The search for ‘balance’ in the Gaza shootings

(Editors note: the below was originally published April 10, 2018 on Mondoweiss at

On the same day last week that I was lamenting the fact that so many Jews were either supporting the massacre at the Gaza fence, or silent about it, Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), raised a critical voice, calling “the sequence of events that unfolded on the Gaza border” not “palatable,” and noting that “Israel was unable to restrain itself and ended up killing and injuring a larger number of Palestinians than is feasible to explain or justify…”

Noting that “Israel is not an innocent blameless actor,” Koplow said it had shot hundreds of “completely unarmed and innocent people,” its “array of snipers” protected by a barrier and trenches from trying to breach the fence.  These innocent victims were “not at the fence or in the no-go zone leading up to fence.  This not only looks terrible, “it is terrible,” said Koplow, who went on to acknowledge Israel’s responsibility for the “staggeringly awful humanitarian crisis in Gaza” – “barely any potable water, sewage in the streets, electricity for four hours a day at best, and literally nowhere to go” — “since Israel controls “what goes into Gaza and what comes out of Gaza, both people and goods.” Koplow also lamented that Israel’s political leadership has used Hamas’s presence there as an excuse “to punish nearly two million people while “Hamas has not fired a rocket in fourteen months.”

While these are meaningful critical words coming from the Policy Director of IPF, a solidly Zionist organization with a Jewish establishment leadership roster supporting a Two-State Solution and “Jewish democracy,” Koplow made sure to precede his censure with the usual “balance”:

To my friends and colleagues on the left:  What happened on Friday was not a peaceful protest. The August 1963 March on Washington did not have galabaya-clad men throwing Molotov cocktails. Gandhi’s salt march did not feature burning tires and bullets across a border fence. If the five percent of violent actors abuse the ninety five percent of peaceful ones to wreak havoc, you cannot just pretend that the five percent do not exist and repeatedly state that Friday’s protest was a non-violent one. There were many peaceful protesters, and then a non-trivial group of ones who were there for nefarious purposes and nothing more. If the ones who truly want to engage in a mass act of protest and send a message to Israel and the wider world are unwilling to rein in the troublemakers in their midst, then they lose the moral high ground that they want to occupy but are unwilling to insist upon.

He also argued that attempts to tear down or cross the fence to enter Israel illegally “are not legitimate forms of protest, but criminal acts,” that Israel’s policing of its own borders – “by firing at anyone who tried to cross the barrier or damage it,” presumably with live ammunition – “is both understandable and legitimate.”  Referring to “the majority of those killed” (the toll was 16 at the time he published), Koplow called them “known terrorists,” noting that “young men carrying AK-47s and grenades, shooting as they rush the fence, are not sympathetic figures and they deserve nobody’s sympathy.”

And then, at the end, Koplow praised the notion of “balance” and called for a surrender of passion.  No loud voices, for it is complicated rather than “straightforward”:

The only thing I am begging to get across is that none of this is as straightforward as it appears to those who are passionate about these issues, and if we at least take a small step in acknowledging that, perhaps it can lead to solutions rather than loud and drawn out arguments.

One could remark upon the illogic of some of the arguments marshaled by Koplow for the “balanced” culpability of the marchers. There may well have been some “troublemakers” in the midst of the 30,000 unarmed, non-violent marchers.  I’ve seen the IDF video and allegation that two men associated with Hamas approached the fence with guns (in what appears to be an isolated area, with no one else around) and started shooting before they were wiped out with tank fire.  Because the IDF and Israeli leaders have declined a transparent, independent investigation, have every incentive to bend the truth, and have done so in the past, it is impossible to assess that allegation. But assuming its truth, is that sufficient justification for shooting the other 14 dead and wounding more than 1,000 of the approximately 29,998 men, women and children who didn’t shoot or display any guns?

Would the answer be any different if some young people threw stones over the fence or sent burning tires rolling toward it, either before or after the Israeli snipers started shooting?  Or that some “Molotov cocktails” were found near the fence after the shooting stopped?

In a march that Koplow admits was organized by leaders having nothing to do with Hamas, who were intent on conducting a “peaceful protest,” is it really true that 30,000 unarmed protesters cannot march and expect to return home alive and uninjured unless they are prepared to take on the impossible task of identifying and removing the few “troublemakers” who may also show up?

And while it is true that every country has the right to “police its own borders,” does that justify, “make legitimate,” or excuse “rules of engagement” that order snipers to shoot to kill and maim any person who dares to try to “cross the barrier or damage it?”  Maybe damaging a fence and trying to cross a border is a “criminal act,” but is it a capital offense?  And does it really justify shooting in the back others who did not try to cross the fence?

But put those issues aside for a moment.  Michael Koplow is neither a perpetrator, nor one of the silent.  He is seriously criticizing Israel.  His Jewish values make him uncomfortable with its actions.  But why this need to suggest that there are two equivalent sides to this story when the huge imbalance in power, responsibility and culpability is so clear?

As the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson explained in “The Social Conquest of the Earth,” we are all tribal, evolved to be that way as much as we have evolved to be altruistic.  All of us who speak out publicly are conscious that we have been and may still be perceived as betraying the tribe.  If one has grown up in the mainstream, it is natural to fear the loss of credibility and voice when we do so, and there is pressure – internally as well as externally generated – to want to show that we are still loyal, to pull our punches, to make our criticism more palatable to our side.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of “balanced” criticism loses its punch.  It helps rationalize and justify the continued killing, collective punishment and oppression of the Palestinians.  It makes it more difficult to change hearts and minds, as Koplow himself recognized when he wrote that he did not “expect anyone to read this and fundamentally change their minds.” But changing hearts and minds is a critical task before us if we are to turn the Jewish people away from the moral and religious precipice we are fast approaching.

Are there “two sides” to this conflict, really? Who lives in Greater Israel without civil rights?  Who gets the lion’s share of the water and other resources, including those devoted to education and health?  Who are denied permits to build or modernize their homes? Whose homes have been demolished by the tens of thousands? Who have been “cleansed” from their lands and villages? Who has been living in camps by the millions? Whose homes have been invaded in the dead of night?  Whose children have been marched off and imprisoned by the hundreds?  Who is it, really, who live fearful, traumatized lives over there?

And who is really interested in sharing the land?  Who has been building and expanding their settlements for decades?  Who is it, really, who has rejected the Two-State Solution?  Who uses its military power to kill, maim and intimidate on a relatively large scale?  And who really has the power to change all this?

Who, really, are the powerful and the powerless?  The oppressors and the oppressed?  The perpetrators and the victims? The Afrikaners also spoke of two sides— but were there really two sides to apartheid South Africa?

Whenever I read or hear efforts by Jews to justify Jewish supremacy in Israel-Palestine, I cannot help but think of my cousin who went to college in Georgia in the 1960’s, who once came to our Brooklyn Seder table to say that one had to live down there before one could understand there were two sides to the civil rights issue. But were there really two sides to the segregated American South, or for that matter, to the de facto segregated Northern cities?

We need to eliminate false equivalencies here as well.  There are some conflicts in which the conduct of one side is indefensible.  As difficult and sad as it is for Jews to acknowledge and say it loud and clear, this is one of them.

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