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All Eyes on Rafah Transcript

The following is a transcript of Episode 188 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity/Crisis, a show from the Shalom Hartman Institute creating better conversations about the issues facing contemporary Jewish life. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, recording on Friday, May 31st, 2024. 

“All Eyes on Rafah,” the ubiquitous saying goes. All Eyes on Rafah is a sentence in the present tense. It describes a reality which feels true. We are all watching what goes on in Rafah, many of us quite anxiously. Those who originated the phrase, I think it was actually a UN official, did so primarily to focus on the plight of the Palestinians out of concern for what the Israeli military might do in Rafah, a heavily populated area after months of civilians being moved around in different directions in response to the Israeli invasion. The Biden administration is all eyes on Rafah, having finally set some ultimatums on the Israeli incursion and the use of its armaments there. We are all eyes on Rafahbecause it feels like it may be the last but prolonged battleground of this awful war, and a lot depends on which military analysts you’re listening to to know whether victory is imminent or possible or hopeless. 

All eyes on Rafah is also a directive. Look, it says, don’t look away. The phrase took on this meaning especially after the tragic and awful incident last week when the Israeli military fired or misfired at its target of two Hamas commanders leading to a conflagration in a tent that was temporary shelter for civilians and to their senseless deaths. The military apologized and promised an investigation. Prime Minister Netanyahu said it was a tragic mistake. 

All eyes on Rafah, said the critics of the war. Don’t look away. All eyes on Rafah, meanwhile, responded many Jews and Israelis who believe that yeah, the center of the war is there and right underneath Rafah are very likely our hostages. If you want to look, look closer, even at what you can’t readily see. 

And all eyes on Rafah is also a meme, part of this nonsensical social media business of noise and influence that’s wrecking havoc on our societies and on our brains. As far as I can tell, the meme of All Eyes on Rafah, which depicts an encampment of tents in a desert stretching into the distance, is a meme that was most likely produced in Malaysia using AI, and none of that is relevant to the fact that it’s now been shared on Instagram at over 50 million stories, becoming the rhetorical, and I hesitate to say artistic, imagery that becomes fodder for the performative activism of social media. And now there are counter memes, too. All Eyes on the Hostages, for instance, or another one which reflects an image of a Hamas fighter standing over an infant. The infant has unmistakable red hair and a caption says, where were your eyes on October 7th? Which is to say, there’s also a front in this war that is won or lost by the metrics of public engagement. It is measured, pun intended, by eyeballs. 

All Eyes on Rafah tells of a deeper empirical truth about this war, that more attention has been paid to it than any other war in history. Such is the nature of modernity, that record keeps getting broken. But it also tells of something specific that Matti Friedman has been writing about for years, the Western fixation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that must reflect something beyond conditional political interest in this particular war, that it is a stand-in for something else, a proxy for larger questions about the West and about Jews in the West.

How else to explain the disproportionate centering of Palestine in contemporary leftism like the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, announcing this week that even amidst a huge set of social, economic, and political turmoils here in America and in the advance of the possibility of another Trump election, their main political priority is turning the tide on Palestine? All eyes on Rafah, but in kind of a creepy way. Why are you looking at this and looking at us all the time?

But I gotta say, I also feel the words all eyes on Rafah as something of a searing personal indictment. I’m embarrassed to admit there have been a lot of times throughout this war when I have simply chosen not to look at the depths of Palestinian suffering that has accumulated steadily since October 7th and that has been inflicted by a state that I support and in a war that I have supported. I just haven’t wanted to look. Israelis have made this easier on themselves by not showing images from Gaza and Israeli television. If you don’t see it, you might feel less implicated by it. 

The word seeing in ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew and idiomatic English is a way of expressing knowing. So it’s a choice not to see and a particularly chastening choice if you know that you’re going to think differently or at least feel differently upon seeing something. 

I’ve comforted myself at times by saying that we don’t really see anything, or maybe we can’t trust what others want us to see when we look at Palestinian suffering in Gaza, the images coming from IDF-controlled areas are limited and controlled by the IDF sensor. The images coming from Hamas areas and their casualty numbers are carefully curated by Hamas. This is an information war that controls what we see. 

Seeing can be knowing, but it also can be a mechanism for deception. Some can control what others see and what they feel and therefore what they think they believe. So those of us who have been covering our eyes, are we doing so because we really don’t think that what we’re gonna see will be believable? Or because we’re protecting ourselves? Or because we won’t know how to figure out the difference? 

To see something in Jewish tradition is also to invite awe or to be terrified, thanks to that terrific inversion of the word “lirot,” which can mean to see and to be scared in the Hebrew language. In Exodus 14, at the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites, the text says as follows, “Vayar Yisrael et hayad hagedolah asher asah Adoni b’Mitzrayim, vayiru ha’am et Adoni vaya’aminu ba’Adoni ub’Moshe avdo.” “The Israelites saw the outstretched hand that God had done or raised in Egypt. The Israelites feared God in that moment and believed God and Moses God’s servant.”

Seeing and fearing. Our eyes are on Rafah and we’re terrified by what we see. There are more dead Israeli soldiers every day, more Palestinian civilians dying, the hostages who we can’t see. Would that we were like our ancestors at that crossing of the sea, where seeing made for believing. And I find the more that I look, the less sure of what I am of what I’m supposed to believe. 

To think with me today and to struggle on this, I’m joined by Shlomo Brody, a philosopher, a writer who also directs an organization called Ematai, which is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people navigate their health care and end of life journeys with Jewish wisdom. He has a long resume of public intellectual writing, of program directing, and of teaching. He’s a rabbinic coordination for the Chief Rabbinate, a doctor from Bar Ilan, and most importantly, I think for today’s conversation, is the author of a new book that’s out now, very timely, I think written during the war, although I’ll hear a little bit more about that because it feels like it was written yesterday. The book is called Ethics of Our Fighters. It comes out from Maggid Press. It’s deeply material to the moment. 

