In the debate on Israel's 2008-2009 bombardment of Gaza, the Holocaust has predictably been brought up by both apologists and critics of the offensive – provoking in response accusations of insensitivity on one side, paranoia on the other, and irrelevancy on both. Invoking the Holocaust tends to close down debate partly because it is often intended to: names like Hitler and Goebbels are bywords for evil because we know beyond doubt that what they did was wrong; when a comparison with the Nazis is made, it is expected to elicit the same sense of horror that makes further discussion redundant.

This feeling is embodied in the phrase "Never again": a powerful and fundamentally correct reaction to being confronted suddenly with emaciated bodies and crematoria. These words, pronounced with solemn, righteous resolution, are pleasing confirmation of our humanity – reason enough to believe that we would never permit such an outrage. And there thought generally stops.

But the test of "Never again" is not our reflexive reaction to being suddenly confronted with gas chambers – for that would never explain how whole societies could have failed it. The enormity of the end point makes us forget the hundred steps that led to it: the steady erosion of human dignity, the pernicious effect of the voices of apparently respectable society, and the arguments that had to be used to persuade people to overcome their sympathy for the Jews. The challenge therefore is not whether we can now sympathize with the victims, but rather whether we can understand how the workings of conscience and reason can be derailed.

Hannah Arendt outraged many by seeking to understand. In Adolf Eichmann, she found a man of contradictions – a man who was not stupid but, in a very literal sense of the word, thoughtless. Eichmann did not lack a conscience or a sense of morality, nor was he filled with hatred. However, while he felt guilty for once having struck a prominent Jew, he saw nothing wrong with killing Jews, provided they did not suffer. Eichmann was, for Arendt, a demonstration that "thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts ... in man".

Eichmann's moral imbecility took an extreme form, but his failure was shared by people all across the countries of the Third Reich. Nor was there ever any reason to believe that human susceptability to moral collapse was confined to those countries or that time. In 1963, the same year that Eichmann in Jerusalem was published, Stanley Milgram was conducting an experiment at Yale which showed that, under no more pressure than the direction of an authority figure, a large proportion of ordinary people were ready to deliver extreme electric shocks to an innocent, screaming man. Arendt herself was also scathing about moral muddles she observed among the literati of 1960s America, such as a tendency to equate temptation with coercion.

Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip – which began on 27 December 2008 and which, after three weeks, had killed around 1300 Palestinians – was an action before the eyes of the world that made a position of neutrality seem callous or irresponsible: it demanded either justification or condemnation. Israel's media campaign, prepared well in advance, also testified to the obvious potential for public opinion to influence events. And yet in the face of this intense test of our humanity and reasoning, many of our opinion formers showed exactly that incapacity for thought which costs lives.

The first objective of Israel's apologists was to mute the natural human response to the scenes of carnage. They assured us that they too felt the same pity and grief, but Israel faced a cruel choice, and our sympathy belonged with those who had been forced to act in spite of such sensibilities. It was intimated that political sophisticates could see a bigger picture, and that it was not possible to oppose the offensive without supporting Hamas. And so we too were to imagine ourselves in the position of civilized Israel, and steel ourselves against the emotive images of stretchers. Here, the Holocaust should have taught us something: Arendt notes that even senior Nazi figures could suffer from an "animal pity" for the Jews – but they were also convinced that it should be conquered. In the case of Gaza, this line was enough to bamboozle some who were disturbed by the butcher's bill but who also felt intimidated by their political ignorance.

It is true that few people – including non-specialist media commentators – have the time to research the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sift facts from conflicting claims. Yet even if one accepted every claim of fact from the Israeli spokespersons; if one discounted all the criticism of UN representatives and agencies such as UNRWA, human rights groups such as Amnesty International, aid groups such as the Red Cross, and other independent NGOs; if one read nothing of the background and history of the conflict; if one looked with suspicion on the testimony of Palestinians in Gaza as likely to be biased or deceitful, never applying the same reasoning to Israeli sources – even if one did all these things, the conclusion that the 2008-9 war on the Gaza Strip was gravely wrong remains inescapable, provided only that one is thoughtful.

