Apologists for Immorality

There appears to be a direct relationship between the increasing ugliness and immorality of this war and the extreme lengths to which Israel’s supporters will go to justify it.

This was brought home to me this week in three separate debates, one in print, two on television. What I clearly saw at work in these exchanges was how Israel’s apologists use verbal overkill paralleling Israel’s use of overwhelming military force. They will admit no wrong. They attempt to bully opponents into submission. They deny history and morality. And, maybe most disturbing of all, they seek to present this war (as they have sought to present many of Israel’s previous wars) in exaggerated and near apocalyptical terms.

One of my antagonists, Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, objected to a piece I had written charging the Bush Administration with “criminal negligence,” for not acting quickly and decisively to end the carnage in Lebanon. I went further in my piece noting that this Administration’s policies and/or neglect had made a mess of much of the Middle East, resulting not only in catastrophe for the Arab World, but in a deepening of anti-American sentiments throughout the region.

Ignoring my point, Foxman deliberately miscast my views, accusing me of standing by while Hizbollah and Iran armed themselves and became a threat to the entire Middle East. After absolving Israel from all blame in the killing of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, Foxman weirdly concluded that, “[i]n the end, though Zogby won’t admit it, the Arab world needs an Israeli victory over Hizbollah and Iran as much as Israel and the US. Maybe then, Lebanon can truly become one nation and be rebuilt and the region can begin to change for the better.”

In my rebuttal I noted that it was not I who stood by while Iran and extremists were strengthened in the Middle East. It was the policies pursued by this Administration that are responsible for the nightmare unfolding before us. It was the disastrous war in Iraq that empowered and emboldened Iran, creating a new haven for terrorists and the dangers of civil war. And it was the US’s abandonment of Lebanon and the Palestinians, followed by support for the Israeli onslaught against both that is making the Middle East more dangerous and more anti-American–”with Iran sitting on the sidelines “licking its chops.” Unlike Foxman’s apocalyptical fantasy, I see no cheering in the Arab World for Israel’s behavior and I do not see how any compassionate or sane person can argue that the outcome of an Israeli “victory” will leave Lebanon better or whole.

My two televised exchanges, one with noted criminal attorney Alan Dershowitz and the other with magazine publisher Mort Zuckerman, were debates that focused on issues of morality and war. Both of my antagonists claimed that Israel always fought its wars using moral means. When Arab civilians were killed, it was because: these civilians forfeited their rights by not fleeing as they had been told to; or because they were terrorist supporters; or because they were deliberately used as shields; or because…and on and on. The point being that Israel is never guilty, someone else always is.

This is such madness. Denying history and morality in the defense of atrocities is, however, par for the course for Israel’s apologists. It took Israeli historians four decades to admit that they deliberately falsified the history of the ’48 war and to acknowledge that it was their ethnic cleansing campaign in 1948 that produced the first wave of Palestinian refugees.

Now only four weeks into the Lebanon war and they want us to forget that from the first days of this conflict Israeli military leaders were warning that they would “turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years,” or that nothing and no one south of the Litani River would be safe. And this is precisely what they have done. Not only have entire swaths of the southern suburbs of Beirut and much of Tyre and Bint Jbail and other smaller communities been reduced to rubble, but the airport and oil depot and ports, north and south, and much of the infrastructure of the country have been destroyed as well. In the process, thousands of homes have been leveled, and hundreds have been killed, by “smart bombs” that “repeatedly miss” their targets. The moral justification? “Hizbollah made us do it.”

What is galling is that the Israelis said what they were going to do, they did it, and now they send forth their minions to deny their responsibility for their actions.

In the end, my opponents fall back on hyperbole to buttress their defense. For Zuckerman the argument becomes Israel fighting for its survival–”this, presumably, justifying any and all atrocities. More disturbing, Dershowitz argues, “[t]his is the beginning a world war in which this kind of terrorism will be used against democracies. And the question is are democracies going to be impotent in the face of this or will the international community finally say to Hezbollah and others ‘You cannot hide behind civilians. You cannot use civilians as a shield. If you do, you are responsible for every death….”

I grew up in an environment where I was taught that “you reap what you sow,” that you were responsible for the consequences of your actions, that the means you use shape the end result. For that reason, while I have supported Palestinian rights and opposed the occupations of Palestine and Lebanon, I have never been an uncritical apologist when terrorist acts against civilians were used in the name of resistance. I, therefore, am outraged by the immoral apologetics of those who uncritically excuse all of Israel’s behavior. It is a dangerous game.

When my antagonists see only their history and deny that of their adversaries, and when they insist that morality and humanity are defined exclusively by their needs and behavior, they become dangerously solipsistic. Defending a guilty client only serves to legitimate bad behavior, guaranteeing that it will continue. Worse still is attempting to fantasize some larger good coming out of evil–”the consequences of all this denial will haunt us for generations to come.