Shlomo, thanks for being with us today. And I just want to start by asking you to be with me a little bit in this moment of questioning. How have you found a sense of any moral anchoring in this war? I know you are Israeli, American oleh to Israel, so you are also part of the society that’s working this out and I know that you have probably, seeing yourself on the side of our fighters, that’s in the title of your book. How has your navigating of the moral questions of your own moral ambivalence played out for you since October 7th?

Shlomo: Thanks so much, Yehuda, for having me here. You know, on October 7th and beyond, I felt the pain and suffering of Israelis. I live in a town called Modi’in. We’ve had about 25 shivas since October 7th related to the war of those that were killed on October 7th and beyond. So there’s no doubt that you know part of how I’ve been thinking about this of course is those who are suffering from it and feeling a sense of a little bit of a moral betrayal. The fact that, you know, we didn’t protect our own people. We failed, morally, on October 7th and it’s something that we have to make up for, we have to fix that moral error by fulfilling the moral imperative of protecting ourselves and other Israelis. 

But there’s no doubt, at the same time, we understand that we have a moral obligation as Jews and Israelis to fight a just war and to fight any war in a just manner. And it’s definitely something I think about. I’ll tell you what I really felt about it most is, it’s about two or three weeks into the war and there’s a siren in Modi’in, where I live. So I run upstairs with my five children and my wife, we’re huddled into our bomb shelter and we’re waiting to hear like, boom, that we expect from the Iron Dome or from something landing, and I’m sitting here, it’s probably like a little bit after midnight, I’m sitting there thinking to myself, there must be so many people in Gaza right now trying to protect their own kids from what we’re doing, from Israeli shelling, from Israeli bombing. And I believe in the justice of our war, but I’m sitting there thinking like, there must be people just asking themselves in Gaza, why in the world is this going on? Why are we in this place? Why do we have to be here? And I think that was a poignant moment for me. 

And I remember the day after, I was talking to a bunch of friends about my feelings in Modi’in, and they all felt the same way. They all totally, resonated with them. So I think many Israelis understand the moral dilemmas that we face here. 

In my own community, we have many, many soldiers, both people 18, 19, 20 and beyond, much older. And we want them to go into war, these men and women, and to fight a moral war and to feel good about themselves afterwards, they feel that they acted in a moral way.

We all know that there’s a lot of stress and trauma from coming out of war and part of that trauma is not only what happens to us, but what happens to others. And we want to make sure that our soldiers come home feeling secure and the morality of their actions. And so, you know, I think that, all that together has sort of placed a weight of saying that, yes, we very much believe in the justness and the morality of protecting ourselves, but we want to do it in the right way.

Yehuda: I mean, the questions of morality of war have become particularly complicated in recent, the recent transformation of war or whenever, whenever war moves from decision making that takes place at the top of the pyramid to when, especially in urban warfare, a soldier is engaged in something akin to hand to hand combat. And then, you know, when the decision, the hardest decision is made at the top of the pyramid, you have a one kind of trust in whether your leaders are making the right moral decisions, and it’s a very different business when it takes place among 18 and 20 year old soldiers. 

I’m curious what your level of trust is on both ends because they feel like very different conversations in Israeli society today. We trust our kids, our soldiers, to do the best that they can and their Israeli military is subject to ethical training as well. But there’s deep distrust of the Netanyahu government, of elements of the Netanyahu government, who have made terrible rhetorical comments that have rendered them questionable, at least in the eyes of the international community. So how do you think about the question of trust as it goes to a citizen in a society wrestling with the question of whether what its military is doing is actually ethical or not?

Shlomo: Yeah, well, you know, we, this was a small country. So we all know people who are fighting in Gaza and come out of Gaza and fighting and do other things in the West Bank for that matter. I have actually four nephews serving right now, all in different areas, one on the Lebanese border, one in Gaza, one in the West Bank. So, you know, we all feel it. And I do feel that you speak to people when they’ve come out of Gaza, or do other things, and there is a sense of feeling like people are being careful about how they shoot and what they’re doing. And there is a good sense of, I mean, people say to me, you know, occasionally, we have people that we’re fighting with who are a little bit out of control, a little bit, you know, not as restrained as maybe they should be, but by and large the feedback that I get and hear from people is they feel like we know that we’re trying to target the people that are trying to harm us, we’re trying to target combatants, but it is a super difficult area to fight war. 

It’s just really, really hard and there’s inevitably going to be tragic mistake. We see the tragic mistakes by the way when we kill our own. I mean, about 20% of Israeli army deaths are from friendly fire, right? So we know we make mistakes. You can’t like deny that mistakes happen, of course, when you have the phenomenon of friendly fire. And we know that other mistakes happen as well. 

But I, my feeling is that the sense you get from those coming out of the war are that we’re doing what we can to protect our people and also the minimized amount of damage to others but in a very complex environment. The blurring of the lines between civilians and and non-civilians, combatants, the blurring of lines of military targets, of having all these peers coming out of people’s houses, of people shooting from hospitals and mosques, makes this really, really difficult. 

You know, I think from Westerner eyes, people in the West just haven’t had to deal with it in this way, especially on your home turf. I mean, when was the last time people in Canada had to defend themselves? You know, you look on Wikipedia and say, what were the conflicts on Canadian soil over the last hundred years? You know, two thirds of them are labor strikes and one third are riots after Stanley Cup victories. I’m not minimizing the moral judgment of people from Canada, of course, but it’s a different type of situation. And so, you know, I think that I feel a little pretty good about how our soldiers are feeling about it.

