Five years ago, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at my neighbour’s car as she drove with her three small children near the town of Tekoa. Though the car began to catch fire, she succeeded, with amazing resourcefulness, to extract herself and her children and hide in a nearby orchard. Despite the car—and nearly its passengers— being burned to a crisp, the IDF’s response was lackadaisical: The army “sharpened regulations and increased awareness in patrols and observations.” We were all shocked and decided to set out in a protest convoy to the scene of the attack.
During the protest event, we met with the brigade commander of the sector, who expressed interest in our welfare and wished to show his concern. I naively asked him if his orders to the army would have differed had my neighbor and her children died in the attack. “Of course,” he answered, “There is an entirely different plan of action for such a situation.” “I don’t understand,” I said, confused, “Is the IDF waiting for the people whose welfare they are charged with protecting to be killed to execute a more effective plan for protecting them?” The brigade commander, a man more or less my age, looked at me with unconcealed offense and seemed to assume I had questioned his determination to protect the citizens in his sector. The truth is that I did not doubt his dedication, nor his sincerity, but rather questioned a modus operandi so distorted that by which military action, ostensibly meant to defend civilians, takes place only after the harm to such populations occurs. This concerning model of behavior against which both my common sense and simple morality—per which the duty to fight enemies and prevent their schemes from reaching fruition is axiomatic – rebelled has unfortunately become more and more common within Israeli leadership in the last generation.
It is not just hesitation to engage or avoiding the use of force that has proven problematic. There is also another side to this equation: At a certain stage, the number of incidents becomes too great and the number of casualties too awful for the public’s sensibilities. At this point, the IDF casts away its previous caution and sets out on a determined general campaign which “changes the rules of the game.” Hundreds of air force sorties and tens of thousands of bombardments from tanks and artillery prepare the ground for manoeuvring by whole divisions in a territory which usually lies undisturbed just a few kilometres from the border. The prepared plans are taken out of the drawer, and every hesitation or avoidance of the use of military force disappears at a stroke—overcome by the intoxicating feeling of sacred and righteous morality. The massive use of force is granted legitimacy for a limited, though indeterminate time. This period generally comes out to around until the memory of the casualties which originally drove the “changed rules” fades., Following this, additional victims will be required to renew the public legitimacy of using force in the eyes of both the domestic and international communities. This cycle then repeats on and on, ad nauseum.
This model has been in effect for quite a few years, and thus many residents of the Israeli periphery will be all too familiar with it. Its core ideology was present in the eighties and nineties in the Galilee Panhandle, and later reached its peak in the 2000s within the settlements dotting the area now known as the “Gaza Envelope,” and of course the settlements of Judea and Samaria.
“The land of Lebanon will burn with flames,” threatened Foreign Minister David Levi in February 2000, just a few months before the IDF withdrew from Lebanon in response to the firing of Katyushas on the Galilee. Prime Minister Ehud Barak similarly declared that “all of Lebanon will burn” following fire from Lebanon. In practice, however, the IDF’s responses were measured and contained, with the aim of preventing escalation. This policy of restraint continued half a year after the withdrawal, when a Hezbollah force ambushed an IDF patrol on Mount Dov, killing three soldiers and taking their bodies, and a week after that when reserve officer Elchanan Tenenbaum was kidnapped. Israeli restraint continued even when forces from Lebanon began to divert the waters of the Wazani river—one of the main sources of the Hatzbani—as well as when Hezbollah fired anti-tank shells which landed in northern towns and killed an Israeli child. Hezbollah’s ultraviolent efforts at provocation met Israeli reticence every step of the way; in 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even decided to free 435 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Tenenbaum and the return of the bodies of the three soldiers who were killed. In 2005, the IDF prepared a plan of attack called Icebreaker for action in anticipation of escalation on the northern border but avoided using it despite another (failed) kidnapping attack in November 2005 in Kfar Ajr. In the end, between 2000 and 2006, 15 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed near the northern border—a tiny number compared to IDF losses prior to the withdrawal from Lebanon, but a very high number compared to those of any other area within the Green Line.
And yet, on July 12, 2006, dozens of terrorists launched a coordinated attack on two IDF patrol vehicles on the Lebanese border, killing three soldiers, seriously wounded three others, and kidnapping reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev (who later turned out to have been killed). An Israeli tank which entered Lebanon in an attempt to prevent the kidnapping was hit by an IED, also killing its four soldiers. An infantry soldier who tried to save the tank soldiers was killed as well. Seven more soldiers and six civilians were wounded that day by Hezbollah fire at towns in the north.
In response, the IDF launched what became known as the Second Lebanon War. In his speech to the Knesset, Prime Minister Olmert gave stark expression to the shared public sentiment that a line had been crossed and that the accumulation of incidents had reached critical mass:
“There are moments in the life of a nation where it must look at reality as it is and say ‘no more.’ And I tell all of you – no more. Israel will not be a hostage. Not of terror gangs, or of a terror authority, and not even of a sovereign state.”
The significant sense of public outrage finally allowed for Israel to unleash a truly enormous show of military force against its enemies. The IDF deployed no fewer than five infantry and armored divisions and carried out almost 12,000 air strikes. The IDF’s mobilization led to the mass abandonment of South Lebanon, turning 900,000 Lebanese citizens into temporary refugees. Some 700 Lebanese civilians were killed during the fighting, and over 2,500 were wounded. Despite the enormous damage done to the physical infrastructure of Lebanon – which Lebanon has yet to recover from, almost 15 years later – it would seem that the military achievement was so modest that the Winograd Committee defined it as a “serious missed opportunity” given the IDF’s size, equipment, and complete air supremacy in the sector. Hezbollah buried some 700 of its soldiers and treated some 1,000 wounded, but most of its missile launching infrastructure remained intact. Beyond the fact that the Israeli rear remained exposed – 44 civilians were killed and more than 2,000 wounded – the IDF also had many casualties; during a month of fighting, 121 were killed and 628 wounded. The cease-fire went into effect on August 14, 2006, under pressure from the Security Council, due to an international opinion that the moral justification for the IDF’s actions was spent.
It seems that in this instance, as in many other cases, we see a repetition of such an utterly paradoxical approach to the use of force: First, there is a marked avoidance of force and an effort to contain casualties, all while labelling the other side as aggressive, violent, and evil. This stage continues until a critical mass of victims and casualties is reached in the minds of the public. The moment that happens, the public sentiment emerges that enough is enough, and military force is now fully justified. The use of force at this point in the conflict may be inefficient and disproportional, but at least not lacking in its moral legitimacy, though it does possess a limited time frame for use. When? At such a time and place that the active memory of the victims and casualties which provided the push towards moral legitimacy for the use of force dissipates.
From Purity of Arms to a Taboo on Arms
What causes the IDF to be so wildly schizophrenic in its actions? Can we really only employ military force after it has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we have paid in the hard coin of the killed and wounded? And if we are truly dealing with excessive morality, why are so many of these same inhibitions removed when that ultimate “critical mass” is attained?
We can offer many possible reasons, each containing a kernel of truth, but none of them would fully explain this paradoxical phenomenon. Some will argue that this line of thinking stems from an awareness of Israel’s limited diplomatic pull. But this is a partial justification at most, since it is not a specifically Israeli phenomenon that we are dealing with. As we will see below, many western nations have followed a very similar pattern since the end of WWII.
