The Arguments of Tomorrow

Robbie Gringras
October 10, 2023

As Israelis, we cannot think beyond the horror of the terrorist atrocities across the South of Israel. We cannot see beyond the closed stores (so many store keepers off in army reserve duty), the families suddenly denuded of adult men, and the heart-rending flow of social media images of sweet friends who are missing, presumed dead or kidnapped. Young religious communities suddenly creating mourning committees from scratch, old kibbutzim cleaning out the bomb shelters once again, reaching out, holding up, and listening in.

Yet as professionals at For the Sake of Argument we find ourselves torn. We try to pull ourselves back to our office, to our work – if for no other reason than to escape our thoughts and feelings – and find ourselves at a loss. What room, what value is there for those of us advocating and training for healthy arguments, when no words are left, and when gunmen rampaging through villages render all examination of “healthy arguments” entirely irrelevant?

And yet. And yet.

Unfortunately, tragically, drastically, crucial existential arguments are clamoring to be addressed. And they cannot wait. On the face of it many of the issues feel like they are military in nature, but at root they are deeply moral with no easy answers. As we list some of these questions, we find our gut answers – emerging from pain and disgust – swift to emerge. But beyond our emotions? Or beyond the Jewish world? We raise these questions now, because the arguments are already starting up inside Israel, as they should. We invite you to talk.

1. In choosing a military response to Hamas, what should be Israel’s attitude to Gazan civilians? Should our outrage at the abuse, kidnapping, slaughter, and mutilation of hundreds of Israeli civilians lead us to show careful distinguishing restraint when it comes to Gazan civilians? Or do Hamas’ acts, and Hamas’ policy of hiding behind schools, hospitals, and mosques, render all this concern mere moral posturing? Should one fight according to international conventions against an enemy that abuses them?

2. Hamas massacred civilians deliberately, happily; the IDF attacks on Hamas will now unintentionally kill hundreds of civilians. Does intent have moral relevance when we are talking about the violent death of children?

3. Quite apart from worrying about Gazan civilians, we know that there are at least one hundred Israeli hostages in enemy hands. Even if our military strategy were to ignore the safety of Gazan civilians, what about our own civilians in captivity? And what right do we have to view our civilians differently from theirs? Back in 2009 two pairs of philosophers and military ethicists conducted an argument on precisely this issue. Walzer and Margalit argued that we must not differentiate between civilians: All civilians, be they Palestinian or Israeli, are innocents. In particular, the “hypothetical” examples Walzer and Margalit offer, are chilling in their prescience. Kasher and Yadlin responded that this approach will allow the terrorists to succeed. How should we answer?

4. Two words are increasingly coming to the fore on our TV screens in Israel. “Vengeance” and “Deterrence”. It may be that in the coming days they will be difficult to distinguish. It seems safe to assume that if the IDF response to previous (in hindsight, relatively minor) Hamas attacks was massive, the scale of response this time will be terrifying to behold.

Is this vengeance? Hitting them harder than they hit us in some primitive form of justice? (“After all,” some will say, “killing a Palestinian will not bring any Israeli back to life. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, but a retaliatory strike is not defense.”) Or is this a crucial form of deterrence that sends a message to all other organizations and countries that wish us ill – these are the consequences of such an attack on us

We remember the US response to the 9-11 attack, knowing that, proportionate to population size, the Hamas massacres killed 8 times more innocents.

We at For the Sake of Argument cannot find answers yet. These are philosophical, even intellectual questions that are, nevertheless, practical and touch the deepest and most powerful emotions in our lives. All of us are full of rage, fear, and grief. We cannot expect to be able to disagree calmly as we talk these questions through. Yet we must not abandon our human capacity to think and deliberate at this moment, however agonizing.

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