You know, on the upper levels, at the end of the day, the people that are really making the decisions are people in the army, and Israel is a very strict code of ethics. There’s no doubt there have been some statements, I think, from some of our leaders, the defense minister in particular, at the beginning of the war, that were misguided, but I don’t think actually reflective of Israeli army policy. And while there’s certainly been mistakes, the general feeling, I think, is that we’re doing a pretty good job in keeping our eyes on the goal. 

I’ll tell you what really gives me the most source of comfort and confidence, Yehuda. And that is something I discovered researching for my book. You can’t really judge what happens in the heat of the moment. It’s too hard to know. You don’t have all the information. But you look back and see what people have studied and said about Israeli warfare since 1982, since what’s now known as the First Lebanon War. And you see here that the judgment is felt by many people, not just Zionists and Israelis, but outsiders who say, listen, given the complexity of where we’re fighting and who we’re fighting, the environment we’re fighting, asymmetric warfare and urban warfare, Israel did a very good job, very good job at trying to accomplish its military goals while minimizing the harm to civilians. That’s a long track record that you see from outside observers and that gives me a certain amount of confidence in the Israeli army as well.

Yehuda: You know, one of the features that’s essential to, I think, modern military ethics, and a lot of, by the way, a lot of modern military ethics are sourced from the IDF, which is its own interesting thing to think about. But one of the critical pieces of ethical thinking is that when it relates to civilian deaths, civilian deaths are measured in terms of the legitimacy by intent versus outcome. You cannot target civilians. You have to take into consideration the cost to civilian life relative to the value of the military target. And there’s always the possibility that even with no intent to kill civilians and a legitimate military target, something terrible will happen and you’ll wind up killing more civilians than you intended. And the only way it can be kind of prosecuted as being a war crime is actually about intent based on the information that’s at your disposal beforehand. You can’t measure the legitimacy of a moral action based on information that was not available to you or a misfire. 

I guess that all makes sense to me, as an ethicist. Let me ask you a kind of semi-ethicist question, which is how do I process the horror of the constant justifications that come from the language of military ethics? Or do I just have to say, I’m sorry, that’s the business of military ethics and war sucks? Because that’s what I think many of us who are watching the war are left with. I know rationally that if I trust that the people in charge are making the right decisions and they’re not targeting civilians, that these are non-prosecutable mistakes. But how do I keep sleeping at night when there are so many of these outcomes? And at a certain point, doesn’t the continuation of these outcomes make me say, even if I’m ethically on good ground, I shouldn’t be doing it?

Shlomo: Well, there’s no doubt it’s a powerful question and there is a certain amount of criticism of the just war tradition, which says at the end of the day, you’re doing intellectual gymnastics in order to justify horrible things. I think that’s a lot of what’s going on in the Western media as well. People see these pictures and say, listen, at the end of the day, we can’t live with this. These images, the end results are too bad. But that’s why we have sophisticated moral frameworks to help us think about these issues. And certainly one of the big issues that comes up is, can you make that distinction between intent and outcome and particularly inevitable outcome, right? You know certain things are going to happen. You don’t always know how extensive the damage will be, but you try to make a rational and reasonable estimation of that. 

And ultimately, you know, I don’t know if we’re always sure that our leaders or our fighters are making the right decisions. I do want to know that they’re going in with a set of right values and a strong moral framework for thinking of these issues. And I do want to know they’re making reasonable decisions. And ultimately, reasonability here is what needs to happen because there’s going to be judgment calls in many circumstances. 

I mean, sometimes you can sit in a room and decide, are we dropping the bomb or not dropping the bomb? You can abort it, right, your drone, whatever it might be. But many times you can’t do that. And what we want to have is a situation where people are making reasonable decisions. And in that respect, having a moral framework for thinking these issues through is crucially important. 

And one of the real harms, I think, of social media, but just in general, the way that images emerge out of war today is you see something and you say to yourself, my god, this is horrible, it has to stop. Now the fact that it is horrible might be true, but that doesn’t mean that it has to stop. It doesn’t mean there is a moral error. There’s morally complex situations but that doesn’t mean something’s morally wrong that happens. And one of the big, I think, mistakes, a lot of times happens is that people see an image and they say, listen, we can’t live with this. But you have to think about the moral consequences afterwards. 

And in this respect, we have to always think about why we’re going to war as well. And that’s a crucial part here because we understand that war is going to bring us to morally complex situations. So you have to ask yourself not only when you start the war, but also when you’re in the midst of a war, is this justified or not? 

You know, in your introduction, you’re speaking about Rafah and the importance of this. And, you know, I think one of the biggest questions, which is hard for us to really answer, is how essential is the incursion into Rafah? We’ve heard the arguments from the Israeli army, or at least from Israeli political leaders. There’s a certain amount of logic to it, you know, but it’s hard for us to know because we don’t know the reality on the ground. Are there really four remaining brigades still there? Will this really end it? I’m actually a little bit skeptical about that. I don’t think that means that’s not justified. I do think we have to still deal with the threat that we’re facing, but I do get a little bit nervous that we turn these issues into like the be-all or end-all. That’s what Rafah has become. 

That doesn’t mean to me that it’s not justified if it’s not the case, but it’s a little bit dangerous to put in that type of rhetoric and it’s very, very hard for us to make that judgment from the outside, particularly in the midst of the war.

Yehuda: I want to come back to that Rafah decision in a minute, but apropos your comments about this, you know, the kerfuffle that emerges between the state of Israel and the Biden administration, which I will say, I’m partisan in this because I’m also an American voter, but I also like, I have some sense of history and it’s been, I’ve found Biden’s response and his support of Israel throughout this war to be historic and extraordinary.

