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Israel, Hamas, And Moral Equivalence

A couple days ago, I wrote, "I'm still not sure what to think about Israel's operation in Gaza," but proceeded to criticize the view from some quarters on the left that there's no important moral distinction between Israel's aims and Hamas's. Matthew Yglesias decided to translate my view thusly: "Jon Chait had a post the other day explaining that the kind of bloodshed and suffering the Israelis are afflicting is okay because of the asymetric subjective desires of the parties to the conflict.

Um, okay then.

Yglesias and Ezra Klein have both defended their claim of moral equivalence. (I don't like using buzzwords like "moral equivalence," but it seemes perfectly apt here and I don't know of any less-contentious descriptions.) Klein argues that it doesn't matter that Israel is trying to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas is trying to maximize them, because the fact is that Israel simply is killing more civilians. He also argues that the "lived experience" of Palestianians is of oppression at the hands of Israel. Yglesias cites this point and adds that Israel has supported illegal settlements, and therefore, "it’s simply not the case that Hamas is the only party to this conflict that’s working toward unreasonable goals."

Allof these arguments prove way too much. World War II examples are beyond cliche, but they're useful because it's a familiar case about which most people agree. The United States killed millions of Japanese civilians, while Japan killed very few American civilians. Indeed, the United States killed civilians intentionally. The lived experience of the Japanese people was not that of an agressor but as a victim at the hands of a cruel American military. The United States bloodied its hands in all sorts of ways worse than Israel's misguided and wrong settlements (which, in any case, are not an attempt to destroy Palestinians but an attempt to tilt the borders of a two-state settlement into more favorable terms.)

The point here is not to draw an equation with World War II. Any conflict has compromised behavior on both sides and civilians in each camp who feel like victims of the enemy. Judging the morality of the conflict without taking into account the intentions and aims of the two parties is just moral blindness.

The difference in intentions and aims does not justify any Israeli actions whatsoever, and, again, there's certainly reason to doubt Israel's current campaign. But you can concede all these things without veering into moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas.

--Jonathan Chait