ebbing already. The recent Big Lie that Israel bombed a Gaza hospital only accelerated this sadly familiar process, even as it proved how quick the media is to blame Israel first. Admittedly, the Gaza situation is messy in both moral and military terms, but liberal democrats worldwide must wake up and grow up. If the Constitution is not a suicide pact, civilization cannot be a suicide pact either.

Don’t compare those who harm innocents and delight in their suffering with those who unintentionally harm them, especially when your enemy hides behind civilians. Don’t confuse totalitarians who start a war with their democratic victims, who must then defend themselves or die. Israel tried restraint and lost 1,400 lives and counting. Every death, every casualty, in fact, all the harm radiating from Oct. 7, is Hamas’s fault.

What else can Israel do? In 2014, when a reporter interviewed Israel’s legendary leftist Amos Oz about Israel’s Hobson’s choice regarding a ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza, Oz chose to interview the interviewer. Oz said, “Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sat down on the balcony, put his little boy on his lap and started shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery? Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street dug a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”

Back then, although obvious to some of us, the Hamas threat was theoretical. Fourteen hundred murders and countless abominations later, the questions are more pointed. The dilemmas remain painful, but the two-pronged moral case that justified Allied actions in World War II justifies Israel’s actions now.

Both cases posed a “supreme emergency” against a supremely evil foe. In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer explains the philosopher’s “sliding scale” that holds “the more justice, the more right.” I would add “and the more might it is moral to unleash.”

The Nazis and the Japanese started World War II. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella symbolized his delusional “appeasement.” Many Americans tried dodging the conflict too until Pearl Harbor. Both the Nazis and the Japanese, like Hamas, were totalitarian enemies, violators of civilizational norms who targeted innocents while cowering behind their own.

Faced with such enemies and, like Israel today, having paid dearly for their delusions, the Allies’ campaign was relentless until victorious.

If a democracy can’t finish what its enemy started, it’s finished. But if a democracy starts acting as brutally as the enemy, it’s finished too. Clearly, whenever a “just war” is imposed on you, the most “just” thing you can do is win.

Still, the occasional wrestling over what to do also helps make the war just. Winston Churchill, who replaced Chamberlain in 1940, agonized over civilian deaths. Initially, he explained to an MP demanding unrestricted bombing, “You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire (and have succeeded in our desire) to destroy German military objectives.”

But the Nazis were so vicious and the need to defeat them so obvious that there was no choice. Churchill escalated. By 1945 he deemed “the massive achievement of Bomber Command … an example of duty nobly done.”

Similarly, when American leaders agonized over whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan, Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson returned to the war’s initial rationale, writing in a top secret document in 1945 about the final war aims: “We have great moral superiority through being the victim” of Japan’s “first sneak attack.”

President Harry Truman “didn’t have any doubt” about dropping the bombs, mocking the “eggheads” and “Monday morning quarterbacks” for their hand-wringing. His decision, however terrible the destruction that resulted, saved American lives—Truman’s primary obligation—by avoiding the awful task of invading Japan.

Subsequently, especially when President Barack Obama rained thunder from the skies to destroy ISIS, democracies have used awful firepower against awful enemies. Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians died in the battle to free Mosul from the savage Islamic State. In that case, unlike Gazans and Hamas, Mosul’s civilians opposed the ruling terror organization. Obama tried minimizing civilian casualties, then undercounted the “collateral damage” when the inevitable occurred.

Still, Obama was “very clear,” saying, “America’s priorities have to be, number one, keeping the American people safe.” He recognized, “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense.” Acknowledging civilian deaths as “heartbreaking tragedies,” Obama nevertheless concluded that “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties. … So doing nothing is not an option.”

Since withdrawing from Gaza 18 years ago, Israel has acted with restraint, tolerating the intolerable, as Hamas built its arsenal and bombarded Israel. Now, finally, without demagoguery, without denying the complexity, Israel should admit that war is ugly but act decisively.

Most Israelis regret what their kids will have to do to reestablish a sense of safety throughout the country. But it’s a war of ein breira—no choice. Without apologies and, if necessary, without Western approval, Israel must do whatever it takes to end the supreme emergency Hamas has imposed on it.

The international community may soon forget the horrors Hamas and other Palestinians unleashed. Israelis and genuine champions of civilization can’t, won’t and shouldn’t—that’s their moral imperative.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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