And having been in Israel multiple times earlier in the war, you know, back in November, had Biden landed in time for Israeli prime minister elections, he would have been elected prime minister of Israel. It just was extraordinary. And then you finally had this first fight that took place between the Biden administration and the state of Israel, which related to not the administration refusing to go along with the war, but making a very specific and I thought from the standpoint of military ethics, calculated argument, which is, we will not give you a certain type of armament, a 2,000 pound weapon, if you use it in Rafah, because we don’t think it can achieve military objectives in densely populated civilian areas, and therefore there’s no justification for why we should give them to you in this moment. 

Now I will admit, I don’t know the difference between a 2,000 pound weapon and a 1,500 pound weapon. I obviously know one is likely to cause more damage but I don’t know the technical vocabulary around it. 

I would have thought that the logical Israeli argument that is making the case for its tactical, ethical choices would have been to say, we agree with you, Biden administration. We’re committed to the same fighting of an ethical war in Rafah that you would want us to. And instead, it got exploited into what might be a military argument. It might have simply been political opportunism. Didn’t that feel to you like a waste from a military ethics standpoint to not simply say, we basically agree, we’re not gonna use weapons like that, therefore we don’t need them for the purpose of this?

Shlomo: So here’s how I understood that debate, or at least how the debate should have gone down. We agree on the mission to eliminate this threat. Because the Biden administration said repeatedly, we think that we need to replace or get rid of, or at least significantly weaken Hamas. Everyone should agree on that. And I think everyone agrees also, we want to do that in the way which minimizes casualties and minimizes harm to everyone involved, whether it’s Israeli soldiers and also to Gazan civilians. So both of those are really deep and important values. 

Now, if you have a strategy where you can achieve the military goal, the same military goal, and do it in a way which causes less harm, of course that’s what should be done. It wasn’t clear to me, in the public rhetoric at least, that the Biden administration was offering an alternative to what Israel was saying it was going to do. Now again, these are closed-door discussions, so it’s really hard to judge from the outside. But if the Biden administration was actually offering an alternate plan, okay, well, that’s something which should be taken very seriously. But if the alternate plan is an option which just says, listen, you’re not going to accomplish as much militarily, but we can’t live with this many civilian casualties, that’s a problem in my mind. Because if you’re not going to go to war in a way to actually accomplish a certain military goal, what are you going to war in the first place at all? I mean, why going in there at all? 

So it’s sometimes it’s, you know, either-or and to be stuck a little bit in the middle. Well, we’ll do a, you know, a half-hearted incursion. I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be. It’s very hard to judge that from the outside.

Now, of course, if the Biden administration was behind closed doors saying, listen, guys, we’re going to help you figure this out and you can do this and accomplish this in a different way, okay, well, that makes a lot of sense to me. But if it doesn’t accomplish the same type of goal, then I have a lot of moral qualms with that, because let’s remember, this is not a matter of interest versus humanitarianism. That’s the way this gets played out a lot. Well, Israeli interests are to win, but we have humanitarian considerations. There are competing moral imperatives here, and you have to balance those moral imperatives. 

Moral imperative number one is to defend your people and to remove the clear and present danger that it’s facing. Moral imperative number two is to protect the lives of all human beings that are created in the image of God. That’s a real Jewish value. That’s an American value as well. I think that’s something which we’re trying to balance. And if we framed in those terms, I think it would be a lot better place. The fact that this got politicized, the fact that this got public in this way, very, very unhealthy for our deep moral discourse that should be going on.

Yehuda: Great, so now I will loop back to what you said about your own questions about whether the invasion of Rafah is necessarily essential for the purpose of the war. So I actually want to ask this from a technical standpoint about military ethics. If a military is unsure whether it actually can win according to its stated objectives, is it obligated to actually stop fighting? Because that’s where I’ve started to see the collapse of consensus in Israel around the war, is when somebody comes to the conclusion that the stated military objectives are unachievable, then to say I no longer support the war is not I’m disloyal to the cause, but I actually feel that then the civilian casualty, the cost of civilian casualties is gonna keep mounting and I can’t win anyway. So how much does that shape the moral discourse from a kind of technical standpoint?

Shlomo: Oh, it should shape it deeply. And I actually discuss this at length in my book, the following phenomenon: When you go to war, you have to ask, is there a just cause for going to war? Do I have just goals here to achieve? And can I achieve them? But that doesn’t mean you don’t ask that question again in the middle of the war as well. 

So you have to ask that question on October 8th, of course, because you have to say, okay, what can I achieve and how can I achieve this? And is this a just cause? And do I have ways of doing it? 

But when you’re in the midst of a war as well, you have to continue to ask, okay, I may have wanted to accomplish A, but given the reality that I’m at now, on May 31st, what is it that I can accomplish now? What should my goals be? And can I still hit those goals? That’s a deeply important question. I don’t think you have to wake up every morning and ask that question because that will become very difficult. You can’t operate on day-to-day level like that. But there’s certainly going to be points in a war where you have to take a break for a moment and say, where have I gotten to this point? And what can I achieve now? Is this just now to keep on fighting, given my strategic goals, given the reality on the ground?

And I think this is an important question which many superpowers over the years have gotten caught with. If you think about America and Iraq and Afghanistan and others, Vietnam, for that matter, and I think actually Israel fights a problem in the first Lebanon war where it didn’t know how to extract itself because it didn’t accomplish all of its goals. But you have to ask yourself in the midst of a war as well, when do you say we have to stop? Because we just can’t accomplish more. It’s no longer worth it on a strategic level or on a moral level. 

I think it would be perfectly legitimate for the Israeli government or army to go back to Israeli people and say, listen, we want to accomplish A, we have accomplished a lot, we’ve reached a certain point, we’re not going to be able, at this stage, to get more. Let’s pull back. Let’s focus on other things. 