Another potential reason for the hesitation to employ force could be for a fear of casualties on our side—. a reticence to pay the price required by the use of force. No-one disputes that a high degree of sensitivity to the lives of their soldiers has become a mark of western countries in recent decades. The US, for instance, suddenly abandoned Somalia after the death of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993. At the same time, Britain, Germany, and France all refused to endanger their soldiers by becoming involved in the Bosnian War, for fear of revenge attacks against their forces. Even the Soviets stationed in Afghanistan operated under constant pressure from Moscow to avoid casualties at any cost. In fact, a fear of casualties among our forces is what led, along with increased technological means, to the development of the military strategy of precision air power and counter-fire, thereby sparing the need for a massive entry of maneuvering ground troops into enemy territory. Aerial bombings by unmanned drones, or by pilots operating in conditions “safer than passengers of certain third world airplane companies,” is what allowed the defeat of the Serbian (then Yugoslavian) army in 1999 at the cost of zero NATO casualties. But if the reason for avoiding the use of military power was just about a fear of casualties on our own side, we could have expected that the use of counter-fire and similar stratagems would increase the number of conflicts in which western armies are involved. Yet even in the Kosovo War, which ended with no NATO casualties, western member states of NATO were the subject of public criticism and protest for their decision to use military force at all. It would thus seem that the reason for this reticence was not for the fear of casualties among their forces.
It may be that the reason for opposition to military force derived from fear of harming civilian noncombatants. In the case of Kosovo, some 500 civilians were killed by aerial bombings, though military officials note that this is a low number relative to the number of bombs dropped. Although it was the involvement of NATO that ultimately prevented continued harm to the Albanians in the region, western opinions remain nevertheless divided on the moral justification for the action. The high levels of precision delivered by the weapons used in this conflict resulted in the army feeling more comfortable with the general use of large amounts of force in densely populated civilian surroundings, leading to increased levels of harm to uninvolved civilians when the use of counter-fire is ongoing or expedited. For instance, the elimination by Israel of terrorist Saleh Shehadeh, considered to be a “ticking time bomb,” on July 22nd 2002, was done with a one-ton bomb dropped in the heart of a dense residential neighbourhood in the Gaza Strip, leading to the deaths of another 13 civilians (some of them children) and the wounding of 150 others. The harm to uninvolved civilians, though resulting from the elimination of a terrorist responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, led to protest by Israeli personnel, accusations in Britain about the war crimes committed by the IDF commanders involved in this action, a civil suit in the United States against the head of the Shin-Bet, and an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to investigate the legality of the assassination.
In the wake of the appeal, the Israeli government decided to establish a public examination committee in order to determine the legitimacy o the army’s actions. In February 2011, the committee stated that the manoeuvre was legitimate due to the urgency of the situation, but that the killing of civilian bystanders was not proportional; Though it avoided assigning criminal responsibility, the committee still criticized the use of military force at all. Even the pilot who carried out the bombing claimed in January 2011 that, “If I had known that there is an intelligence picture which connects to things which are prohibited to me, I would not have attacked… the moment I lift off, I become a war machine. Until I know, until that line that I know that I’m doing something not right. Something that is not right is killing just anyone.”
While killing “just anyone” is certainly morally prohibited, the advancement of technology has given the west, and Israel with it, the unrealistic expectation that it is possible to prevent any and all collateral damage associated with the use of fire, spawning the idea that war is now a surgical, sterile affair.
In this vein, it could be that the reason for the aforementioned paradox is due to the pacifistic outlooked which has grown popular in the west following the end of WWII. The use of force is considered today to be inherently negative in principle – not just militarily but also culturally – and because of this, there is a taboo on the use of force to solve even imminent problems. Europe, argues essayist Alain Finkielkraut, perceives the presence of fascism in every combination of nationalism and force, and therefore categorically rejects the use of military force to resolve conflicts.
The uniquely Israeli context is also informed by the ethos of “purity of arms,” first coined by Berl Katznelson at the 21st Zionist Congress in August 1939, immediately after the Arab Revolt: “Restraint means: let our arms be pure. We learn weapons, we bear weapons, we stand against those coming against us. But we do not wish our weapons to be stained by the blood of innocents.” This ethos was adopted by the IDF in its ethical code, written in the nineties, per which “the soldier will not use his weapons and force to harm people who are not combatants and against captives, and will do all he can to prevent harm to their life, body, dignity, and property.” However, over time the Israeli elite increasingly moved away from identifying weapons as pure, instead siding with the ideology of “avoiding the use of weapons whenever possible,” and even arguing that this moral approach was the original foundation of Zionism. Historian Anita Shapira even wrote that “the Zionist movement… not only did not consider the use of force to be a ‘Jewish’ trait, but even considered abstention from its use to have a moral advantage.” This position has been radicalized in recent years to the point of undermining the legitimacy of use of force against even enemy combatants, though it has not been uncritically accepted even in academic circles.
To this particular explanation we can add the psychological argument—and this may also be true when it comes to collective conduct—that each of us contains an inborn degree of aggression which is restrained by morality. This culturally created brake does not cancel this inherent tendency indefinitely, only prevents its outburst temporarily. Lacking alternative methods of release, this aggression accumulates until eventually it involuntarily bursts forth in a disproportionate and inappropriate manner.
Yet this explanation fails recognize the other side of the paradox—that the use of force, often disproportionate force, is eventually regarded as morally legitimate by those parties—military, domestic, and international—who had previously seen it as anything but? How is it that the categorical rejection of applied force as mere violence is suddenly reversed, even after some imagined moral boundary has been crossed?
Another explanation for this modus operandi—in which the use of force is illegitimate in the first stage and then entirely legitimate in the second—may lie in our staggered levels of moral certainty. Perhaps it is simply that we avoid the use of force so long as we lack moral certainty that we are justified in doing so. The same is thereby true in the opposite direction: The moment we are sure that there is moral justification to use force, we tend to employ it. In other words, we ourselves reduce the doubt we feel about the morality of the use of force further and further, until the point it is clear to us beyond any doubt that it is permitted. But even this explanation seems problematic, as patterns of avoiding the use of force exist even when the enemy’s intent is entirely clear. In the examples I raised above, the IDF had no doubt as to the desire of terrorists to kill Israeli soldiers or civilians; no-one questioned the malice of their intentions. Yet still the military waited for the order to open fire and knew it would come only after we took losses.
We could perhaps argue that in order to openly use force, we must prove not only ill intent, but also capability. A barking dog does not always bite, after all. We could, for instance, argue that stone throwing attacks can be very harmful, but that the odds of this are very low, and that this probability points to low capabilities. But it would seem that a very large number of such incidents has replaced for the low probability of that, and thus increases the capability. In 2020 alone, almost 4,000 stone-throwing attacks took place, as well as 698 Molotov cocktail attacks, 9 stabbing attacks, and 31 shooting attacks—meaning almost 13 attacks of some kind per day, alongside hundreds of attempted attacks in Israel which were stopped by the Shin-Bet. Aside from the defensive efforts of the Israeli forces, the fact that “only” two citizens and a soldier were killed and “only” 46 were wounded does not attest to the enemy’s lack of capability, only their lack of luck.
We can continue discussing various combinations of circumstances, each of which might provide us with part of the answer for this phenomenon. It is true, for instance, that the use of military force requires a great deal of resources – logistical, economic, and political – which cannot be enlisted on a daily basis. As such, there is a kernel of truth in the claim that the complex character of the use of military force has an effect on the moral views of the public and senior policy making officials, rather than vice versa. But it would be hard to accept this argument in toto, especially in light of the efforts of western countries, including Israel, to grit their teeth and avoid, sometimes dangerously, the use of military force.
In this article, I would therefore like to present a more principled response—one that draws from deep cultural undercurrents, which can hopefully help complete the picture regarding the odd moral conduct of so many western militaries, as well as the radical changes in the way in which the use of force is granted public legitimacy. Why is there an ongoing taboo against the use of force against an enemy with clearly dangerous intentions, so long as his actions did not lead to many casualties? And how do these casualties, at some stage, suddenly grant moral legitimacy to the massive use of force, itself eventually leading to mass deaths and systematic destruction?
The Justice of the Victim and the Legitimacy Battery
From the end of WWII until the present, the public security approach of the west has obeyed a paradoxical pattern, morally speaking. According to this pattern, any victim (in the sense of being in a general position of inferiority) is in the right, regardless of the reality of the conflict or its historical facts. This automatic connection between weakness—or “victimhood”—and justice lacks any sense of justice or logic in and of itself, directly contradicting the fundamental understanding of humanism—be it based on reason or religion. Whether we consider man as an autonomous end in himself and never a means, as Kant put it, or he is a sacred imago Dei as Locke argued, the essence of humanism lies in the distinction between good and evil, made on the basis of critical thinking. Power relations should play no part in these calculations. But the distortion of justice does not end there: Not only is the victim correct, but he even acquires through his suffering the right to make unrestrained use of violence, the normal standards of morality entirely dismissed.