Judging Israel's Bombardment of Gaza

The key fact to consider is the enormous disparity in deaths on either side, particularly civilian deaths. Rockets fired from Gaza – the stated justification for the war – have always been primitive, unguided weapons that, for the most part, land harmlessly in empty areas. Thus, they have claimed Israeli lives at a rate of perhaps three a year. In contrast, Israel's bombardment of Gaza has killed 1300 Palestinians, at least 700 of whom have so far been confirmed as civilians, including around 400 children.

Any defence of Israel's actions turns on the notion that it acted sincerely for the greater good. A simple experiment tests this. Suppose that Israelis lived among the refugees of Gaza (whether as aid workers or as hostages), so that Israel could expect some of the civilian casualties of its bombs to be Israeli Jews. If, for the sake of argument, one Israeli civilian was likely to be killed for every five Palestinian civilians, would Israel still have launched its offensive? [1] Given that the number of Israelis killed in the bombardment would then be many times the number that have ever been killed by rockets from Gaza, the only credible answer is No. How then could it be acceptable, in pursuit of the same goal, to kill a far greater number of equally innocent Palestinians?

Let's assume we avoid the openly racist answer: that the goal of the war was a greater good only because the lives of Palestinians are lesser lives. Then the only other way to answer this question is to argue that Palestinian civilians, including the hundreds of children killed, are somehow collectively guilty, or that, because Hamas kills civilians, it is acceptable for Israel to do so on a vastly greater scale.

At this point, intent is thrown up: it is asserted that Israel does not deliberately target civilians, and that that makes all the difference. Intent is relevant to culpability where an action has unforeseen consequences. However, there was nothing unforeseen about the civilian deaths in Gaza. In this case, as the experiment shows, it is predictability and choice that are decisive. [2] (Hence the insistent – and transparently false – Israeli declarations of "We have no choice.")

The conclusion: one cannot with consistency justify Israel's offensive without adopting the position that Palestinian civilians, including children, are collectively guilty (as Jews were once thought to be collectively guilty for the death of Christ), or that the life of a Palestinian is worth less than that of an Israeli Jew, or some other belief that, once stated openly, is clearly unacceptable.

Defences of Operation "Cast Lead"

Those disagreeably surprised by this conclusion may think that there must be something wrong with the argument. Even if they can identify no fault in it, they will therefore prefer any alternative line of reasoning which appears to justify Israel's actions in Gaza.

First, the argument may be dismissed as too abstract: in the real world, people don't use imaginary scenarios and moral philosophy to decide whether something is right or wrong. This, whether it is good or bad, is true: instead of always working things out from first principles, we rely on rules – specifically, laws.

But good laws codify the results of such reasoning. Thus the principle of proportionality in international law is consistent with the insights of the experiment above. In the case of the bombardment of Gaza, a variety of weights have been laid on the scales of proportionality. Some sound impressive but are misleading: for example, the number of occasionally fatal rockets fired from Gaza. Others are wholly hypothetical: how many Israelis Hamas would kill if only it too had Apaches and Merkavas and F-16s. A few (for example, how evil Hamas is) have no units of measure, while the rest (such as the length of time the rocket firing has been going on) are measured in units incommensurable with Gaza's mountain of charred and dismembered dead. It is no surprise then that so many disinterested international lawyers have attested that Israel's offensive in Gaza is not an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter but rather an act of aggression.[3]

The use of disproportionate force is not in any case denied within Israel: rather, it is advocated and threatened and boasted about as if it were entirely legitimate.[4] It is not.[5] The importance of the proportionality standard cannot be overstated: it is the legal bulwark that stands between boundless righteousness and boundless killing; without it, the firing of an improvised rocket may be used to justify the dropping of a nuclear bomb.