You could say that for a lot of reasons. I mean, you could say that because we were just limited in our means and our resources, and we actually have to really worry about Hezbollah now. We have to worry about Iran. I mean, there are a lot of different reasons why you can make such a statement. But you can say on a moral and strategic level, there’s only so much we can do. 

I think my biggest fear with Israeli leadership right now, who I think deserves a lot of criticism, but not always the criticism that it’s been given, but you always have this fear that we’ve seen in past as well, is that when political leaders feel they have to show certain accomplishments, they’re going to naturally assume, yeah, we can accomplish more if we just do a little bit more. If another two weeks, if another incursion, whatever it might be. That’s a big question. They might be right. I mean, they might be right. They might be right that invading Rafah is really essential here in pressuring Hamas, in order to eliminate a lot of people. It could be right and it could be that’s gonna be true about going back to northern Gaza and other areas as well. 

But you always have this concern that was driving the leaders is a political consideration as well, which is a little bit nervewracking. And it’s particularly nervewracking in our case right now because the mishap on October 7th was so bad. But it’s also nervewracking because we want to keep our eyes on the broader goal. The goal is to make our defense better. And particularly when you have to think about the political and diplomatic situation, and particularly if you think about the resources we’re going to need if we have to fight Hezbollah, well, we may not be able to get stuck in Gaza for much longer. So that’s a question which is hard to answer, but I think that’s a moral framework of thinking about the dilemma that we have right now.

Yehuda: But shouldn’t that mean, therefore, that an ethicist actually has to interrogate the political interests of the military, of the people leading the military, in order to be able to continue to make pronouncements about the ethics? I remember there was a short piece a number of years ago by the Jewish philosopher Charles Manekin, who’s an outspoken critic of the state of Israel and its military, and his argument was essentially rooted in, in order to affirm that there’s a stated military objective, right, that comes from the spokesperson of the IDF, once you’re in that framework, you can evaluate the legitimacy of the particular use of force, but that requires of me to trust the motivations of the military spokesperson. 

And we know, by the way, on our side, we would never trust the narration that comes from the other side. So being a citizen of a society inclines you to want to trust through the framework of patriotism that the people on your side are actually telling you the truth. But shouldn’t it be the responsibility of them of precisely the military ethicists to actually interrogate the the truth claims that are being put forth both by the military and by the political leadership?

Shlomo: It’s definitely an obligation to raise these questions. Interrogate feels a little bit strong to me, but there’s no doubt, people of goodwill, thinkers, ethicists, rabbis, authors, writers, anshei ruach, as they say in Hebrew, are people that need to be asking a lot of questions. But those questions go a lot of different directions. 

I mean, some of these questions could also be, why are you waiting so long to enter, Rafah? Like, what are you waiting for? We have hostages there. We have needs that we have to be taken care of. That can be going a lot of different directions. So, you know, the moral imperative and the questions that have to be asked here don’t always go in one direction or another. But it’s certainly important for people to raise questions. 

And I think that, you know, in Israeli society as a whole, it has become a little bit skewed because of the ongoing political discourse before October 7th, which was so unhealthy and so harmful, that people now have a hard time raising legitimate questions in a lot of different directions. 

I mean, there are some right-wing politicians who I don’t care for one bit. I’m not going to name names here, but people I really dislike. I don’t mean on a personal level. I don’t like their political views, but they’re also asking serious questions, I think, about how the war is being run and why we’re not doing things in a more decisive manner. That’s also a legitimate question. So all I’m saying with your point is I think you’re absolutely right, but it goes in both directions, right? That can go in a lot of different ways in terms of thinking about the more dilemmas we have.

Yehuda: One of the examples that you cite for kind of criticism of the book, I use that word carefully because I think we’re referring to a teacher of both of ours, Rav Amital, of blessed memory, was around the terminology, and you’ll flesh out the case of Rav Amital referring to actions of the IDF as a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

And what you point out is there are two climates that make figuring out what actually happens in war very difficult until after the fact. One is what’s famously referred to as the fog of war. You genuinely cannot know what’s going on. And to me, that’s been, I’ve been banging this drum in the American Jewish community for months. The minute these declarations, these pronouncements about what happened yesterday in the war, like you don’t know anything about what happened yesterday in the war or today. 

And then the second cloud, which has become very pronounced, especially in this war, is that there is an intentional misinformation and disinformation war, which ultimately serves the enemy. If you can actually fabricate what’s taking place, it’s not just fog of war in that kind of accidental force of nature kind of way. It’s like people want to tell you what opposite story was taking place. So anshe ruach, spiritual people, have to be able to emerge and say, this is not good, but use that as an example of kind of falling trap to the misinformation environment. 

So I’d love for you to play out that example because I think so many of us feel stuck. There’s all this misinformation, this information. Does that mean I can’t feel or say that I think this was done right or wrong? Walk us through that a little bit.

Shlomo: Yeah, I mean, misinformation or just different judgment calls can really bias people a lot of different ways. And you have situations where the headlines will look terrible. Think about in the early on in this war when that hospital was struck by a rocket and there’s an allegation, 500 were killed in Gaza and for at least two days the narrative and world media was saying, okay, Israel struck a hospital and killed 500 people. 

Now, you could call that a chilul Hashem, a desecration of the reputation of God and of the Jewish people, because, after all, the headlines around the world say that Israel’s a bloodthirsty people and they’ve killed a lot of innocent people.

But the danger here is that when you’re responding only to just what the headlines are, you’re not doing some form of critical, serious moral judgment and knowing the facts. And that makes this a very difficult situation. And the example I gave in the book with Rav Amital, Rav Amital was a great figure who cared deeply about the morality of the Jewish people, great Zionist, Holocaust survivor, who raises children and students to be soldiers and to be scholars, but also to be peace lovers, and he becomes a minister in the government, partly because he’s afraid of some of the ways in which religion is being portrayed as being bloodthirsty and always seeking war and violence. 