In the past few decades, due to a very dichotomous way of thinking, the use of military force has been seen in the west as problematic and justified only in situations clearly lacking other options. Israel, for instance, faced a French military embargo solely because it struck first against the air bases of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan which threatened to imminently attack it, as well as an American embargo in the wake of the air strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. On the other hand, it was provided with an American airlift during the Yom Kippur War because it avoided striking first and was thus branded as the victim. It has been proven that along with the empowerment of the victim comes the moral right to make use of force, no matter how excessive or unrestrained. To once again utilize a local example: Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared during Operation Protective Edge that Israel had charged up its international “legitimacy battery” with its previous policy of restraint, and that this policy thereby allowed it to make use of a great deal of disproportionate power when the cost of this restraint became intolerable.
In the first stage, we see the avoidance of high-intensity military engagement in low-intensity conflicts to “stay on the good side” and avoid using force “like the bad guys do.” Since force is seen in an entirely negative light, we need to present the good guys as righteous victims and the bad guys as murderous monsters. The Palestinians, for instance, make an organized effort to portray themselves as the innocent victims of a bloodthirsty Israeli occupation. They stress in particular cases in which Palestinian children are killed in Israeli attacks, with the aim of casting Israel in a cruel and heartless light. In response, Israel not only makes a supreme effort to avoid harming uninvolved civilians but even records this. In every military operation, the IDF spokesperson releases films documenting the diversion of air-to-ground missiles from its planes and helicopters due to the presence of civilians, including women and children. But Israel also does not shy away from presenting itself as a victim of the murderous Palestinian violence. The Foreign Ministry supported the uploading of gruesome pictures from the murderous attack on the Fogel family in March 2011 to the internet, even beseeching the IDF to keep the children’s bus burned by a Hamas anti-tank missile at the Gaza division base so they can present it to foreign representatives and the UN as evidence of Hamas’ war crimes. This mutual war of justification is no marginal matter: It reinvigorates both sides with the sense that they are morally justified, since such justification is based on weakness and powerlessness. So long as I am a powerless victim, I am identified with the side of the righteous, while the use of force could tar me and make me one of the “bad guys.”
Thus does the struggle move from being a conflict, or even a war, violent as it may be, to a grand struggle against monsters committing crimes against humanity. The need to establish such a weighty narrative derives from the public difficulty to morally justify military activity over anything less than historically horrific atrocities. However, the other side of the coin resides in the difficulty that then arises in thoroughly morally justifying our presence in the region without stressing our innocence, helplessness, and victimhood to the point of exaggeration. The military conflict or war thus becomes—via the prism of such extreme moral puritanism—an epic battle of the purely good against the immovably evil. As we can see though, this is not a moral argument of the rational sort and therefore, even though moral clarity may play a role here, is not a decisive one.
However, at a certain stage, there will eventually be a motion for the unrestrained use of force. This pivot comes from the “legitimacy battery” having been sufficiently charged: the accumulation of sufficiently frequent and serious events which engender a sense of total victimhood. It is, ironically, a state of complete victimhood which allows the crossing of the boundary from a world defined in terms of good and evil to one in which moral standards are nonexistent. For instance, it was the death of “too many” people in the Park hotel attack in Netanya on seder night, March 27, 2002, in what was the most serious suicide attack in the history of the State of Israel that broke the Israeli doctrine of restraint practiced during the Second Intifada. This, and only after hundreds of Israelis had already been killed, with Israel continually responding with a policy of containment and restraint. In the wake of the Park hotel attack, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, taking over all Palestinian cities—an action which made it the de facto occupier of official Palestinian territory. We could say that Israel could not have carried out such a comprehensive change in its operational approach had it not “charged” its legitimacy battery beforehand through a resonating casualty cost. Even though “occupation” became a dirty word within Israeli politics—with many polls repeatedly showing that many Israelis do not want to control Ramallah, Schem, and Jenin—the occupation of the PA’s cities was considered to be a legitimate response to the circumstances from which it emerged. Even the international community delayed its protests against what it considered to be the root of all evil in Israeli policy.
It goes without saying that Israel, even in cases where the dogs of war were loosed after paying in the hard coin of high casualties, nevertheless does not commit war crimes or shoot indiscriminately at non-combatants. Even though Israel definitely applies a great deal of military force against its enemies which causes systemic and economic destruction, as in the case of Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, and although it moves to a policy it considers problematic, as is the case in Operation Defensive Shield, it nevertheless continues to make an effort to avoid harming innocents. In this, Israel – likely because of a high degree of sensitivity to human life – deviates from the general norm in western countries. These countries behave differently when receiving the moral legitimacy afforded their victimhood.
This is what happened during the American-led coalition’s fight against ISIS. The execution clips which the organization distributed from July 2015 onward aroused enormous panic around the world, leading to mass enlistments into the organization’s ranks, but also the charging of their “legitimacy batteries” for the coalition’s extreme use of force. Similarly, on March 24, 2017, American planes attacked settled areas within the city of Mosul in Iraq. The bombed area was considered empty of civilians, but some 200 civilians were still killed – an inconceivable number of casualties from a single bombing. No one desired these deaths, of course, but the sweeping legitimacy granted to the use of massive military force allowed such criminal levels of intelligence negligence, leading to a catastrophe. More serious examples are not lacking. It will suffice to mention the French transfer of two million Algerian villagers in response to the terror of the rebel group FLN; the American invasion to Panama against the dictator Noriega in December 1989, on the grounds of fighting the drug trade and human rights violations, which cost the lives of hundreds of civilians; the violent involvement of UN forces in Somalia in October 1993 in response to terrorist actions, which caused over a thousand casualties. What allowed for the critical move from the first step—based on a fierce dichotomy of strong versus weak—to the next step—in which the dichotomy disappears—is an act of particularly extreme victimhood which grants the weak the ultimate justification to act outside of the spectrum of good and evil. Through the enormous cost inflicted upon them, the victim is granted a form of moral immunity. He is freed – at least until the collective memory of that terrible cost dissipates – from the constricting constraints of morality by his branding as an unconditionally good and pure soul. He is now free to act as he wishes, including by use of force which might have tarnished his reputation beforehand.
Paul’s Moral Mulligan
Those familiar with Christianity might notice the similarity between this dynamic of victimhood and power and the theological mechanism of Paul, core founder of ancient Christianity. Paul was not just responsible for spreading the Christian gospel to non-Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire, but also made a decisive contribution in shaping this message with his unique interpretation of Jesus’ death. Beyond the stories of Jesus described in the Gospels, Paul’s Epistles are the main and decisive foundation of the New Testament. Despite the difference in time and context between modern wartime morality in an age of mass media and the theology of early Christianity in the first century CE, this theological modus operandi still has great power in the current age of secularization, repeating and renewing itself whenever the weak side – in a military conflict containing moral boundaries of right and wrong – becomes helpless. At that moment, as a result of his victimhood, he gets to break free of the constraints of those boundaries. At that point, the great violence he engenders is seen as legitimate, and even ennobling.
