Collateral Damage

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership

At this point the Gaza war is dragging on, while Israel and Hamas engage in on-again-off-again negotiations through their Egyptian intermediaries.  In the meantime the casualty count is mounting, especially among the Palestinians. Progressive Zionists are experiencing anything from disquiet to anguish over the number of civilians, especially children, being killed.  As I write, the total number of dead according to Gaza health officials exceeds 2000, about half of them civilians.  Israel claims that it has killed about 1000 Hamas militants, but is circumspect about the civilian deaths. Here then are some thoughts.

Check the data.  Who are these Gaza health officials? Are there independent sources corroborating these numbers? Recall the 1982 Lebanon War, where the claims by the PLO that tens of thousands had been killed were shown to be wildly exaggerated. Given Hamas’s strategy of maximizing Palestinian casualties to delegitimize Israel in world opinion, and its tactic of shooting from populated areas, it is not a reach to think that the Gaza health officials might be exaggerating the numbers, either by design or through fear.

But might these numbers in fact be too low?  Suppose the Gaza health officials’ numbers are an accurate body count of the known dead. How to count the additional bodies buried in bombed-out buildings and in rubble? Hilary Clinton got it right when she warned of not accepting numbers at face value in the “fog of war.” That cuts both ways.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Gaza health officials are wildly exaggerating, say, by a factor of two. That’s still about 500 civilian deaths. Even if all these were collateral damage, not intentional targets, we should not be sleeping well.

Which brings us to the question raised by the usual suspects: “How dare you criticize Israel’s military decisions when you don’t bear the consequences?”  Well, yes we do.  Ask the European Jews.  That is not of course to excuse the rank anti-Semitism of the demonstrators with their shouts of “Hamas Hamas, Jews to the gas.”  It is also worth remembering that the murders of French Jews, including children, predate this war. Yet obviously there is a correlation between the Gaza war and the increase in anti-Semitic violence.  We diaspora Jews will stand by Israel, whatever the consequences to us.  But that does give us a place at the table.

Which brings us to yet another question: Whose are the legitimate voices speaking out against the magnitude of the collateral damage? That’s an easy call.  Those who were consistently (not a one-shot crocodile tear) speaking out against the attacks on Sderot.  This narrows the field considerably.  It leaves most of the Europeans out.   It leaves out some well-known NGO’s. It certainly leaves the UN out.  Netanyahu was no doubt exaggerating when he said that the UN Human Rights Council’s report on Israeli war crimes has already been written, but in a sense he was on the mark.

There is another disqualifying criterion, and here we must include the US and its allies who participated in the war in Iraq and are still in Afghanistan.  The US is at this moment bombing Iraq. (Pinpoint?) The voices of those who have produced collateral damage numbering in the thousands upon thousands should have no suasion in the discussion of Gaza.

That still leaves a good number of legitimate critics, not the least of whom are us.  Among progressive Zionists there is a raging debate as to the necessity of this war.  None of us is a fan of Netanyahu.  I think he leads the worst government Israel has ever had. I’ve read and heard the arguments against this war, and they are not without merit.  But I’m a simple guy: I think that 10,000 rockets are a good enough reason. And so does every country now applying the double standard to Israel.

We progressive Zionists, however, do not have a double standard. We know what the current Israeli government thinks of Palestinians.  How can this not affect their tolerance for collateral damage?

There is a second kind of collateral damage, less horrible, but not inconsequential. It is the kind we have been seeing in Europe: anti-Israel bias in the media and the left’s excusing attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions as misguided but understandable. Instead of providing the needed protection, European police authorities are terminating pro-Israel demonstrations “for the participants’ own safety” and advising Jews not to look Jewish — no kippahs, no Stars of David. Collateral damage: Almost a third of European Jews say they want to emigrate. Those numbers are bound to grow as attacks, in whatever political guise, increase. Despite efforts by decent Europeans and even sometimes by their governments, Europe may well become virtually Jew-free.

There is a third kind. The relative calm in the West Bank over the past few years cannot be assumed to be a permanent condition. The continual building of settlements in the occupied territories comes with collateral damage. It erodes any hope among the Palestinians that they will ever have a state of their own. Anger and despair breed intifadeh.

The only thing progressive Zionists can do is soldier on, with compassion for what Israelis have been suffering from rockets, tunnels and suicide bombings, and compassion for the innocent Palestinians who are suffering both from Hamas and from Israel’s counterattack.  “Soldier on” means one thing: continuing the struggle for a two-state solution.  Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, this war will end. What will matter will be the nature of the peace.

About Jeffry V. Mallow Ph. D., Immediate Past President

Jeffry V. Mallow is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Loyola University Chicago. He does research on science education and on quantum physics. He is a member of the Forward Association and honorary chair of the Chicago YIVO Society. His articles on Jewish themes have appeared in numerous publications.  He is the author of Zionist Diarist and Other Polemics. He is also a standup Jewish comic.
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