And when one of the incursions in the late 90s into Lebanon happens, and there’s a strike on a city called Qana in which a number of people in a refugee building of the UN get harmed and killed, Rav Amital comes out and says, this is terrible tremendous chilul Hashem, I can’t believe our soldiers did this, and it turns out that, yes, we made a mistake there, but there’s a lot of human error, a lot of weather factors that went out here, and also the fact that the Hezbollah fighters were shooting rockets from a cemetery right next to the UN compound. And so Rav Amital is screaming, this is a chilul Hashem, this is terrible, because the headlines are terrible, but in fact you had a complex moral situation in which a mistake happened, partly our fault, partly from Hezbollah’s fault, and to then make a judgment and say, my God, I can’t believe our people have done this, is unfortunately terribly superficial. 

And so, you know, I sit here and think about, well, how do we think about this war with so much, not only the fog of war, but the misinformation that’s going on there. And I think we have to maintain a certain amount of, on the one hand, trust and belief because of, not only patriotism, because of the history of how the IDF has fought, but also maintain and reserve judgment about things. 

You know, it’s definitely possible that a few months from now we’re going to look back and say, wow, we did a few things here. They make a whole lot of sense. And we’re going to have to make judgment calls and say, at the time, were we smart enough to know why that shouldn’t have made a lot of sense? Or we could say these were difficult calls, reasonable people can disagree about what happened, and in the meantime, we should reserve judgment on that. But because of the nature of political discourse, of the immediacy of discourse, of the way that images travel so fast, it’s very hard to do that. 

And what can I say, my friends? You know, Judaism commands us to be morally complex and deep people, and that is something we should bring to the world today in this superficial world of social media that we’re dealing with. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything else to say to that except for we have to be morally sophisticated while we’re trying to fight a very difficult battle on a diplomatic level as well as a military level.

Yehuda: I want to push you to give some practical advice. If you’re a North American liberal rabbi, you’re in a community of folks, you can criticize them for this position, but who are driven by Jewish values of compassion. Those are the ones that are prioritized as part of the North American liberal Jewish agenda, justice and righteousness and compassion, and the desire to believe that it’s genuinely possible to recognize that the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are inextricable, linked permanently to one another and that there’s no political or even military way out of this. 

I was at a conference yesterday of the Reform Movement, I was speaking to Reform rabbis, and somebody asked, like, how do we model the kind of moral compassion and seriousness amidst this war for the younger people in our community who are more, I would say, axiomatically opposed to the war for a whole variety of reasons?

And I said something similar to you, which is I have compassion for rabbis, especially the Zionist pro-Israel rabbis, who are amidst an intentional misinformation and disinformation campaign about this war, and therefore feel the need to just stand up for Israel in a moment like this, and, at the same time, have to watch every day as there are news of this misfire and this conflagration that emerges and are searching for religious vocabulary to speak with sincerity and compassion and sometimes with criticism of the Israeli military in moments like this. And we don’t want them to do things like you say, play into the hands of Hezbollah, or in this case, play into the hands of Students for Justice in Palestine by viscerally responding in these moments with moral criticism. What would you want that voice to sound like from North American rabbis in those kind of moments?

Shlomo: Well, there’s no doubt it’s a difficult challenge. I myself spoke at a conference of rabbis in England last week who were dealing with this issue. And one of the things I actually did with them is I pulled out the British military’s code of law, the laws of armed conflict, the way they interpret it, and show them how their own army actually thinks about these difficult dilemmas of human shields, of proportionality, sieges, starvation, all those issues that come up there. And you can see this in the American code of law as well. And you see here actually a very sophisticated nuanced perspective on this and ultimately, when it comes down to it, the only ones that are really dealing with this issue on a serious level are the Brits, the Americans, and the Israelis. 

I mean, they’re the only ones who are fighting. One of the things I think is so difficult when you’re dealing with the young is, particularly in America, you haven’t had to deal with this issue. So put yourself in the place of Israelis right now. Try to put yourself into that dilemma, feeling the moral imperative to protect yourself, but also feeling the Jewish moral imperative, as well to respect the dignity of all human beings that are created the image of God, and think through how you balance those issues out. I think that’s an exercise that would be very helpful to ask some of our youth to do and say, okay, put yourself in that position right now. Know what’s happened on October 7th and before and after and ask yourself how would you deal with this situation? I think that it’s too abstract in many ways for so many people because they just don’t have to deal with it. 

So what I would encourage the rabbis to do is to ask people about how they do this themselves and ask them what types of values would it bring to the equation. And here, and this of course was the goal of the book, was to show that Jewish wisdom actually has a lot of values that it brings to the table and can help us develop a deep moral framework for thinking of these issues. And reasonable people, of course, are going to disagree sometimes, about different values and how to apply those values, but at least we can have a framework of thinking about those issues.

If we can go through that exercise with our young people and ask them, take yourself out of this picture right now of what you’re seeing on Instagram or TikTok. I say Instagram, I’m aging myself here, right?

Yehuda: Yeah, Myspace, yeah.

Shlomo: Exactly. And put yourself in the position of Israelis your age. I think that’ll be a very helpful exercise.

Yehuda: So this is, I found very compelling at the heart of the book, what you call the Jewish multivalue framework for military ethics. It reminded me a little bit of some work that we’ve done at Hartman around the complex makeup of the Jewish values that people bring to bear when they come to their own conclusion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our list is land, peace, justice, compromise, exceptionalism, something else. 

And it’s like a nexus, almost like a cocktail of how people make choices. It’s connected to Jonathan Haidt’s work around moral frameworks that people use to see the world. And you list nine essential values. I’m going to read them out: “Dignity of mankind, inherent wrong of illicit bloodshed, individual responsibility, a vision for world peace, warfare in the pursuit of justice, warfare as a collective affair, national partiality, protecting one’s own people, bravery and courage, and national honor.” 