With the help of very polarized thinking, Jesus created a very sharp distinction between good and bad. He attacked the Pharisee Judaism of his time—the end of the Second Temple era—which focused on the religious obligation to practical commandments and what he considered the abandonment of the commandments of the heart, demanding more and more tests to merit salvation of the soul in the world to come. Jesus suspected that the unwillingness of the Jews to forgo their connection to this world harmed the sincerity of their faith. His detestation of power and wealth led him to declare what became the famous phrase: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to come to the Kingdom of God.” For this reason, he automatically condemned the strong, the wealthy, and the man of earthly presence, marking the weak, the poor, and those focused on spiritual life as ipso facto in the right. Thus, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most famous texts of western civilization, Jesus marked out victimhood as a defining mark of goodness, purity, and exalted heavenliness:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Even during the story of his being charged as a rebel, Jesus creates a fierce dichotomy between the political and earthly reality, considered to be negative and corrupt, and the Kingdom of Heaven, considered to be positive and pure. In a response to the question of whether it is permitted to pay taxes to the Roman Caesar, he responds with what has become a Christian motto: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It is therefore no surprise that, when he was later accused of rebellion against the Romans due to his pretenses to being the Messiah, he told Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom was of this world then my servants would have fought not to be handed to the Jews, but now my kingdom is not from here.”
Despite the expectations held by his believers, Jesus met his death on the cross. The way his followers found to deal with this complicated conclusion to his life was to employ the myth of rebirth. The idea of rebirth exists throughout many ancient cultures, with the idea that nature operates as a deterministic closed circle in which there are fixed cycles of growth and death; but for Paul, the idea of rebirth did not remain related to the idea of the eternal return to nature, but rather described the spiritual and moral intensity which Jesus strove for his entire life. Paul claimed that the rebirth of Jesus represented a stage which has yet to come in the world’s existence—a new possibility of salvation.
In Paul’s view, Jesus’ rebirth derives from his tortured death on the cross. The suffering and victimhood of Jesus may have at first led to his physical death, but they also later served as the gateway for his soul’s release from his body and spiritualistic revival. The moment of death is thus also the moment of redemption, allowing oneself to be liberated from the inherent limitations of the world and reborn into a higher, freer reality.
Paul created the very theological mechanism which allowed for the movement of the soul from a world of rigid laws to a world of freedom. This journey demanded the ultimate sacrifice, embodied in the tortured death of Jesus on the cross, delivered for the sake of the entire world. One might say that this is simply the continued process of radicalizing the moral dichotomy, based on a just-weak person and a corrupt-strong person, until this dichotomy explodes through the ultimate sacrifice, transforming the former into the always-right-victim.
With his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus was separated from his body and revived in his mystical vessel, or corpus mysticum. He thus symbolized the separation from a world in which there are moral standards, practical duties, and religious obligations—in which good and evil exist—to a world which is entirely good and in which definitions not only don’t exist, but are also testament to a sinful world whose time has passed. Jesus’ revival is not an expression of the cyclical nature of life, but a milestone on the path to a new state of existence—an era of redemption. It was the Jewish Jesus, flesh and blood, who died on the cross, while the universal Jesus (as “catholic” means in Greek), in his mystical body, lives on forever. The morally pure spirituality, forever unreachable in the mortal body will finally be attainable and present.
But Paul did not just aim to describe the new cosmic order. His goal was to offer redemption for the faithful. Now, all of Jesus’ believers could be freed along with him from any ties to the physical and material, which brings evil and sin, and be spiritually redeemed. Paul urged those who listened to him to believe in Jesus’ being the Messiah and thereby move along with him towards the death of the physical body and the revival of the spirit, or the mystical body:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This liberating call to belief of the heart is one freed of limits or definitions, made to appeal to all, “regardless of race or sex.”. But this call is only possible to achieve after the act of sacrifice: Only with a willingness to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and eliminate firmly defined moral terms can a person become reborn, liberated and enlightened.
According to Paul, instead of sons whose status’ are dependent on flesh, on descent from a Jewish mother, all can choose to be sons in spirit so long as they agree to “wear” the mystical body of the messiah through a symbolic baptism: “and there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek for there is one master for all.” In this way, the faithful ostensibly kill their bodies of the “Jewish” flesh of Jesus and ascend to an eternally pure spiritual life with the revival of his universal spirit.
Another very important detail of the unique characteristic of the second stage of victim morality created by Paul: From the perspective of redemption in the mystical body of Jesus, who separated once and for all from the body and physicality, distinctions between good and bad are a marker of spiritual inferiority. The Torah, for instance, like Jews who circumcise their flesh, is now a mark of sin and a remnant of an era in which man was still chained to the bodily and material urges. The Torah, from a “liberated” perspective, is an expression of primitiveness; it lacks redeeming universal progress, instead dealing with details upon details of laws, meant for Jews alone, which perpetuate the finite conditions of the detestable body. In its insistence on maintaining the physical state, the repairing of this world, and the Jews as the nation to whom God gave the practical instructions for moral action, the Jewish tradition is only an obstacle—one which can be understood, but which must be overcome. The flawed physical body must be killed, to be replaced by the spiritual, mystical, eternal body which is flawless, thereby granting liberation. Israel no longer exists as a particular, physical group in this world. It is rather redefined as the “real” Israel – verus Israel – or, the community of Jesus’ faithful.
True, Jesus, upon coming back to life, did not become violent or wild; and even the church which grew in the wake of this myth did not avoid imposing duties and restraints on its faithful, allowing for the formation of a world in which there was undoubtedly things permitted and prohibited – done via the various sacraments and even through its demand to act morally. But the Pauline theological mechanism remained present and significant in many ways, and the violence deriving from the same was not long in appearing within Christian theology itself. For instance, John’s gospel, the last of the books of the New Testament, included descriptions of serious violence done in accordance with the same Pauline model: extreme victimhood reversing at a stroke into violence freed of the constraints of practical morality.
In the unfolding of events, we learn, for instance, of the deaths of two prophets who will not be brought to burial, but who, after their bodies are desecrated over three and half days, will return to life and bring about much death and destruction. The same will become of an angel in human form who will return on a white cloud with a scythe in hand. The angel will reap all the harvest of earth with a move of his hand, then toss it in a rage, causing blood to flood the entire land. Even the phenomenon of Christian monks, which began from the end of the third century onward, operated according to precisely this pattern. Cities, especially after the empire became Christian in the beginning of the fourth century, became a spiritual threat because of the convenience, pleasure, and temptation they offered. The monk who wished to adhere to Jesus’ strict spirituality – “If you wish to be complete, go sell your property and give it to the poor and you shall have a treasure in heaven” – exiled himself to the desert and lived an acetic life full of suffering. His striving for spiritual perfection allowed him to dispose of his old identity and become a new individual, freed from the materialistic chains which bind an ordinary man. There were monks who remained in the desert and continued their effort to purify themselves, but there were also monks whose purification turned them into a social conscience for the broader population and thus merited their return to the “sinful cities” in a righteous campaign of death, as Professor Aviad Kleinberg describes:
“Now he no longer fears human society, and their power has no hold over him… Having returned from the desert, the monk receives social and moral powers. He has received the right to act violently to break the existing order. At the end of the fourth century, the monks returning to the cities lynched and vandalized the pagan population. They were the shock troops of Christian society.”
This violent energy drove the crusades in the beginning of the second millennium. Pilgrims who cherished suffering and admired victimhood moved past a particular threshold into killing campaigns against any they encountered—primarily Jews who to them symbolized the outdated and sinful world of the flesh.
The Protestant Reformation was another personification of this modern theological platform. It launched itself against those sacraments and practical demands of the Catholic Church which were cited as the sole way to bring about redemption. In doing so, the Protestants renewed the original theological model of Paul, per which redemption required breaking free of norms rather than adopting them—a model which remained active despite the enormous span in time. Reformationist Jan Hus in the fifteenth century, and of course Martin Luther, Philip Melanchton, and John Calvin in the sixteenth century, established the principle of sole faith in Jesus the Messiah—sola fide—and rejected the importance of deeds, good as they may be, as the basis for Christian salvation. In describing the background for his reformation, Luther described his being exposed for the first time to Paul’s epistles, and the shock and excitement he experienced when discovering that salvation is not dependent on the sacraments or good deeds, but rather by breaking free of them through one’s faith alone in Jesus the Messiah and his resurrection. Thus, even though other theological motifs were present in Christianity over time, it was Paul’s theological mechanism which survived and remained active in Christianity’s guiding ideology. In recent years, we have even been witness to a “return to Paul” movement among western. Philosopher Alain Badiou claims that truly liberated universalism is present in Paul’s writings and therefore considers Paul to be a radical political revolutionary, and the source of inspiration for Marxism. Giorgio Agamben expressed a sense of urgency regarding the unique relevance of Paul’s call for our age. Even Slavoj Zizek dealt in the connection between Paul and the holy universalism – global, post-national, with human rights at its heart – in explaining why the human rights discourse needs to be based on those lacking a particular political identity.
