The place of empathy in moral judgment of Israel's war


Balanced ResponseEureka Street has published many articles critical of Israel’s actions in Lebanon and Palestine, including my own. Mihal Greener’s passionate yet eirenical exploration of the Israeli perspective provides a view that is both different and welcome. It invites a serious response.

Her article is challenging because she not only enables the reader to better understand an Israeli perspective, but insists that to do so is essential if one is to pass moral judgments on Israel’s policy, and the execution of this policy. She reminds us that moral analysis without empathy for those on whose actions you are passing judgment is a repelling moralism. Her moving representation of Israeli attitudes brings home how difficult it is to enter the inner world of people whose history, predicament, ethnic and religious identity you do not share. The chastening conclusion, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, might be that "whereof one cannot feel oneself part, thereof one must be silent". Certainly, silence would be preferable to a response that cited the sufferings of the people of Lebanon and Palestine, as if these made morally insignificant the sufferings of Israelis.

I agree with Mihal’s implied argument, that to enter fully the history, the predicament and the constant beleaguerment and rejection of the Israeli people is an essential part of moral reflection on this war. I think that she would agree that empathy is neither a substitute for moral reflection, nor that by itself it is a totally adequate response. If we respect people fully, we expect that, in whatever situation they find themselves, they will ask themselves as persons and as a nation what it is right for them to do. Our answer to that question will be based on acknowledgment of shared humanity and respect for the human dignity both of ourselves, and of those with whom we are in conflict.

Parenthetically, I wonder if the widespread criticism of the actions of Israel, as of the United States, comes not out of disrespect for these nations, but from high expectations. We demand more of those who have a high historical and rhetorical respect for humanity and for moral seriousness.

I would set the discussion about proportionality, introduced by Ms. Greener, in this moral context. Although international criticism of Israel’s military actions as disproportionate has mainly been framed in legal terms, the requirement of proportionality is morally based. International law demands that the conduct of war (ius in bello) is proportionate and discriminate. These requirements, as also the more stringent conditions for declaring war (ius ad bellum), however, reflect the moral belief that even in war we can act rightly or wrongly. They are designed to ensure that warring parties respect human dignity by limiting its diminishment in war.

The judgment about what is proportionate is not a mathematical but a human judgment. It measures the fit between the reasons for and the goals of our action, and the means we use to achieve it. It echoes our intuitive sense that, even if justified, any violent response must be measured to the injury, and capable of achieving reasonable goals. If a neighbour allows his cows to trespass on our property, for example, we may not burn down his house. Neither our goal of preventing similar incursions nor the damage the cows cause could make such an extreme response legitimate. It simply does not fit. It is beyond all reasonableness.

After we have taken into full account Israel’s long experience of hostility, insecurity, suicide bombings, rocketings and cross border attacks, we should still ask whether the response in Palestine and Lebanon was right. Not to ask that moral question would compromise the moral sensitivity that makes the welfare of the Israeli people of concern to us. It raises two issues of proportionality, of fit. Does it fit with Israel’s reasonable and achievable longer term goals? And is it proportionate to the injury and the immediate threat to which Israel was responding?

It is hard to see that the longer-term flourishing of the people both of Israel and of its surrounding nations can be secured in any other way than by conversation and negotiation. A small nation that relies heavily on military force and external patronage for survival and respect is inherently insecure. Military action only entrenches resistance to conversation and negotiation on both sides. It is a short term fix which subverts long term aims. Nor is it likely to provide security for the people of Israel and surrounding nations, even in the intermediate term.

I find the fit between the injury suffered by Israel—the capture of its soldiers—and the response even more problematic. Mihal Greener has described powerfully the seriousness of the violation. But the response to that action—the destruction of such infrastructure as the port, electricity generation and bridges that provide the conditions for ordinary citizens to live with dignity in Palestine and Lebanon—seems disproportionate. It is to strike at those who might harm me by punishing others with no power to stop the assailants. I recognise in the logic of this action the same instrumental use of human suffering as characterises the Australian treatment of asylum seekers. It is equally offensive. I believe that attacks on convoys containing many civilian vehicles also lack a proper respect for humanity.

Under Mihal Greener’s argument that critics of Israel’s actions come too easily to their conclusions lies a deeper and more despairing question. Are questions about respect for human dignity a luxury that only the comfortably secure can afford? Is not the more basic human question about how to survive, whatever it takes? I feel the force of those questions. But if we answer that survival legitimates any action, does our position not erode the grounds, not only of criticism, but also of solidarity with others?



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Existing comments

My parents were "missionaries" in Palestine in the 1920's. In those days jews,palestinian cristians and moslems had been living side by side for generations. Untill both sides in the conflict recognise the historical rights of both sides there will be no preace. John ozanne

john ozanne | 09 September 2006  

It's pretty obvious that the UN Resolution approving the foundation of the Israeli State upon illegally sequestered land was unjust, should be recognised as such, and rescinded.
It's also pretty obvious that no individual, Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, should have their life because their existence happis inconvenient to someone with a weapon.
The best solution, as far as I can see, begins with a re-unification and de-militarisation of Mandate Palestine; this may well require the abandonment of two of those nasty 19th century racist ideologies, namely Zionism and Islamism (just because Islamism as such didn't really appear until the 20th century doesn't mean it isn't an expression of a 19th century mindset).

David arthur | 07 October 2006  

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