A Thought Experiment Regarding Israel
Here are two interconnected thought experiments on Israel and Gaza. Most of the content here is mine, but I’ve been inspired by suggestions from some likeminded Jewish friends in a private FB group as well, who I am not naming here.
The aim of these exercises is to clean out our thinking, correct cognitive distortions, and restore our humanity and clarity amidst the emotional fog of war. These are not comfortable exercises, but it will only take about five or ten minutes of your time to do them.
Please take the time. This is important.
If you support Israel’s war policy in Gaza, than it is particularly important. Please be willing to subject your stance to a thoughtful challenge and keep reading.
The first thought experiment. You have the capability pull the trigger on a missile launcher and kill a senior Hamas officer among those responsible for the October 7 massacre. He is surround by 200 Gazan civilians, mostly women and children, many of whom will die.
Would you do it?
Now, say that he was surrounded not by 200 Gazans, but by the 240 Israeli hostages.
Would you bomb him, or look for alternatives?
Now what if he had flown to your country — Canada or the US, probably — and was in hiding, surrounded by 200 Canadians, mostly women and children. Would you pull the trigger?
If the answer is “yes” to the first choice, and “no” to the second and third, then you are operating in opposition to international humanitarian law, which say that civilians are equal when it comes to protection in war. The whole point of those laws is to restrict deaths to combatants. If you think all Palestinian civilians, including women and children, are “combatants” then legally you are wrong, but hold on to that for a moment, we’ll return to it.
Next: an Israeli general who was among those responsible for bombing Gazan civilians is at home visiting his family in a neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Is this general a valid target in war against Israel?
Why or why not?
If you said he is not, then you seem to be guilty of a double standard. Violence against combatants is actually legal as a form of resistance to occupation under international law, so technically, for those who accept war as legitimate, the general is fair game. Is Hamas then justified in shooting a rocket that obliterates the neighborhood he is in? Does being at home with his family constitute using human shields? What if he is hiding beneath an Israeli hospital?
One more along these lines: imagine you have a Russian general who has directed many war crimes in Ukraine. He is at home with his family in Russia. His family probably agrees with what he is doing in Ukraine, and the people surrounding him probably agree as well. Is it justified to bomb this man’s entire city block in Russia, killing hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, in order to kill the war criminal?
If these last two examples seem wrong to you, than I would gently suggest that you have — probably unknowingly — fallen into the trap of not seeing Palestinian civilians as civilians, but as enemy combatants it is alright to kill.
Yet if this is the case, then what is the difference between how you are thinking and how the Hamas militants who invaded Israeli and killed civilians were thinking?
2. This is a harder experiment, but also an important one. As I write this, at least 3, 700 children have been killed in Gaza according to the Health Ministry’s numbers, which independent experts have stated tend to be credible. Many people have been in touch to tell me that this is shame, but we have no choice, that Hamas has forced our hand, that they are really the ones responsible, that these children are used as human shields, that Hamas must be destroyed.
Now if you support the war effort we probably disagree here. I don’t believe Israel’s war policies will eliminate Hamas (or whoever replaces them from amongst the traumatized, rage-filled survivors), nor bring an end to attacks against Israel. As Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, recently wrote, “Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, did it again in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and then did so once more (on a smaller scale) in May 2021. These attacks killed several thousand civilians (perhaps a quarter of them children) and further impoverished the trapped population of Gaza, but they didn’t bring us any closer to a lasting and just solution.’”
I also don’t think the current policy will free the hostages, and a number of experts and many Israelis share this opinion, as they have told me personally and as reflected in articles like this one. I wrote more about this in another article. But let’s put all of that aside for the moment.
Ok, this war will destroy Hamas and free the hostages, even of it leaves us with a still unresolved larger conflict.
Here is the thought experiment: imagine a field filled with 3, 700 children under the age of 18. Studies have shown that we can subconsciously dehumanize people who don’t look like us, so please imagine these children look like you- I assume that means, based on my majority readership, that they look like white Canadian kids, or typical Jewish kids. Please imagine them that way. If that’s not you, please adjust.
The children range in age from babies to toddlers to kids to tweens and teens. They are all hungry and thirsty, and traumatized. You walk through the field looking in their eyes, seeing the stuffies they hold, or rock t-shirts they are wearing, or bottles they are sucking, or books they hold under their arms. Now you walk up to each one, one by one — this will take a long time — and you say, “I am sorry I have to kill you. Hamas has given us no choice. We must destroy them. They are really to blame, not me. In a moment I will drop a bomb on you, and it will rip you limb from limb or leave you to suffocate in pain beneath concrete rubble. You may survive for a while, covered in blood, maimed, struggling for life, but then you will die in a chaotic, understaffed hospital which I have cut off food, water and medicine to and which I may bomb while you are there. I am sorry about this.” Then you drop a bomb, or parts of a building, on each child one by one, and leave them to die.
Are you willing to do this?
If you are not, I gently suggest you reconsider your stance on Israel’s war policies and how we should respond to them.
For more on what is going on and what we should be demanding from Israel and our own governments, please see here.