The Christian cultural mechanism therefore operates as a hidden internal operating code within western culture and others influenced by it. According to this mechanism, Jesus fought evil through puritanical standards of good, but the aggressive evil defeated him and pushed him into the absolute condition of helplessness, resulting in his death through torture. However, his burning sense of justice did not disappear upon his death. His willingness to pay the ultimate price and forgo even bodily existence brought Jesus to a redemptive liberation from the constraints of the body, from the limits imposed by the distinction between good and evil, thereby allowing the arrival of a new moral age. An absolute sense of justice permeates this era—one in which the only evil that remains is the one which does not recognize the new conditions of existence. While Jesus fought in his life to impose morality on the world, according to Paul, it is his death which freed the world from its limits.
The Liberation of Crucifixion
Cultural mechanisms draw on their contents and power from ancient myths and primal religious patterns of thought. Even after two and a half centuries of secularization during which both myth and religion weakened, their influence is still being felt. “Formative dominant ideas shaping a culture or religion,” as Rivka Shechter called them, have not disappeared with the onset of secularism. Even when people cease to believe in religious doctrines, the religious and even mythical ideology remains in place, merely taking on new form. “All the core concepts of modern political theory are secularized theological concepts,” argues Carl Schmitt, meaning that the cultural world we know is based on what boils down to an enduring theology which has simply been outwardly transformed. From approaches initially focused on ritual and holiness, the theological ideas then expand to broad public areas which are very far from religion—but which contain the same structures.
In fact, it may be that theological mechanisms and mythological symbols succeeded in penetrating deeper into the cultural and public milieu in the modern era with the weakening of religious establishments in general and the church in particular. The secular struggle against the idea of God’s centrality in religious life – an idea which often led to uncritical faith and a low sense of responsibility for the unfolding of events – lost much of its force with the decline in power of the established church. As a result, the age of secularism actually became more exposed to the influence of the religious patterns of thought still present in the foundation of our cultural existence. For instance, John Milbank claims that the idea of obeying God was transformed into the duty to obey one’s political sovereign, with the state replacing God as the final and unquestionable authority; the idea of the covenant (between the public and God) was translated into the idea of the social contract, and the idea of providence was replaced with the economic model of the invisible hand. Professor Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin believes that reason replaced Christian charity, and the concept of assured salvation was transformed in the modern age into the ethos of the Enlightenment, with its faith in necessary progress. Even Paul’s theological mechanism, embedded in Christian civilization for two thousand years, has remained active and highly influential, even though the content through which it is expressed is no longer religious.
The strict, puritanical demands of Jesus gave birth to a sweeping, negative moral stance towards the world. Jesus identified the strong in this world as sinful, with justice always relative to suffering and goodness to a willingness to always concede: “Do not rebel against evil, and if one strikes you on the right check, give him the other one. And one who wishes to fight with you and take your coat – give him your coat as well… Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” What Jesus expressed in his sermons was further magnified by the ritual which emerged around his torment and death: it is the poor and the suffering, the tortured and the dead, who are the true embodiment of God. Attributing divinity and holiness to the lowest among us is unquestionably one of the most fundamental motifs which Christianity bequeathed to the western world. And although there were western thinkers who rebelled this identification of suffering with the morally exalted, it would seem that this conception continues to shape many of the common views in western society—including within popular culture and discourse, and especially after WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, both of which left deep scars in Europe’s self-consciousness. The sense of an enlightened, supreme culture, whose aim is to be a beacon meant to educate the less dignified populations of the world, gave way to serious feelings of guilt. The years after the WWII were the final years of the colonialist era, years in which even the war’s victors began to divest themselves of their territorial assets throughout the world. Finkielkraut identifies in this self-flagellation the roots of Europe’s post-war pacifism:
“What makes Europe of today unique is the condemnation of war, of hegemony, of antisemitism, and indeed all the disasters it caused, of all the forms of intolerance and inequality it applied. While the American sentry, who espouses Never Again, takes heed of external threat, Europe after sin is, as Camus put it, a ‘repentant judge,’ who derives all his pride from his regret, never ceasing to keep an eye on himself. ‘Never Again I!’”
This polarized dichotomy, which spawned the fixed identification of the weak as moral and the strong as corrupt, was also aided by the new technology of the camera—and eventually the film, motion pictures, communications, and media developed over the course of the twentieth century. The perfect visual imagery provided by cinema, TV, the computer screen, and the cellphone wields a great deal of influence regarding how we identify good and evil in the world by contrasting the weak and the strong. We are used to morally judging a situation based on the few details which can fit into the frame. History, identity, ideological arguments—these don’t pass the screen test, but a pregnant woman standing in front of a soldier at the checkpoint does. An isolated man standing in the middle of a square in front of a column of tanks or a girl facing a row of police officers during a violent evacuation are famous examples of similar photographs in which the visual manipulation is seen again and again, leading to the quick moral judgment in favor of those portrayed as weak. The power of the preserved image of the victim is occuring in a society that already deeply believes in a fundamental connection between helplessness and justice, itself the product of an ancient theological mechanism which continues to operate in a structuralist manner, even if its religious context has already been replaced.
Here’s how Dan Meridor, Secretary to the second Begin government during the First Lebanon War, described the changes in the position of the American government’s position regarding the war:
“I remember until today a phone call from President Reagan in August 1982 to Prime Minister Begin which I listened to (legitimately) in the other room (I wrote down the main points of the conversation). There was an image of a girl whose hands had been cut off by an Israeli bombing, and I remember the harsh expressions which Reagan, who was a true friend of Israel, used with Begin. He used the term ‘Holocaust.’ In retrospect, it turned out to be a boy, not a girl… and the hands were not cut off and everything was OK… And he was wounded by a Muslim shell and not a Jewish one… But, in real time, this picture influenced American policy.”
Sometimes, the photographed image of the victim has an effect on an army’s actions from the outset. In the wake of Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip, the IDF imposed a naval blockade on the Strip. During May 1010, a flotilla containing humanitarian equipment set out from Turkey with the aim of breaking the blockade. The IDF had prior knowledge of the presence of some 40 mercenaries from the IHH organization, which had already been declared to be an Islamic terrorist organization, who had prepared improvised weapons in preparation for the planned conflict with the IDF troops. Due to this, the takeover of the six flotilla ships was carried out by an Israeli SEAL team, but the soldiers were only equipped with paint guns. As expected, the Israeli force was met with serious violence. The passengers attacked the soldiers with clubs, iron bars, and knives, as well as stun grenades, Molotov cocktails, and fire from pistols taken from the soldiers. Ten soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously. Some of them were even kidnapped and taken to the belly of the ship. Only forty minutes after the incident began was the seal team allowed to use live fire (which killed ten passengers) and the takeover of the Mavi Marmara completed.
The entire event was filmed by the IDF, and the IDF spokesperson spread some of the pictures showing the soldiers coming onto the ship from a helicopter, into a crowd armed with clubs assaulting them mercilessly. The pictures were distributed with the aim of justifying the IDF takeover. The sentiment in Israel was divided: On the one hand, a national sense of humiliation at seeing elite soldiers beaten; on the other hand, it was decisively proven that the soldiers avoided any overzealous use of force and operated in a “moral” and “just” manner. To sum up this affair in the following poetic manner: Our victory was conditional on our livestreamed death.
I expanded on the matter of the weak and the victim being identified as just and admired, but there is also the second part of this modus operandi: the granting of legitimacy for widespread use of violence by the victim when a certain limit is reached. This legitimacy is connected, in my view, to the resurrection of Jesus which I mentioned previously.
