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No Amount of ‘Context’ Justifies Killing Babies
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No Amount of ‘Context’ Justifies Killing Babies

Hamas apologists can offer only incoherent arguments in defense of terrorism.

Family photos and personal items are scattered among the rumble of a destroyed house near the border with Gaza on October 11, 2023, in Be'eri, Israel. More than 100 civilians were killed at Kibbutz Be'eri which is about 12 percent of the kibbutz's population. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

I don’t pay a lot of attention to George Takei, but I think this is a useful perspective for our purposes. Over the course of two tweets, he said:

The Israeli government has cut off food, water, and fuel to 2 million people inside Gaza. Collective punishment is not only contrary to international law, it is inhumane and illogical. How will this deescalate the violence rather than radicalize many more? It is madness.

It is what my community once endured in World War II, all because of the actions of others who happened to share our ethnicity. Have we learned nothing?

Now, I could have picked from literally scores of more radical statements out there, but I think this is more useful because Takei is much more of a conventional, mainstream progressive than a lot of the fringier folks getting all of the attention. He’s expressing the sort of reflexive view of the overeducated, but mostly ill-informed, critics of Israel.

More to the point, I find it instructive that Takei is not making the point he thinks he is. I don’t mean his objections to blockading the Gaza Strip. I think he’s just merely wrong there. The cutoff of water and utilities isn’t really for “collective punishment” (nor is it “genocide,” passionate claims to the contrary). It’s a necessary military first step when you’re at war with the terrorists running Gaza. 

It’s Takei’s comparison of Gaza to Japanese internment camps that is interesting—but not as a matter of history. On the facts, the analogy is pretty ludicrous. Those internment camps were a moral stain on the U.S., but they were relatively decently run. I’d certainly rather live in one of them than in Gaza under Hamas rule.

But, hey, it’s not my comparison, it’s his. And he’s making a broader moral statement that doesn’t really depend on strict historical or factual rigor. He’s saying that mistreatment or collective punishment inexorably leads people—in this case Hamas “militants”—toward unspeakable acts of violence. “Have we learned nothing?” he asks, without a hint of self-awareness.

Because you know what? The Japanese Americans interned during World War II did not dispatch thousands of “militants” into American small towns, raping, murdering, or kidnapping people. No Japanese-American “militants” beheaded any kids or burned anyone alive. In fact, a whole bunch of Japanese Americans joined the U.S. military and fought honorably, patriotically, and often heroically, for the United States of America.

Why was that? Why didn’t those Japanese Americans make the same choices as Hamas fighters?

Almost every time I turn on MSNBC, never mind check out ex-Twitter, I hear someone explaining to me that I have to understand the “context” of the situation. “This is what you get when you treat people this way” is Takei’s implicit argument. But that’s the thing, the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans, whom he believes were treated like Gazans, demonstrates that such mistreatment doesn’t automatically turn people into savage killers. I can run through a long list of peoples and communities that have been treated badly, even cruelly, by oppressors. I can come up with an even longer list of such peoples and communities who believed that they were oppressed.

Very few of them beheaded babies or set families on fire.

Normally, when discussing Hamas’ terrorist attacks, friends of Israel will often point out that the victims were civilians, not military personnel. Is it really necessary to talk of “civilian babies”?

These were choices. There are times when people have no choice but to do this or that. But more often when people say “I had no choice,” what they really mean is that all of the other options were unpalatable. Hamas could have attacked Israel but restricted itself to killing soldiers, or draft-age men, or draft-age men and women, or simply adults of military service age. Some of those choices would still have been war crimes or acts of terrorism of course. But Hamas made a decision to allow men to do unspeakably evil things—and then boast of it on social media. That, too, is a choice.

Self-righteous incoherence.

I know I wrote and talked about this point already, both in my column and in my Skiff conversation with Adaam, but I think it is hugely important. All of the people insisting that “the Palestinians”—given the “context”—had no choice but to do what they did are the ones saying that all Palestinians are indistinguishable from a relative handful of monsters. “This is what happens when you treat people like this” suggests that Gaza’s civilian population is utterly sympatico with Hamas’ worst killers. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think that’s a horrible, vicious slander.

But the amazing thing is, the same people who make this claim are also the first people to say that “collective punishment” is a moral outrage. Well, which is it? Either Hamas is the legitimate and authentic expression of the Palestinian people when it rapes and murders, or the Palestinian people are utterly blameless for the actions of Hamas. You can’t argue that they are all Hamas when on offense but claim most Palestinians are innocent bystanders when on defense.

