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Best of 2023: Discerning the call to choose sides

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Wars always bring pressure to canonise one side and to demonise the other. It has been no different in the war between Israel and Hamas. People both in the antagonists and in their normal allies are pressed to make a choice. To choose Israel is to see its war against Hamas as just in all respects, to weep only for its fallen, to approve of all its actions in war, to minimize and count as collateral damage the harm done to the people of Gaza, and to see attempts to make peace or to point out unethical behaviour by Israel, or moral complexities in its cause as anti-Semitic, weak minded, dishonest moral equivalence,  and lacking in necessary strength of commitment. To choose Hamas would be to adopt the same attitudes in reverse.

In both cases the appeal to allies is strengthened by identifying its cause with the best of their tradition and by asserting that its loss would fatally wound that tradition. Advocates for Israel portray it as bright light of Western democracy in the storm clouds of totalitarian corruption or as the best of the Judaeo-Christian civilisation in a culturally bereft Islamic world. To opponents of Israel, Hamas represents best the spirit of Islam in resisting the colonisation of Muslim lands by a corrupt and Godless West and in fighting against the existence of Israel.

Such binary views of responses to the conflict are based on the conflating of terms that are quite different. They identify Israel with the land, with the people to whom it is home and who put their stamp on it and on its Government and its policies and actions. Similarly they identify Gaza with the territory, with the people who live there, and with its ruling party Hamas and its policies and actions.

This identification blurs proper distinctions between land, people and ruling powers, and so between combatants and civilians. It also obscures the complexity of the conflict and lead to actions that will lead to further and more bitter conflict. In Australia most people have a natural sympathy for Israel, and public advocacy for choosing its cause over that of Hamas is stronger. We should then reflect on the reasons that are given to commend this stance.

The first is that criticism by Australians of actions taken by the Israeli Government is anti-Semitic. Some such criticism may be so described, but much is not. The test is whether the criticism is driven by prejudice against Israel and its Jewish citizens or by reflection on the actions and policies of its Government. In fact such criticism is compatible with an adamantine conviction that the State of Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, with respect for its inhabitants, and with a full recognition of the appalling history of pogrom and extermination that they have suffered, and with abhorrence at the unjustifiable brutality of the Hamas invasion. Such criticism, too, can be a gift, as it was to Australia when outsiders criticised it for the White Australia policy. It can encourage citizens to question the actions of its Government for failure to live up to its proclaimed values, and lead to better policy and actions.

The charge of anti-Semitism, too, encourages wider reflection on the phrase itself. In common usage it refers only to Jewish people and to the State of Israel, and calls to mind the Holocaust. Etymologically, however, it does not refer solely to attitudes to Jews and to Israel. The Semites as an ethnic group include both Jews and Palestinians and by extension the Jewish and Muslim religions and customs of their people. Seen from this broader perspective anti-Semitism therefore would strictly include prejudice against and consequent ill-treatment of the inhabitants of both Israel and Gaza.


'We should focus our attention on the lives of the persons of precious and equal value who compose these states. That alone focuses on the complexities of the relationships on which any enduring peace, justice and equality must be built.'


Second, the attempt to align the State of Israel, its people and its Government and its allies with Judaeo-Christian civilisation and with Western democracy in opposition to Gaza, identified with its Government and people, is weakly founded. In historical practice Christian societies tried to break the link that is now claimed to connect them with Jewish people. In societies where Christians were the majority, Jews were periodically persecuted and always had reason to fear discrimination. In Christian faith, certainly, God’s enduring relationship with the Jewish people through Jesus the Jew is central and irreplaceable. That is why the pervasive anti-Jewish prejudice found historically among Christians is so shaming. If we are to talk coherently about a Judaeo-Christian civilisation, however, we must situate it more broadly within all the actual connections, religious and other, that have formed our contemporary world. These include Judaism and Christianity, but also other Abrahamic religions, notably Islam with its profound influence on the formation of modern Europe. As with the charge of anti-Semitism,  reflection on the invocation of Judaeo-Christian civilization in the current war leads away from a simple taking of sides to the recognition of complexity.

The association of Israel, its citizens and its Government with the Western tradition of democracy in opposition to the totalitarianism of Gaza, its citizens and Hamas is equally oversimplified. It is true that, even though Hamas also came to power in Gaza through a democratic election, the democratic institutions of Israel under the rule of law are far stronger than in many states in which Islam is the established religion. Democracy, however, means more than free elections and winning votes. It demands a respect for the rule of law and an equal respect for all citizens. Ultimately Western democracy rests on the secular version of the Christian belief that the life of each human being is equally precious, and that this should be reflected in public life and institutions. Both the rule of law and the equal value of each human being have come under increasing pressure recently in Israel and Gaza, as indeed they have in many of Israel’s allies as well as in its enemies. This is shown in the widespread disapproval by citizens both of Israel and Gaza of their ruling powers.

Third, the imputation that those who criticise the actions of Israel in war and call for peace and protection for the people of Gaza are guilty of moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel is also misplaced. One can argue that the Hamas incursion and indiscriminate killing in Israel was morally unjustifiable and that the people of Israel have the right to defend itself, while at the same time criticising also the response of the Government of israel as disproportionate, without being guilty of moral equivalence. This position can be better described as moral universality, The basis of morality is the equal value and right to life of each human being, Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. That impartial universality and the consequent obligation to respect equally the life of each human being shape the criteria for judging the actions in war of both sides. The viciousness of the actions of an enemy military force does not justify a disproportionate killing of its non-combatants. To praise one Government for actions that would be reprehensible if taken by another Government, and to demand that others adopt this position, is moral partisanship and bullying.

In this war we should resist the attempt to build total and uncritical support for the States of Israel and the territory of Gaza, still less of their ruling powers. We should focus our attention on the lives of the persons of precious and equal value who compose these states. That alone focuses on the complexities of the relationships on which any enduring peace, justice and equality must be built. To fail to do so ignores the resentment and hostility which feed discrimination and inequality, which in turn breed violence and revolt. In the Cretan myth, dragons’ teeth sown in the ground rose up as fully armed soldiers. The response to the present war will come back to haunt or to bless the peoples of both Palestine and Israel in the future. The proper role of non-combatant nations is to encourage the saving, not the taking of lives. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Smoke rises from an explosion in Gaza on October 28, 2023 seen from Sderot, Israel. In the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that left 1,400 dead and 200 kidnapped, Israel launched a sustained bombardment of the Gaza Strip. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, War, Israel, Hamas, Gaza



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Existing comments

Italy has certainly chosen Israel. To this day, every day in their daily Italian News on SBS they speak about and show new videos of the happening on October 7 at the Supernova music festival. Often showing interviews with ex Hamas hostages. And time to Netanyahu's views. Nothing or very, very, very little is ever said about the Palestine civilians, activists, hostages, dead, injured, homeless and children.

Mary | 10 January 2024  

Thank you for your thoughtful writing. In this conflict, in the referendum, our politics, and in many other situations, there seems to be a lack of respectful disagreement, and even a place for respectful disagreement. Eureka Street is one such place, but there is a need for much more. How do we do better?

Ross Wilkinson | 16 March 2024  

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