The moment in which enough becomes enough and the weak victim is forced to act in his own defense—always a moment before death and not one second earlier—is the moment in which the act of crucifixion is reenacted, and the victim is finally broken free from the constraints of this world, earning his place in the Kingdom of Heaven—in this case meaning moral legitimacy. From this moment on, he and those who cling to him are redeemed of the possibility of crimes, from the constraint of being judged, and from the need to be measured by the “normal” metrics of morality, at least, until the “legitimacy battery” empties out—meaning the point where he ceases to be considered a victim.
The most prominent example of such a reenactment was the American response to the terrorist attack against the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001. The al-Qaeda terrorist group had tried to bring the buildings down in February 1993, but failed, though they killed six people, wounded over a thousand, and caused damage estimated at half a billion dollars. Nevertheless, the United States avoided a military response against the organization and sufficed with arresting and imprisoning members of the limited organization. The disaster at the Twin Towers committed by al-Qaeda in September 2001 took the lives of 2,977 people, leading to the immediate adoption by both Houses of Congress of a resolution to use military force against the nations which aided and trained the terrorists who carried out the attack. Less than a month later, America invaded Afghanistan. A year after the attack, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act and the Patriot Act, granting the government the power to penetrate into the privacy of American citizens with the aim of expanding the reach of the National Security Agency, who were charged with defeating such terror attacks and similar crimes. At the same time, a detention center was established at the American Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The installation is outside American territory, allowing them to bypass the constitution and civilian courts that prohibit detention without trial and the use of torture. Two years after the attack, the United States invaded Iraq and executed Saddam Hussein – an action it avoided doing during the Gulf War of 1991.
The moral legitimacy of using a great deal of military force, freed from the taboo imposed on it by an extreme state of victimhood, sometimes embarrasses military leaders. Lacking the necessary information for precision distance firing, the army still has to “do something,” especially now they can—and are even expected—to use disproportionate force. Artillery fire, for instance, is generally meant to aid in the movement and maneuvering of ground forces, but during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF made use of this kind of fire in a wasteful manner, without any maneuvering which could justify this operationally, and even eroded its emergency supply. This massive bombardment was driven solely by the need to instill Israel’s citizens with a sense that the IDF was making some use of its military might. Despite the low and inefficient return on this use of massive firepower – terror infrastructures were not significantly damaged – the dimensions of Lebanese civilian harm were enormous: hundreds of civilians dead, thousands of wounded, and almost a million uprooted from their homes. Some 30,000 structures were destroyed, dozens of kilometers of road were rendered useless, all of Lebanon’s seaports and airports were hit, and a very large number of bridges, factories, and industrial properties were destroyed.
In a fairly embarrassing confession, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Zigdon, former Commander of the Command and Staff School, spoke of what is known in the Artillery Corps but isn’t told to the public:
“Although there was no maneuver… tens of thousands of shells were fired to directly aid the forces. This odd fact attests to firing for its own sake and not a worthy purpose. For instance, the town of al-Khiam was bombarded by an artillery fire screen, even though it only contained a small amount of enemy forces. The result was that the heavy fire achieved no result… The Chief Artillery Officer in the war, Brig.-Gen. Lawrence Mualem, put it with painful clarity: ‘If there is no maneuver, what’s left to do? To fire!’ This phenomenon is well known from routine defense incidents on the northern border. For every firing of a rocket launcher, the IDF responded by firing four shells. This response fire was called by the frustrating term of ‘conscience fire’: If we cannot shut down the source of the fire, at least we’ll fire to silence our conscience that we did something… If this was somehow tolerable in routine defense – even though it was criticized – in the war, the IDF reached an intolerable level of wastage, primarily in light of the inventory problems and the poor results.”
Victim-Driven Civilian Violence
This issue—relating to the use of force—is not just a military one. It is a general cultural problem of the west, and perhaps, due to processes of globalization, even of the entire modern world. A society whose military avoids the use of force is necessarily a society which encourages such abstention. In addition, an army will not act disproportionately, as a result of a sense of “exaggerated” harm or national “humiliation” stemming from the crossing of a clear line, if it does not have backing from the society within which it operates.
Therefore, it should not be surprising to discover this modus operandi in effect when it comes to the use of force by civilians—and not just state authorities. And indeed, social protests throughout the west have witnessed a similar situation. At the end of 2018, a social protest swept through France due to the cost of living, disproportionate economic burdens on the middle class, and an increase in gas prices. This protest, which came to be known as the “yellow vest protest” due to the use of the cheap object available to all, was at first characterized by a friendly spirit, the maintenance of public order, and widespread popular support—to the degree where even police supported it (“The Gendarmes Brought Us Coffee”). But there came a point where the protestors felt that the injustices they were protesting were unbearable, and that they had to act against it with disproportionate force. A week later, the protest took a violent turn. The Bastille Day celebrations on July 14, 2019, witnessed a fierce fight throughout Paris between protesters and the police. Officers were attacked with stones and iron rods, and many stores were set alight.
Without getting into the specific characteristics of this particular struggle, one could see that there was a righteous rage among the masses, leading them, at a certain point, to act in a manner contradicting the moral grounds their protest originated from in the first place. The first stage of the protest derived from a stark moral clarity, alongside a sense of discrimination, inferiority, and social weakness. The driving infrastructure of the protest was based on identifying symbolic and economic—and sometimes physical, in the form of over-policing—violence, and it is therefore clear that the protest had to be conducted non-violently. But when the protestors’ felt that their suffering became extreme , it did not remain so. Supporters of the protestors might say: Violence is genuinely condemnable, but what more can they do? They had their backs to the wall, they didn’t have no other choice, and this is the only way the establishment will understand that economic strangleholds and the spread of hatred and racism will not be tolerated, that the police will understand that it they are supposed to protect the lives of the citizenry, no matter their economic status, national origins, or skin color. The violence on behalf of the protestors in this case becomes the embodiment of justice, at least for a time.
An example of such legitimacy—not only among the broader public, but even among parties within the government itself—can be seen in the Israeli Police’s response to the disability protest at the end of 2018. In the wake of a long struggle, and after the country agreed to increase the disabled struggle, a small portion of the disability organizations raised the stakes and began – according to Eyal Cohen, Chairman of The Disabled Become Panthers – “to disrupt daily life within the state.” The protestors disrupted the trains for a few hours, a few days later blocking major thoroughfares and roads, thereby cutting off access to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beer Sheva. Although these blockades were established by only a handful of protestors, the police avoided removing them out of a sense that their disruptive activity possessed some degree of public legitimacy—a legitimacy which would not lend itself to their removal. The reason for the tolerance of the protest was simple: The protestors were disabled and considered to be helpless. Even though the protest was against economic violence deployed against the disabled, it transformed into economic and transportation-related violence done by the disabled protestors, without any significant police response—all because the disabled were perceived as having acted out of a sense of victimhood which elevates them above the boundaries of morality.
In truth, the presence of violence is hardly surprising. What’s interesting is that in all of these cases, the violence being applied is accepted as legitimate. It is seen as the product of a position left with no other options and therefore, ostensibly, for the sake of self-defense and survival, leaving them forced to turn to the use of force. In such a state, the use of force, even if unrestrained, is accepted with understanding—even if it contradicts the moral motivation which led to the protest in the first place. It would be a mistake to dismiss the paradoxical phenomenon of the legitimate use of force, committed to morality in the first stage and liberated from it in the second, as being simply due to the presence of a bunch of thugs seeking to exploit the situation, even if they do lack any sense of moral clarity. Rather, the continual paradox is the result of the forgiving attitude of the authorities, and even civil society itself, in the face of the violence done by those considered victims of the situation.