I found this very compelling as a pluralist, because what you’re basically saying is resisting the other way to read Jewish tradition, which is as a literalist. Let me just take the Book of Joshua and make it a manual for the conquest of the land, or in contrast, let me take some Midrash about seeking peace and then make it the entirety, the totality of the Jewish tradition. 

Educationally, I love it. Do you find that it creates the inability to speak in clear moral language at any given moment about particular challenges?

Shlomo: So I was just speaking to Hebrew University law students at a seminar about the book and this was precisely the debate. You bring a lot of values to the table. And that sounds really great, actually. Sounds like you’re doing what philosophers call a pluralistic casuistry. You’re taking a plural number of values at one time and trying to apply it case by case and trying to judge something. And the student said to me, yeah, but we’re all going to come up with different answers. So how is that going to help us at all? 

And my response to them is, well, yes, you’re all going to come up with different answers. That might be true, but at least you’ll have a shared framework and shared values so you can converse with each other and make a claim, an argument, of why this is a better move or better decision in this given situation. 

So someone said to me, yeah, but if we can all be right, doesn’t that turn into relativism? And I don’t think so, because I think we can feel on an individual level, we’re going to take these values and argue forcefully for what we think to be right and correct and the correct action in the given situation or the given war, but also be able to argue back to someone and reasonably understand why someone’s coming from a different perspective. 

And ultimately, Yehuda, I think that’s what’s so missing in so much of the discourse today, that people don’t want to recognize the multiple values that we have to bring to the table in these dilemmas. And it’s really the fundamentalists who scare me. And the truth is, why I define fundamentalists is just those who just care about one value. Those people scare me. And the reason why they scare me, take a couple of examples, you have fundamentalists, the way we usually think of them, are just people who feel like all you got to care about is your side winning. Kill the other because all you have to care about is your side winning. That is not a Jewish way of thinking about moral dilemmas and certainly military ethics. 

I’m also concerned though of those who just care about one value of human rights. And don’t think about this in terms of other types of moral values like protecting your own people, which is a really deep moral imperative. And so, you know, we can debate, of course, which one push comes to shove, which should be more important, which should you prioritize, and there are all sorts of ramifications to that debate. But those who bring only one value to the table really scare me.

Yehuda: This is the essential argument that you make in the Wall Street Journal piece that came out yesterday. It’s titled, Rescue Israeli Hostages, But at What Cost? This is an edgy title for a society in Israel where the priority of family and of rescuing hostages is paramount, where Jewish tradition has some really strong statements on the importance of rescuing hostages, which have been exploited, I would say, politically, by those who want to use that as an argument about only fighting the war for the purposes of rescuing the hostages and therefore be willing to negotiate.

And you express some more ambivalence, that actually, and this is your own version of pluralistic casuistry, right? Working out the competing values in this case, the big one is the costs are twofold. One is they have to end the war. And another is to have to engage in a negotiation which will release terrorists who will most likely come back and attack the state of Israel, as happened with the Gilad-Shalit negotiations. And many of the people who were released came back and attacked Israel on October 7th. And it’s hard to read because we want our hostages back.

Shlomo: Right. Yeah. I’d say that writing this was super difficult. In fact, I was afraid to show it to my wife, who has very strong feelings that we need to bring home our hostages now. To the point where she said to me, I can’t believe you’re the father of four daughters, at one point, you know, you think that should be the moral imperative. And my response to her was, well, I want my daughters not to have anything like this happen to them. And if we keep on releasing terrorists who go back doing the same thing, because they see an incentive for doing this, for taking hostages, what type of society are we building? We have to be very concerned and not just think in short-term levels but long-term levels. 

So I’m happy to say my wife is actually happy with the piece which is probably the most important element.

Yehuda: I was gonna say, I was gonna say, once your wife said that to you, you weren’t like, maybe I won’t publish it?

Shlomo: I admit it was very, very nervewracking, but I got good report from her and even from my mother-in-law. So there you go. But you know, it’s super, super nervewracking to talk about this issue in Israel. There’s no doubt about it that we want to bring over hostages as a moral imperative. But they’re countering moral imperatives as well, which relate to the long-term national security and we don’t live in a shtetl anymore. We have to think in those terms as well about responsibility for a whole country. 

And I’m very, very concerned when we see these images, which seems inevitable at this point, that we’re going to have to release a certain number of terrorists from jails. And I’m just going to sit there and ask, how many Israelis are these terrorists going to kill in the coming years? And I find that to be a very very difficult situation for Israel to be in. 

And you know Yehuda, it’s interesting after the Shalit deal, which was so lopsided, right? We brought home one soldier, full stop, period. I’m happy we brought home Gilad Shalit. I am happy about that, right? Every Israeli, every Jew, every member of the army, it’s very, very important. But we released over a thousand prisoners to bring him home who’ve gone on to do terrible things to us. And after the Shalit deal, as was going on, Israel appointed a high-level committee, ethicists, judges, and others and said, okay, let’s think through how we avoid this again. As far as I can tell everyone just entirely ignored the findings of that committee. And that’s a horrible thing because you actually set up a moral framework with a group of a philosopher and a judge and others to think about and deal with this issue. And we’ve utterly dismissed it. And what does that say about our ability to use moral reckoning and moral reasoning in order to deal with these difficult dilemmas? 

Yehuda: But by the theory of the pluralistic casuistry, a real serious reckoning would say, I have multiple moral considerations here. The rescue of my own family, the viability that this may be the only possible outcome around winning the war, right, if we’re getting the hostages back, and I’m holding that against having to end the war, and I’m holding it against having to release people with blood on their hands and most likely blood in their future.