Another common argument is that critics of Israel have their priorities wrong: Israel is only responding to provocation, and, if both parties are breaking the law, it is unfair to focus on Israel. But even if it were true that Israel was not the aggressor,[6] would reasoning according to these principles be acceptable in other circumstances? Suppose a six-year-old child endlessly taunts a twelve-year-old, repeatedly pinching him. The older child decides to teach the smaller boy a lesson by deliberately breaking his arm. Would anyone entertain the "He made me do it" defence and focus on the initial misbehaviour of the younger child as the primary problem, rather than on the more violent and dangerous behaviour of the older boy? A conflict in which the number of Palestinians killed (most of them civilians) is 100 times the number of Israelis killed (most of them soldiers) leaves no room for doubt about priorities.

Still, it is felt that Israel is good and Hamas is bad – and that no rule of law or civilization can ever have been intended to allow the bad side to win. But this is to take the perfectly sensible idea of judging actors by their actions and reverse it. It is an error that is as prevalent now as when George Orwell described it in the 1940s: "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side."[7]

When the idea of Israel losing is intolerable, we also need to ask what is meant by "losing". In terms of the number of deaths on either side of the conflict, whether total deaths or deaths of combatants alone, Israel has always been winning hands down[8] – exactly as one would expect from a regional superpower facing the geurilla fighters of a stateless, dispossessed people. Even without such extreme acts as the bombardment of Gaza, Israel would continue to enjoy complete dominance and, by any military measure, to win comfortably. A percentage of Palestinians continue to turn to violence not because they are winning but for the same reason that this phenomenon has been repeated in oppressed and dispossessed societies around the world: deep resentment of injustice, and a feeling that violent action can give their lives a meaning which the suffocation of opportunities has otherwise denied them.[9] Repressive violence tends to increase this percentage; short of genocide, it is not possible to attain a final military victory over a justified sense of grievance.

The sense that Israel is losing is nevertheless well founded: Israel is losing the legitimacy war – but this is because of, not despite, atrocities like the bombardment of Gaza.[10]

The Increasing Relevance of the Holocaust

To judge an action like Israel's Gaza offensive most of us leave school, and perhaps university, armed with little more than "Thou shalt not kill" and, as far as the Holocaust is concerned, an unexamined "Never again". But there are exceptions to the injunction against killing about which we can easily become confused, and the two-word resolution turns out to be little more than an emotion: Never again what? Never again so many victims? Never again the Jews? Never again by means of gas chambers?

If we meant those words "Never again", we would understand what they must mean. We would be alert to that process of dehumanization which so far negated the shocking scenes from Gaza that a chilling number of people were predisposed to accept defences of the slaughter. We would realize that whether or not Jews own the Holocaust as victims, we all own it as potential perpetrators, or accessories, or passive observers. Everyone would learn about the banality of evil – that, in Tony Judt's words, "what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little."[11]

It may be argued that Arendt and Orwell and other voices of sanity are well known and that intelligent people who adopt a political position from attachment or prejudice or cynicism will always be with us – as, of course, will people who phone radio talk shows to ask what are a thousand Palestinians compared to six million Jews. Yet surely there remain many influential people who might be paragons of virtue in their personal lives but who go through life without learning the kind of critical thinking and reasoning needed to judge "political" actions like the Gaza offensive.

Though anything resembling moral philosophy might fairly be seen as inappropriately didactic even at the educated end of the printed mass media, there is less to excuse the relative absence of references to international law in analysis and comment: law, it seems, is considered relevant mainly as a ceremonial instrument in the trials of the world's defeated dictators; when reporting actions by countries such as the US or Israel, a discussion of interests is the mark of sophistication and any reference to law is jejune. This attitude might in part be justified by the absence of a real power of enforcement. The result, however, is that actions which are clearly illegal come to be perceived as merely political acts about which reasonable people may differ. This subverts the only other power of enforcement: the moral force of informed public opinion.