The Point at Which Victimhood Passes
This theological-political mechanism creates a dilemma at the military-political level. A slightly more distant perspective reveals that the repeating pattern of victimhood and exaggerated response slowly reaches the point of preventing the army from operating effectively. In their book, Dispersed Warfare: War in the 21st Century, Haim Assa and Yedidiah Yaari do a good job of describing this trap, which they call the “legitimacy trap.” Assa and Yaari address this morally-driven logic, which prohibits the use of military force, through the use of the term “threshold of legitimacy.” By its use, they are interested in identifying that “window of opportunity” which allows the state to respond to aggression with a defined power and timeframe. A terror attack opens up such a window of opportunity and leaves the state with room for maneuver without crossing that threshold of legitimacy. However, so long as harm, even if unintended, is done to the uninvolved (especially children), the state crosses this threshold and its responses become illegitimate. A particularly shocking and serious terror attack can create a larger window of opportunity in which a particularly violent response by the state will still be considered legitimate.
Therefore, according to Assa and Yaari, “A violent action – even one identical in terms of harm to non-combatants – when done immediately after a particularly murderous terror attack, will not be considered a crossing of the legitimacy threshold in many cases.” In other words, victimhood in the immediate context provides justification for the use of military force with great intensity—even at an intensity which would normally be considered utterly immoral. But this legitimacy threshold shoots up sharply right after a terror attack, and declines sharply the greater the intensity of the response or the passage of time from that attack. This means that the legitimacy threshold depends on the memory of the weakness and the helplessness experienced by the attacked country: It must preserve its victimhood in order to justify its aggressive response. Since its aggressive response dissipates the memory of its victimhood, the state’s actions will effectively cancels out its moral legitimacy. As they put it:
“A state must respond to a terror attack, since its leaders cannot leave a terror attack without response. On the other hand, the state cannot respond in full ‘lethal’ force, because the legitimacy trap operates in practice. Israeli Prime Ministers, on the right and left, did not move over to lethal responses for fear of losing legitimacy among the American and European leaders, as well as within Israeli society.”
This economy of legitimacy operates powerfully. It allows us to understand why terror organizations are interested in harming Israel on a daily basis but also make an effort not to go too far. Terror organizations are uninterested in allowing Israel to remain at at the legitimacy threshold, which would grant them justification for a massive military effort against such organizations. On the other hand, the trap of the legitimacy economy also explains why the high interception rates of the Iron Dome system make justifying an Israeli military operation more complicated. As Liram Stentzler-Koblantz put it, “When Israel did not have an actual defensive tool capable of defending broad areas, the necessity of military action was clearer, and left it with more moral room for maneuver.” Her conclusion, that an Israeli military action is nevertheless still justified, is based on the fact that “Iron Dome is not a magical formula… and cannot prevent the secondary effects taking place due to the rocket fire.” But the emotional damages are not counted in the butcher’s bill, and Israel has far fewer killed as a result of the successes of the Iron Dome system. This is no doubt welcome news, but it also means that paradoxically – based on this legitimacy economy – Israel’s ability to use its military force effectively against terror groups has actually declined. The reason is particularly ironic: Israel can no longer—or at least finds it difficult to—present itself as a victim in clashes with terror groups.
The Weak is Moral
In the beginning of her book The Sword of the Dove, which focused on examining the ethos of power in Zionist thought and practice, Anita Shapira tells of how the idea of it writing only emerged at the beginning of Menahem Begin’s second term as Prime Minister, as a result of Begin’s readiness to make illegitimate use of military force:
“The idea for writing this book was born in 1982, in the thick of the Lebanon War. In those days, when the public debate in Israel raged over the purpose, justice, or arbitrariness of this war, then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin published an article in which he set out to defend the idea of the initiated war, entitled ‘In Favor of a War of Choice.’ This blunt declaration was a deviation from a long-standing Zionist tradition. Until then, the leaders of the Zionist movement and even the State of Israel sought to preserve their image of being peace-seeking, setting out to war not because it is a means to secure national aims, but because it was forced on them. ‘There is no choice’ – this concept served as the explanation for going to war and as the source of its legitimacy. Begin’s article marked a change in the Zionist party line, self-image, and therefore also in the system of guiding values underlying the same.”
Shapira later adopts an approach which detests the use of force, inspired by the long exile in which “Jews were limited to the classes which did not bear arms.” Alongside the fact that Shapira purifies the Zionist ethos (until Begin) from using unnecessary force, she stresses that, per this ethos, the leaders of the Zionist movement and the state were diligent in adhering to a “war of no choice.” A deconstruction of this concept shows that military force is morally problematic and therefore has no justification except when we are forced by our circumstances to use it.
This idea repeats itself many times in the works of the mainstream Hollywood cinemas, scripted towards the desired end of a plot with an epic clash between the “good” hero and the villainous evil. Within the plot, efforts are made to stress the sensitivity and gentleness of the hero, while emphasizing the monstrousness and lack of hesitance on the part of the bad guy towards using force—all leading up to the climactic moment in which all the energies are channeled by good against evil in some sort of duel to the death. Whether it be a western, science fiction, or a children’s fantasy, such an epic encounter usually ends in one of two ways. One possible route sees the hero—the ultimate good—sacrificing himself, thereby preventing evil’s spread by means of his death. The act of sacrifice is thus considered to be a positive act of heroism, a direct continuation of the idea of identifying the “good” with the one who would go to any length to avoid using force. In the other possible route, the “good” hero defeats the representative of evil on earth but does so without killing him. Due to this mercy, evil manages to deceive good and convince good to free him; and then when he attempts a final charge, the good hero is eft with no choice but to harm the perfect villain, despite his clear lack of desire to do so—an act which generally only stuns him rather than take his life.
Exposure to such plot-based climaxes allows us to absorb the following simple idea: The good guy is not good because of his deeds, But rather moral because of his weaknesses. The evil guy is not bad because of his sins, but because of his power, and the free, unrestrained use he makes of the same. But, precisely due to this puritan and simplistic dichotomy, when the ultimate bad guy is at the mercy of the good guy, he is transformed, despite the magnification of his crimes throughout the film, into a kind of weak and helpless victim himself. Therefore, the good hero is morally forbidden from getting rid of him once and for all. The hero is only allowed to do so when he himself returns to being the weak and helpless victim—done through a situation where the villain once again threatens to kill him after deceptively promising him to not do so. Only then can the good hero use force, and even then he must do so unwillingly and with the hope that he does not kill the bad guy, since he will then once again grant him the status of an absolute victim, a martyr. Movies help us truly understand the fact that, to provide ourselves with moral clarity, and subject to the aforementioned Christian theological mechanism, we empower the victimhood of the good while turning the evil people we face into truly monstrous and cruel monsters.
The prayer “E-l Malei Rachamim,” said at state memorial ceremonies in Israel, demonstrates this. The structure of the prayer for those who fell in Israel’s wars describes the heroism of the soldiers in a respectful and restrained manner – “[soldiers] of the Israel Defense Forces who fell in the wars of Israel in actions of defense, reprisal, and defense, and while serving in their role and during the course of their service.” Even the prayer for the victims of the Holocaust does not spend many words in describing “our six million brothers and sisters, scores of Israel, men, women, and children, who were killed, butchered, burned, strangled, buried alive, and killed in all sorts of strange and cruel deaths by the Nazi Germans and their assistants” due to the assumption that the uniqueness of the catastrophe of the Holocaust is sufficiently clear. By contrast, the prayer for the victims of terror attacks is entirely different when it comes to describing the helplessness of the victims and the monstrous violence of the terrorists:
“God, who is full of mercy and dwelling in the Heavens, provide a proper resting on the wings of the divine presence, in holy and pure levels, shining as the shining sky, the souls of all the holy ones who were murdered throughout the Land of Israel, on the roads and the markets, in towns and cities, in defense and on guard. Among them young and old, children and women, parents with their children, husbands with their wives, teachers and students, who were killed with strange and cruel deaths, by fire and sword, by stoning and burning, in firing from ambush and bombs, by barbarians who come to dispossess us of our lands and exterminate us. Land, do not cover their blood, and let there be no place for their cries, until God looks out from heaven and has mercy on His people, land, and inheritance. Their right will stand for Israel and its land, and let the verse be realized: Rejoice, you nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his.”