Moreover, when you defend the truly indiscriminate murder of any Jew a Hamas “militant” can get his hands on—again, including babies—you are making the argument for collective punishment. If every Israeli is a legitimate target for Hamas, you are the one endorsing collective punishment.

Again, I do not believe civilians—Palestinian or Israeli—are legitimate targets. I’m just trying to find a coherent line of argument here. 

But the seeming incoherence gets worse. After all, this attack wasn’t really about “occupation.” First, because Gaza is not “occupied.” Second, because Hamas’ charter still lays out what Hamas wants: the total eradication of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas’ leaders have said time and time again that they want to eliminate the Jews from the entirety of the land. They’d settle for exiling them, but they’d like to hasten the exodus by killing as many Jews as possible. That’s not the product of Gaza being an “open-air prison”—it’s a political and ideological choice. Hell, Hamas’ top leaders live in remarkable comfort outside of Gaza, and they order the slaughter anyway.

All of the people bending over backward to claim that this is all the result of Israel not pursuing a two-state solution never seem to care that Palestinian leaders—the “moderates” and the extremists alike—have again and again rejected a two-state solution. Nearly all of these evil statements of solidarity—with “the Palestinians,” or Hamas, or the “freedom fighters”—talk about “75 years of occupation.” What they are saying is that Israel should not exist. Because it was founded 75 years ago. The remedy these people are endorsing is the abolition of Israel. And because they are untroubled by the tactics used by Hamas, they are saying this remedy should be pursued by any means necessary.

Which, again, brings us back to necessity. Martin Luther King Jr. is rightly considered a heroic American figure, even a kind of secular saint. What, exactly, conferred that saintly status? I think it’s fair to say that it was his decision to champion a policy of nonviolence in pursuit of civil rights. Call me crazy, but I think that if King had left Birmingham jail and immediately exhorted black Americans to slaughter the white devils wherever they found them, he would have a different reputation today. But he had that choice. There were certainly some small number of black radicals who would have agreed with him and followed through with that choice. What made him morally heroic—but also wisely pragmatic—was that he rejected that choice.

If Palestinians leaders had embraced a similar course of action in 1948 or virtually any time after, I think there would have been a successful two-state solution. Israeli soldiers would get out of their tanks and refuse to fight rather than roll over peaceful protesters Tiananmen-style. More to the point, if such a movement took hold, Israelis would be fine with living side-by-side with Palestinians because they wouldn’t fear barbarians constantly trying to murder them.

Palestinian leaders have rejected this choice at every turn. They used the Palestinian people as a prop for their own ideological agendas, funding schools that taught the necessity of eliminating the Zionists and offering rewards to the families of suicide bombers. They let the refugee camps grow and fester with extremism and poverty, and they kept the extremists on the payroll to keep civilians in line.

They made choices. I don’t believe Israeli leaders always made the right choices in response to all of this. But, please, tell me what the right choices are when dealing with so many people determined to kill you?

Last week, I wrote a weird “news”letter about how one of the great things about a liberal order is that we don’t really have to care why you think you should have special dispensation to go outside the rules:

And that’s what I mean about not caring whether woke-ism or whatever-ism is new. Liberalism emerged from bloody wars as a compromise between rival powers that thought this religion or that religion deserved special treatment and special rights. All over the world, different groups think they have more rights, different rights, better rights, than other people. Most of their arguments are very old. Sure, some are new. But I don’t care. The price of living in a decent and just society requires not caring as a matter of government policy. If you want scholarships or discount widgets for this group or that, maybe that’s fine. But that’s not the job of the government.

Now, I was just talking about our normal domestic debates about identity politics, wokeness, and all that. The day after I wrote that “news”letter, Hamas gave us a cartoonishly demonic illustration of the point. Give me any version of Palestinian woe and oppression you want. Give me a narrative in which the Israelis or the Jews are the ultimate villains of history. Even if I were willing to concede all of it, I still wouldn’t care in this one regard: None of that is an excuse for butchering, burning, or beheading innocent men, women, and children plucked out of their beds on a Saturday morning.

The allegations that Hamas beheaded babies appear to be true, though I’d still like more concrete confirmation than I’ve seen. Still, what more clarifying image is there? Forget the “liberal order,” there’s no defensible definition of decency or civilization that can give someone moral license to cut off the head of a baby or small child simply to further political ends. The word “context” can be a Trojan horse for all manner of lies and distortions, but the seams and joints will burst if you try to cram in permission to kill babies. That’s one reason so many Hamas supporters are desperate to label it misinformation, because they know—even if they will not concede it—that there is no “context” that can justify such barbarity.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.