07/23/2014 10:36 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

Blame and the Israel/Gaza War: A Nonpartisan List of Common, Mistaken Lines of Thought

I am going to advance 14 general claims that seem uncontroversial to me but have surprisingly powerful implications. My goal is not to resolve any issues of blame but to raise the level of discourse by warning of certain common errors.

(By "Israel" I shall mean the leadership of Israel, not the people of Israel. Similarly, by "Hamas" I shall mean the leadership of Hamas, not the people of Gaza, or even the rank-and-file of Hamas.)

(1) There is plenty of wrongdoing to go around. Both Israel and Hamas (and also the U.S.A. and many other involved parties) are guilty of major wrongdoing. There are no pure good guys or victims here.
Implication: You cannot point out a particular instance or sort of wrongdoing by one of the parties and conclude that they are the bad guys, nor can you conclude that the victims of some particular wrongdoing are overall victims. To assign blame, you have to look at the whole big picture.

(2) There is no reason to think that Israel and Hamas are equally guilty. One party might be engaged in much more wrongdoing that the other.
Implication: Blaming both sides equally is not impartiality; it is laziness. To attribute blame, you must find out the facts and weigh them; you cannot just assume that adversaries are equally guilty.

(3) All parties are waging a propaganda war.
Implication: You cannot just accept what you read or what the parties say. Moreover, since propaganda obscures the truth, you should avoid spreading propaganda.

(4) Neither the Israelis nor the Gazans (let alone the Palestinians) are a unified group. The leadership of neither side speaks for all of its people, and even the leadership is fragmented in multiple ways.
Implication: See (5) below

(5) Neither Israel nor Hamas nor the rest of the Palestinian leadership really values a political peace settlement highly. If they wanted it badly, they could have it easily. After all, the two sides are really not very far apart in negotiations. Imagine this dialog between Netanyahu and Abbas:

Netanyahu: "Your last real offer was [fill in the blank]. Is that still your offer?"

Abbas: "Yes."

Netanyahu: "We will take it, with no conditions."

Presto! Peace! (Well, not complete peace because of (4) above, but a lot closer to peace than we have now.) Abbas could do exactly the same. But neither set of leaders wants to do anything like this.

(6) People, countries, institutions, etc. should be compared consistently either to an ideal or to an appropriate comparison class. A standard trick is to compare X to an ideal while comparing Y to a more realistic, lower standard. This maneuver enables one to demonize some people, practices, and institutions while praising rival people, practices, and institutions that are actually worse. X is excoriated for falling very short of perfection, while Y is admired for doing better than Z, who/which is actually worse than X.
Implication: If you are going to criticize Israel or Hamas according to an ideal standard, you must hold the other to the same standard. This principle is complicated by the fact that Israel and Hamas are not in the same situation, so certain acts may be acceptable for one but not for the other. But you cannot say sweepingly that Israel is bound by the rules of morality but Hamas is not because the Gazans are oppressed, for example, nor can you say that Hamas is bound by the rules of morality but Israel is not because the Israelis face an existential threat.

(7) What is the difference in situation? The conflict can correctly be seen as an asymmetric one: David (Gaza) vs. Goliath (Israel). But it can also correctly be seen as David (Israel) v. Goliath (other nations and quasi-national groups). To ignore either picture is systematically misleading.
Implication: If you acknowledge only one of these, your picture is one-sided, incomplete, biased. You are not seeing the whole picture.

(8) If X and Y are in the same situation and they do the same things, then they are equally blameworthy.
Implication: Blaming Israel and not Hamas (or Hamas and not Israel) for the same act is illegitimate, unless there is a relevant difference in their situation.

(9) Causal chains in complex situations are long, multiple and intersecting. Proverbially, anyone who claims to know the cause of the American Civil War is naïve.
Implication: It is similarly naïve to identify a single cause for an event like the Israel/Gaza war. Moreover, a common mistake or trick is to go back a step or two in a causal chain and then stop and assign blame. For example:

  • "Hamas is guilty because they started the air war."
  • "Israel is guilty because they blockaded Gaza, which caused Hamas to start the air war."
  • "Hamas is guilty because they took over Gaza and threatened Israel, which caused Israel to blockade Gaza, which caused Hamas to start the air war."
  • "Israel is guilty because it occupied the West Bank and Gaza, which caused Hamas to take over Gaza and threaten Israel, which caused Israel to blockade Gaza, which caused Hamas to start the air war."

You cannot assign blame in complex situations by going back to the beginning because complex historical events have no beginning.

(10) Blame should not be assigned according to irrelevant factors. The only issue is who is in the wrong.
Implication: There are many examples. Is Israel more to blame because the Gazans suffer more civilian casualties? No. Generally, the territory on which the fighting in a war takes place typically suffers more casualties, but that does not mean the other country is in the wrong. Casualties are not a measure of wrongness. Is Hamas more to blame because it uses (what many people consider) inflammatory rhetoric? No. Generally, acts count, but words do not.

(11) The overwhelming majority of the people in any nation may be prejudiced, but they are not moral monsters. They love their children and hate only people who have wronged them personally (e.g., the no-good landlord, the abusive husband). They care much more about getting on with their lives than about ideology, territory, victory, etc.
Implication: Any claim that some large group of people are monsters is hate speech and should be off the table.

(12) The Israel/Gaza war is not a war about religion. Religion may play some tiny role, but this is primarily a war about territory.
Implication: The Israel/Gaza war is not evidence of some problem with the doctrines of Judaism or Islam.

(13) It is possible to be overwhelmingly critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic, or overwhelmingly critical of Hamas without being anti-Muslim. However, criticism of Israel is used by some people to express anti-Semitic views implicitly, and criticism of Hamas is used by some people to express anti-Muslim views implicitly, just as criticism of welfare recipients and illegal immigrants is used by some people to express racist and xenophobic views implicitly.
Implication: Virulent critics of one side who see the other as blameless victims are not necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, but it is a red flag.

(14) It is possible to be critical of Israel or critical of Hamas for some act and not critical of other nations when they do the same sort of act without being a hypocrite. One might be more knowledgeable and/or more interested in some conflicts than in others. However, when someone is furious about something in one area of the world yet indifferent when the same thing happens elsewhere, the list of explanations includes some unsavory possibilities.
Implication: People who bitterly criticize one country for doing something and do not criticize other countries in similar situations when they do the same thing are not necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim, but it is a red flag.

Now, don't take (13) or (14) as permission to accuse other people of being anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim; one needs to know another person very deeply even to begin to do that. What I am suggesting is self-monitoring. Since prejudiced people are typically unaware of their prejudice, my suggestion to all of us (and particularly to those who hold very one-sided views) is to ask ourselves:

  • "Am I being biased in my assessment of the Israel/Gaza conflict by subconscious prejudice?"
  • "Am I unknowingly anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim?"