War, Counterfactual thinking, Israel and G-d

Tuvia Brodie,

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Tuvia Brodie
Tuvia Brodie has a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh under the name Philip Brodie. He has worked for the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham College and American Express. He and his wife made aliyah in 2010. All of his children have followed. He believes in Israel's right to exist. He believes that the words of Tanach (the Jewish Bible) are meant for us. His blog address is http://tuviainil.blogspot.com He usually publishes 3-4 times a week on his blog and 1-3 times at Arutz Sheva. Please check the blog regularly for new posts.

This is a long essay. I hope it’ll be worth your time.

Every time Israel goes to war against its Arab enemies, the UN raises a moral question: Did Israel fight fairly?

With every war, the UN wants to investigate Israel for war crimes. The UN puts Israel on the defensive: did it fight a ‘just war’ or an immoral war?

A war can be ‘just’—that is, moral and ‘fair’--if it fulfils several requirements. One approach used to determine whether a war is moral starts by looking at the results of the war. Then it works backwards: it uses those results to answer four questions. The answers determine whether or not a war was moral.

The process with four conditions (“The Consequences of War”, Thomas Hurka, University of Toronto, p. 4). A moral war must meet all four of these conditions.

First, a just war must have a just cause—like resisting aggression or preventing genocide (ibid, p. 4). A moral war must also be a response to a specific, relevant wrong (ibid).

For Israel in its 2014 war with Gaza, the specific, relevant wrong committed for which war was a response was daily rocket-fire from Gaza that was aimed at Israel’s civilians.

Israel went to war in order to address that wrong. Israel’s behaviour fulfilled the first moral requirement.

The second moral condition for a just war is called, a reasonable hope of success. This means that a war must hope to produce a relevant good (ibid).

The relevant good Israel hoped to achieve was to make it safe for Israelis to live normal lives. Rockets from Gaza meant that some 500,000 Israelis were not safe.

Israel’s war had a clear purpose to produce a relevant good. Its behaviour fulfilled the second condition for moral war: it sought to stop the rockets from Gaza.

The third condition necessary to call a war ‘just’ is that it must be a last resort, not a first response. This condition requires that a State seeks a less destructive way to achieve the ‘good’ end.

For this 2014 war, Israel sought a less destructive approach to get Hamas to stop firing rockets at Israel. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) warned Hamas that it would face war if it didn’t stop shooting rockets at Israel’s civilians. Hamas didn’t stop (“110 Rockets Fired on Israel Since Wednesday”, Arutz Sheva, July 6, 2014).  

Israel went to war as a last resort. Its behaviour fulfilled the third requirement for moral war.

The fourth condition needed to identify a war as ‘just’ is that the damage caused by war must not be excessive or disproportionate to the relevant good.

It is perhaps this fourth condition that provokes the world to condemn Israel for this war. But there are two serious problems with this fourth condition. First, no one defines ‘excessive’. Second, most misapply ‘disproportionate’.  

The true definition of ‘disproportionate’ does not focus only on casualty numbers. It focuses first-and-foremost on the nature of the battle plan and the planning assessments of the battle commander.

Disproportionality is a principle of the Rules of War (otherwise known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL)). According to this principle, a battle commander is obligated to assess if the potential casualties (to civilians) is ‘proportionate’ to the expected military advantage to be gained by a military attack.

An IDF commander doesn’t make this decision alone. He does this in consultation with an IDF legal advisor.

Because of the care the IDF uses for command battle-decisions, it can be argued that the military advantage gained by Israel attacking Gaza—the cessation of rockets being fired from Gaza—was proportionate to the casualty numbers. For example, although Gaza is densely populated, and even though Hamas sought to increase civilian casualties by fighting from within  that population density, there were only between 1,200 civilians killed (Israel’s probable final number) and 1,462 (the UN’s total as of August 28, 2014).

The military attacks worked. The rocket-fire has stopped.

 Yes, this will be hotly debated. But Israel has good grounds for a defense. It took every precaution. It thought through the overwhelming number of attacks. It thought about the morality of its actions. It made its decisions with real-time legal advice.

Hamas did none of this.

Unfortunately, there’s a dirty little secret about judging the ‘morality’ of the 2014 Gaza war: the methodology used to judge Israel on this question won’t be your father’s methods for judging the correctness of your actions.

That methodology will not be based upon fact. It won’t be based upon reality. It won’t be based upon what you were thinking at the time. It’ll be completely subjective.

It’ll be subjective because it’ll be founded upon ‘counterfactual judgments’ (ibid, p 4). Those judgments will be built upon something called, ‘counterfactual thinking’.

Counterfactual thinking doesn’t rely on fact. It’s ‘counter’ to fact. It tells you to ignore fact. It instructs you to ‘imagine’.

In a way, it’s the world’s perfect tool to judge the Jewish state if you desire a negative outcome. You see, when counterfactual thinking is applied to moral questions, social scientists have discovered that it almost always promotes the conclusion that “it’s immoral” (“Counterfactual thinking in moral judgment: an experimental study, Simone Migliore, et al, Frontiers in Psychology, May 20, 2014). It almost always gives a ‘false read’ (ibid).

Counterfactual thinking is thinking about something that never happened (Migliore, ibid). It instructs you to ignore reality. Instead, you are to construct mental alternatives to reality (Migliore, ibid). It tells you to make moral judgments based upon what you imagine, not upon what’s real (Hurka, ibid p 4).

That means that Hamas’ Jew-hate is irrelevant. The thousands of rockets fired at Israel’s civilians are irrelevant. Hamas’ use of human shields is irrelevant. Reality is irrelevant.

To judge Israel, the nations will be asked simply to imagine if Israel did ‘enough’.  

If you imagine that Israel didn’t do ‘enough’, Israel loses. If fails the moral test. It was immoral.

Both US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon behaved this way. They laid the foundation for calling Israel immoral when each declared that Israel should be ‘more careful’ in its war against Gaza.

That’s why everyone has said Israel’s war response in Gaza was ‘excessive’: Israel didn't do what everyone imagines it should have done. It wasn’t ‘more careful’.

How could Israel have been ‘more careful’? No one knows. Israel already did more than any other army in history to warn civilians about an attack. No one knows what else Israel could have done.

But then, in counterfactual thinking, that question (what else could Israel have done?) is irrelevant. The only thing that counts is that you imagine Israel should have done more.

That’s how counterfactual morality works. It’s also why there’s a good chance Israel could be found guilty of waging an immoral war. Israel failed to do ‘more’.

The G-d of Israel watches this anti-Israel moral charade. He may not be amused. He may not be laughing. He may be taking names.

If you want to know what that means, read your Tanach. If you want to know more about ‘counterfactual thinking’ google it.

(for more essays, please visit http://tuviainil.blogspot.com)