Again, here’s a good case. You don’t paskin in this op-ed, but it kind of sounds like you are. You’re not saying my conclusion based on the casuistry, the negotiation between these two values, is that Israel should not do a deal to rescue the hostages. And something I would have found freeing, because I trust it when somebody says, let me show you my work, here’s, I’ve shown you the work and here’s, I come to my conclusion, because then I can say, I agree with the work, but I don’t agree with the calculus you’ve made at the end. 

But you hold back a little bit. And I would want, I would love to see a version, the best version of a public conversation about the ethics of war is everybody shows their work, everybody comes to a different conclusion, and then we’re arguing about the conclusions, but we actually are trusting each other and you actually can build a pluralistic society.

Shlomo: The editor of the Wall Street Journal wanted me to come out stronger as well. And I said back to him, here’s the one problem, and this is an essential problem. I don’t know all of the facts on the ground. How many of these hostages do we actually think are alive? What are we talking about here? Right, winners? And also, you know, in terms of the two goals of the war, how realistic is it actually to eliminate Hamas? Is this really going to put pressure on them? It’s a major factor which I just don’t know. And that’s why I always tell people you have to have a little bit of modesty when you’re ultimately an outside observer, when you don’t know enough of those facts. And so I admit, you know, it’s something which I wish, I think you’re right. And I would hope to see on a deeper level within the Israeli government, or for that matter, the American government, and othersm who have a better sense of what’s going on the ground, bring your cards to the table, tell me what you’re seeing and then give me an ethical framework for thinking about this. Very hard to do that as an outside observer particularly as we said beforehand in the midst of the war.

Yehuda: Let me ask you a last question. So Moshe Halbertal has an essay from the talk that he gave in 2015 about ethics during an asymmetrical conflict. And I found it a very useful text even teaching a bunch of teens a few weeks ago. Because asymmetry is one of these things that if you don’t know much about war, feels unfair. But when I actually asked the teens, like, wait, is it true that just because one military is stronger than the other, that they have to fight with one arm tied behind their back? Do you have to make a war fair or can you actually use that to your advantage to win? 

But anyway, at the end of the article, he asks a beautiful question, which is a pedagogic question. And he says, he’s asked all the time, how do you actually play out all of what you know about ethics in the middle of a conflict? It’s unreasonable. I’m making decisions in real time. How can I use these principles?

And Halbertal’s answer, the rhetorical response he says is, well, don’t you have to make tactical decisions in real time? Yeah, of course, you have to decide, do I put my troops here, do I put my troops there? And how do you know, how do you trust yourself to get to that place? He said, education. So how do we create societies that educate as rigorously around ethical decision -making as they are around tactical decision-making? I found that kind of a beautiful image for education in general. 

And I would ask you, what’s one hope of how you would want your multiple moral frameworks to guide how Jewish communities might think about educating around these issues? It could be in Israeli society, it could be North American Jews. What’s your vision of how this could improve Jewish education?

Shlomo: Yeah, it’s a great question that he poses there at the end. It actually reminds me, a couple of people bought my book and then sent it to their sons who are soldiers in Gaza. And I’m thinking to myself the following, do I really want them to read this book at night, let’s say, when they’re in the middle of Gaza right now? Like, is that really the duty of a soldier to be thinking and stepping back that way? And I’m not sure, you know, if that’s helpful or not, if that’s distracting or not.

But there’s no doubt that I think that we have to have a deeper moral thinking and education about the morality of war and teach people a little bit about some of the types of tools that are necessary of analyzing what makes a just war and what makes it acting in war, just behavior. Even that distinction alone about asking those two questions. What makes it just to go to war, and then also about what makes you have just behavior within war, is an important distinction which has to be taught. 

And I think that’s essential for us right now, to start thinking about this, and to actually create curriculums around the types of questions that need to be asked, the types of values that we should bring to the table. And we use case examples. And we shouldn’t be afraid of using case examples when we messed up, when we made mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes were made in the fog of war and sometimes those mistakes were made because it was a bad moral calculation. Deep thinkers, serious people from a deep moral tradition like our own should be able to recognize that we do some things right and we do some things wrong and we need to learn from those mistakes. 

And you know, it’s sort of wild, you mentioned earlier, Israel is featured prominently in all contemporary writing of military ethics. It’s actually pretty remarkable and we have a lot of material now, in the last hundred years actually, in which the Israeli forces, but Jewish tradition can bring a lot of wisdom and guidance to this issue. It’s actually pretty remarkable, Yehuda, if you think about it, we didn’t fight for so many centuries, we just didn’t have to deal with this issue. And who knew, right, that we’re gonna end up having a situation where our tradition would actually bring something really deep to the table. But I guess we should have confidence in our tradition as well, and indeed it does. 

And so I’d love to see following this war, and in general, of course, following the book, is this idea of saying, well, we could really develop a deep curriculum to think about these issues, which ultimately the goal is not to create a situation where we all agree with each other. What we should be trying to find is a shared moral framework of thinking about these issues so that we will talk reasonably to each other and come to some form of discourse with each other, which is going to be so important. I mean, we’re going to need a lot of physical fortitude in the coming years, and we’re going to need a lot of moral fortitude, the strength to be able to ask ourselves why we fight and how we fight. And so I hope that will be a challenge which Jewish educators in Israel and around the world will take upon themselves at this stage.

Louis: Thanks for listening to our show, and special thanks to our guest this week, Shlomo Brody. Identity/Crisis is produced by Tessa Zitter, and our executive producer is Maital Friedman. This episode was produced with assistance from Sarina Shohet and edited by Gareth Hobbs from Silver Sound NYC with music provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. You can now sponsor an episode of this show, follow the link in the shownotes or visit shalomhartman.org/identitycrisis. We will acknowledge your gift on a future episode. 

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics