The War on Thinking

Israeli soldiers patrol as they are searching for Palestinians militants near kibbutz Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza on October 10, 2023, in Kfar Gaza, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Jonah Goldberg once suggested that we live under a “tyranny of clichés.” That is nowhere more true than in Israel and at no time more true than when Israel is under attack, as is currently the case. Watch for the flags of two perennial offenders: the adjective “proportionate” and the verb “escalate.” 

The first cliché that usually comes into play in times such as these is the demand that Israel forgo any “disproportionate response.” NPR: “Egypt warns Israel not to take disproportionate action against Palestinians.” U.N. human-rights commissioner Volker Türk warns “all parties” against actions that would cause “disproportionate death and injury of civilians.” The cheap moral equivalency of the U.N. grandee is really something: Imagine the denunciations that would—rightly!—rain down upon Israel if they carried out a response that was even merely proportionate in terms of death and injury to civilians, a tit-for-tat operation going door-to-door and murdering innocents, kidnapping children, etc. The fact that a perfectly proportionate attack would constitute a gross crime against humanity tells us a great deal about the character of the combatants here. In a similar vein, the European Council on Foreign Relations warns Israel against “a full ground invasion and disproportionate attacks against Palestinian civilians,” again, as though the Israelis were engaged in the same kind of ISIS-style brutality as the Palestinians.

Irish politician Thomas Byrne says the Israeli response “has to be proportionate. They cannot just go in and do the same thing,” as though for the Israelis to “just go in and do the same thing”—massacring civilians at a music festival and carrying out a campaign of door-to-door murder—were something the Israelis would even consider, rather than an act of savagery that is, in this conflict, reserved to one side. Some variation of the word “proportionate” appears no fewer than seven times, including in the headline, of the Irish Times’ writeup of Byrne’s remarks. The foreign ministry of Qatar sniffs that Israel is using the attack as an “excuse to launch a disproportionate war against Palestinian civilians in Gaza.” Those crafty Jews—always getting themselves murdered as an excuse to get what they want. On and on you can go, without even drilling all the way down to the idiot children at Columbia or in the Democratic House caucus.

Proportionality is very much on the minds of Daniel Byman and Alexander Palmer, who write these genuinely incredible sentences in Foreign Affairs:

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