The effort of comparing the cruelty of the Nazis and the enormity of the Holocaust and the cruelty of terrorism is not particularly pleasant, but still, as painful as it is, it seems that we can, at the very least, express doubt as to the length and detail of this prayer compared to the one devoted to the victims of the Holocaust. It may be that the text written for terror victims is more detailed because it is closer in time to these traumatic events, or is an expression of rage and frustration, but I think that this creates a picture containing something disturbing: We need to magnify the helplessness of the recipients on the one hand and the cruelty of the perpetrators on the other. The former need to be victims and the latter monsters. We thus overcome the “problem” created by the terrorists being on the weaker Palestinian side, while the victims are on the strong Israeli side. Since according to Paul’s theological mechanism, what is weak is immediately moral and just, and what is strong is immediately corrupt, we must work to reverse these relations: Citizens in the strong country need to be considered helpless, while guerilla fighters need to be considered powerful. Unfortunately, without the construction of this perception, the memory of terror victims in Israel could lead to a political debate over the presence of Israel in the territories, or even regarding the justice of Zionism.
But it is no wonder that this fragile edifice does not always last. We are often witness to a “shooting and crying” phenomenon, whereby soldiers afterwards beat themselves up for taking part in a military action. These are stories about the use of force against enemy soldiers and terrorists, sometimes with a great deal of force, leading to the death of many uninvolved civilians. The soldiers’ acts of self-flagellation allows them, despite the force they just used, to go back to being victims. As a result, this self-flagellation paradoxically purifies them anew. Here’s how (eventually Professor) Itamar Pitkowsky described it in the wake of the increase in this phenomenon in the First Lebanon War:
“A man walks the earth, a man who is not particularly good, and he is also not wicked, and this man, due to the times, is forced to kill and destroy. Afterwards he weeps and confesses his sin, and here, witness the marvel – now he is even more moral than he was before, before the war and the killing. This causal chain of shoot-cry pushes him to the levels of the holy and pure. If before pulling the trigger he was just a man, now, since he cried, he is one of the purely righteous.”
The” shooting and crying” phenomenon derives from the fact that the victimhood of terror victims is not enough for long. When terrorists murder civilians, they also free up legitimacy for a fierce military response, but not long afterwards, the inherent asymmetry between a state army and a terror group operating among civilians returns. The deep connection between power and injustice and weakness and justice has an effect on some of the soldiers, pushing them to do everything they can to break free of demonstrating military force, instead demonstrating helplessness.
This phenomenon is not the lot of ordinary soldiers alone. In the movie Gatekeepers, six heads of the Shin-Bet, from the eighties until today, describe their dilemmas in fighting terror in Lebanon, Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. The movie begins with a monologue by Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin-Bet in 2005-2011:
“You suddenly say, ‘OK, I made a decision and X people were killed who were certainly on their way to carry out a serious terror attack. No-one around them was harmed. The most sterile it can be in this situation.’ And still you say ‘There is something unnatural about this situation.’ This unnatural something, is the very power you have to take from three people, terrorists, yes, but to take their lives like that in a second.”
A Moral Alternative
Is there a way out of the legitimacy trap? Is there a way to avoid the instinctive connection between power and evil—broken only when the strong sacrifices himself and makes himself weak? Can we make intelligent and moderate use of military force to prevent harm in advance—not just disproportionately and only following an attack?
Theological and mythological mechanisms have enormous power, since they are in force even when their specific religious contents are no longer present. Rational thinking is not always sufficient given that our cultural habits are so widespread and comprehensive. As such I might, perhaps, have to propose an alternative Jewish political theology establishing an alternative approach regarding the use of force. At the very least, I would have to survey, even if only at the surface level, the attitude of the Bible and the Sages regarding the use of force—an attitude which inherently includes the view that man has the authority and responsibility to fight evil, sometimes before he is attacked, and that the limitations of force also apply to the weak and the “victim.” But such a study, with the complex picture it will present, requires a separate essay. Despite this, it would seem that there is benefit to exposing the theological mechanism of Paul, and presenting it as a theopolitical foundation for our problematic conduct. This allows us to be a little more aware of the regular pattern of our moral thinking regarding the use of force and to critique it.
I will end, nevertheless, with a taste of an alternative worldview, one which aligns with a practical morality unmarred by the template of victimhood. I mentioned Anita Shapira’s The Dove’s Sword, written in the wake of her shock at Begin’s doctrine of just war. Begin espoused a war of choice due to his desire to free the legitimacy of use of power from the victimhood-inused state of “no choice.” Weakness is not instinctively connected to justice, and it obviously does not justify every violent action in advance. Alternatively, power is not automatically tied to injustice, and it can be used morally even in such asymmetric situations required to deal with the aggression of the “weak.” True, there is no denying that the use of power can corrupt, and the intoxication of power, in that just war of Begin’s, became an excessive entanglement which led Begin himself to collapse. But power does not automatically corrupt, just as lack of power is no guarantee of moral conduct. The lack of power brings about the increase of aggression, sometimes until it is truly too late. The lack of power also leads to the excessive use of power due to excessive, victim-like restraint—leading to great unnecessary harm and the bringing about of more victimhood and self-flagellation within a vicious cycle.
In his speech at the graduation ceremony of the National Security College in August 1982, two months after the outbreak of the First Lebanon War, Prime Minister Begin argued that the decision by France and Britain to avoid using military force three and a half years before Germany invaded Poland, when the German threat was insignificant, was what led the war to take on its later, horrific dimensions:
“Here we therefore have international proof of what war is without and with choice. In 1936 there was a choice, to enter the Rhineland and capture the two dilapidated battalions with the German cannons being dragged by horses and Nazi Germany having no air force, no armor worthy of the name. It would be on its knees before the conquering and winning west, and the most terrible war in human history would not break out on the 1st and 3rd of September, 1939.”
Later – in reference to the peace treaty with Egypt which had just been signed and the credibility of the Egyptian commitment to demilitarize their forces in the Sinai – Begin argued that we cannot wait for a tangible threat from Egypt’s military forces should that demilitarization be violated. Such waiting, as part of a policy of constraint, could turn out, too late, to be catastrophic:
“I want to say a few words about the demilitarization of Sinai. I return to the first part of my lecture. I told you about the demilitarized area of the Rhineland and the seventh of March, 1936. It is a lesson for all the nations, if you sign a mutual commitment for demilitarization, be ready; if the other side introduces an army into the demilitarized area, do not wait even one hour. Bring in your army and in much greater force than the army of the treacherous state, violating its contract – to achieve one of two results: either force it to withdraw so that the demilitarization is in force, or to create strategic depth against planned aggression symbolized by the abolition of the demilitarized zone.”
Begin was right—as reason and morality, along with real-life consequences, show. Man and nation sometimes need to use power and violence against various threats they face. Such tools, on which life and death depend, should be used carefully and intelligently – and they certainly should not be rejected in order to become a victim or achieve some imagined privilege granted by victimhood. Proportional use of force over time, from the moment the threat is identified until the point of full-scale war, may actually reduce the frequency of violent clashes, as well as the scope of death and damage left in their wake.
Dr. Elad Lisson lectures on philosophy at Herzog College, Bar-Ilan University, and Jerusalem College.
The author would like to thank Dr. Matania Mali for his accompaniment, support, and enlightening comments, and the members of the Kohelet Forum research group who were presented with the article before its publication, who contributed additional insights and comments. This article is a chapter in a book which the author is presently working on writing, and which deals with the influence of Paul’s theological mechanism on the cultural experience of the west and Israel. The book discusses a range of subjects including the rule of law, the concept of citizenship, human rights discourse, humanitarian aid, academia and intellectuals, technology, Zionism and the Holocaust.
The content of this article is a translated version of its initial Hebrew publication. it was first published in the the 24th edition of Hashiloach (March 21′)
This article was translated by Avi Woolf and edited by Gavriella Cohen.