The corollary of a disregard for objective standards of appraisal is that media coverage must be "balanced" rather than fair. In the UK, this notion reached a nadir of absurdity with the decision of the BBC and Sky News not to broadcast a charity appeal for humanitarian aid for Gaza on the grounds that it would compromise their editorial impartiality. A fear of being seen to take the side of a population devasted by war was an implicit recognition that the population of the Gaza Strip was one of the "sides" in the war – that is, that Israel's war was a war against civilians. With this, it became reasonable to suspect that it was precisely because Israel's actions were unlawful that coverage would automatically be rendered "unbalanced" by any mention of international law. Forgotten along with the law itself are its origins: articles such as those of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 on the protection of civilians were enacted not as contingent, aspirational ideals but rather to give legal force to the never-again sentiment that followed past atrocities, including those of World War 2.

Hannah Arendt was under no illusion that the memory of the Holocaust could inoculate us against a repetition: she believed that something which had happened once was in fact more likely to happen again. And the Holocaust itself had a precedent: we now know a great deal about how familiar the Nazis were with has been called the first Holocaust: the Armenian genocide of World War 1. Further, as Arendt pointed out, new technologies open up fresh possibilities for industrialized murder – now illustrated by the spectacle of pilotless drones over Gaza, firing missiles by remote control. Not only over the Gaza Strip, of course: today, a US Air Force "pilot" in Nevada may control a Predator drone in Afghanistan, targeting shapes on a screen and seeing the results as if in a video game; after his shift, he may even return home to have dinner with his family, just like an office worker.[12]

Whatever distinctions of scale or principle may be made, such a bureaucratization of killing should chill anyone familiar with the case of Adolf Eichmann. The problem may in part be that we are developing technologies faster than we are learning to understand ourselves and their effect on us. But science has been teaching us a great deal about human psychology, and experiments (often augmented by technology such as fMRI scanning) are yielding ever more insights into the subconscious biases to which we are all subject. It has also been known for many years – from real events as well as experiments such as that of Stanley Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment – how vulnerable our moral sense is to power, anonymity, and the opinions of those around us.

The real problem therefore is that, while technology can be mass produced, such lessons must be taught and learned anew by every person. We teach our children not to steal, not to cheat, and the other everyday rules which allow us to get along together. We should attach equal importance to teaching everyone capable of learning it the moral reasoning which prevents the unconscious slide of an entire society – including the capacity to see through the specious arguments which portray mass killing as a merely political act. It is easy to understand why we don't: the cost to society of a disregard for "do not steal" is localized and undeniable; the price of our inability to reason morally about acts of genocide is diffuse and in normal times unpaid – or, as in the case of Gaza, it is a price paid far away by people we don't know. Clearly, however, that is no excuse. If it does not seem urgent or necessary that we make learning thoughtfulness an essential part of our education then it can only be because we have not, after all, learned the lessons of the past.


[1] A ratio of 1:5 is obviously a generous one: a more natural test of moral consistency is to imagine that the civilian casualties would be shared equally. (Of course, civilians are properly thought of not as belonging to either side, but as a separate category; a ratio is imagined here not to confer validity on the idea of tribalizing civilians but rather to expose the fact that we do.) Recalling that popular opinion in Israel turned against the 2006 Lebanon war because of the rising number of Israeli deaths (most of them soldiers) and not the much larger number of Lebanese civilian deaths, it is reasonable to conclude that even a 1:10 casualty ratio would have been enough to deter Israel from undertaking its offensive in Gaza. (See also the postscript below.)

[2] Given that Palestinian civilians were expected to be killed in Israel's bombardment, to claim that what made killing them right or wrong was whether or not Israel wanted to kill them is also to attach pre-eminent importance to the (dubious) state of mind of the killer and little or none to the lives of the victims. There is a parallel here with Eichmann's more obvious moral imbecility: Eichmann saw nothing wrong with killing Jews in great numbers, provided they did not suffer; according to this argument, there is nothing wrong with killing any number of Palestinians, provided only that it is done with a feeling of regret.

[3] See, e.g., "Israel's bombardment of Gaza is not self-defence – it's a war crime", a letter signed by lawyers Richard Falk and Michael Mansfield, among many others, Sunday Times, 2009.01.11.

[4] See, e.g., Gabriel Siboni, "Disproportionate Force: Israel's concept of response in light of the Second Lebanon War," (Israeli) Institute for National Security Studies, 2 October 2008: "With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy's actions and the threat it poses." Sidoni makes clear that Israel should target civilian facilities, so leaving "the enemy floundering in expensive, long term processes of reconstruction." The popular currency of such views in Israel is evident in satisfied phrases such as "the boss has gone mad" (i.e., "Israel has gone berserk"), as described by Uri Avnery.

[5] That disproportionate force is illegitimate may be challenged: isn't there in law the concept of punitive or exemplary damages? But even if we were to lay aside the crucial fact that the disproportionality is suffered by innocent civilians (which we cannot), there is another obvious distinction: in a court case, it is an independent third party – the judge – who may impose exemplary damages on a defendant; for either party to a dispute to arrogate such rights to itself is a recipe for escalation, not justice.

[6] Despite being reinforced in the soundbites of the broadcast media, the popular perception that Hamas initiated the violence leading to the Gaza offensive is false. Although Israel never lifted its blockade on essential supplies, Hamas observed the ceasefire (and did a respectable job of enforcing it on other groups) until Israel broke it violently on November 4 – when the world's media was consumed with the US presidential election – by killing a number of Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip. The official excuse for this was that a tunnel was being dug to kidnap (capture) an Israeli soldier. This was feeble: if such a tunnel was known to the Israelis then it could not have succeeded of its purpose and no "pre-emptive" breach of the ceasefire was necessary. This has been noted by Avi Shlaim, Richard Falk, Henry Siegman, Norman Finkelstein, Smadar Lavie, and Noam Chomsky, to name some commentators from one notable group – Jewish professors who have studied the Palestine/Israel conflict – among a host of other well-informed observers. Analysts differ only on whether the Israeli government's principal motivation for war was short-term (that is, the then imminent elections) or longer-term in nature.

[7] George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945.

[8] The number of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip since Israel's disengagement in 2005 is an oft-quoted figure. Less widely known is the number of shells and missiles fired into Gaza by Israel during the same period (when it was supposedly behaving with restraint). According to UN records, Israel killed at least 1250 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (including over 200 children) in the three years following disengagement – that is, around 100 times the number of Israelis killed by rockets fired from Gaza in the same period.

[9] It is a mistake to see Palestinian violence as the product of religious ideology. Up until the 1980s, armed Palestinian groups were secular-nationalist, with Christians such as George Habash being prominent. During this period, the Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamist movement in which Hamas had its genesis – advocated non-violence. This position was abandoned only at the outbreak of the first intifada, two decades into a process of ever-worsening dispossession and colonization in the occupied Palestinian territories.

[10] Richard Falk, "Winning and Losing in Gaza", The Nation, 9 February 2009.

[11] Tony Judt, "The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe", New York Review of Books, February 2008.

[12] For a description of the technology and its potential to affect our moral compass, see, e.g., P.W. Singer, "Robots at War: The New Battlefield", Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2009.


In order to get past the rhetoric and place an empirical upper bound on the true value Israeli leaders attach to the lives of Arab civilians, an early version of this text used only the comparison of Israel's decision to end the relatively costly (to itself) 2006 Lebanon war with its decision-making in the case of Gaza. According to the pseudonymous Jerry Haber, credit for the thought experiment in which the civilians being killed by Israeli bombs are imagined to be Jewish is due independently to Georges Rey and Joseph Levine. It is a more pithy way of making the same point – since it makes no difference to the argument whether the cost comes from predictable reciprocal violence or predictable (albeit hypothetical) "friendly fire".