I just heard someone say, “One war crime does not justify another.” My reflex as a peace advocate is to agree with that statement, but something gives me pause. It starts with a grammatical issue but it doesn’t end there.
The only beings on earth that perform the act of justifying are human beings. “War crimes” do not perform that act. What the statement intends to say is something like, “One cannot legitimately use one war crime to justify another.” But what is this “legitimate”? A substitute for justifiable. One cannot justifiably use one war crime to justify another. We are on the brink of an infinite regress that seeks to convert the subjective act of justifying something into an objective property, as if one could filter all acts through a moral sieve that separates them into two categories, the wrong and the right.
Seen this way, the statement about justifying war crimes is exactly wrong. People do indeed use one war crime to justify another. With the exception of crimes of passion, which people typically justify in retrospect, all wars and most violence begins with justification. The heinous acts of the other side are high-octane fuel for the justification engine.
In the objective sense of an ethical principle, we can argue whether this or that war was justified. But in terms of the rhetorical act of the human being called justifying, all wars are justified. Someone is justifying them.
This is why, as I have argued over the past month, we must exit the conversation about what is justified if there is ever going to be an end to the violence in the Holy Land.
The word just comes from the Latin justus — upright, equitable, lawful, right, proper. To justify literally means to make it right. To take something self-interested or indeterminate and make it into something right, that is justification. It is much easier to override the heart’s repulsion and harm others when aided by a story in which it is right.
Both sides in the Gaza conflict believe they are right. Hamas and the Israeli government both justify acts of carnage. So it has always been, and so it shall ever be. To end it, we have to appeal to something outside of what is justified, who is right, and who is wrong.
Force me to speak in terms of right and wrong, and I would say, yes, it is wrong to kill 4500 children in a bombing campaign. I would say it is wrong to kidnap and murder innocent festival-goers and children in a kibbutz. I do not mean to establish the two sides as equivalent here. I understand well the assymetrical dynamics of oppressor and oppressed. If forced to, I could tell you which side I think is wronger or righter than the other. I am fully capable of understanding each side’s logic and adjudge one or the other more valid. But like many of you, I am sick of being asked to pitch my tent in one camp or another.
I am unwillng to do that, and it is not because, sheltered by my circumstances and privilege, I have the luxury of not taking sides. I am unwilling because I want to see the violence end, and that means that people are going to have to stop doing what they think is justified.
I repeat: for there to be peace, people are going to have to stop doing what they think is justified.
If I am on a side, it is the side of peace.
I know I am not alone there. In fact many people who do not enjoy the shelter of circumstance and privilege are saying something similar. I already shared the video “In my name, I want no vengeance” by Michal Helav, whose only son was murdered by Hamas. There are many others. Here are a few examples from the article, “Listen to Israeli survivors: They don’t want revenge.”
- In a eulogy for her brother Hayim, an anti-occupation activist who was murdered in Kibbutz Holit, Noi Katsman called on her country “not to use our deaths and our pain to cause the death and pain of other people or other families. I demand that we stop the circle of pain, and understand that the only way [forward] is freedom and equal rights. Peace, brotherhood, and security for all human beings.”
- Ziv Stahl, executive director of the human rights organization Yesh Din, and a survivor of the hellfire in Kfar Aza, also came out strongly against Israel’s assault on Gaza in an article in Haaretz. “I have no need for revenge, nothing will return those who are gone,” she wrote. “Indiscriminate bombing in Gaza and the killing of civilians uninvolved with these horrible crimes are no solution.”
- Yotam Kipnis, whose father was murdered in the Hamas attack, said in his eulogy: “Do not write my father’s name on a [military] shell. He wouldn’t have wanted that. Don’t say, ‘God will avenge his blood.’ Say, ‘May his memory be for a blessing.’”
- Maoz Inon, whose parents were murdered on Oct. 7, wrote in Al Jazeera: “My parents were people of peace … Revenge is not going to bring my parents back to life. It is not going to bring back other Israelis and Palestinians killed either. It is going to do the opposite … We must break the cycle.”
- When Yonatan Ziegen, the son of Vivian Silver, was asked by a journalist what his mother — who is thought to have been kidnapped — would think about what Israel is doing in Gaza now, he replied: “She would be mortified. Because you can’t cure dead babies with more dead babies. We need peace. That’s what she was working for all her life … Pain is pain.”
I am in awe of the courage of these people. It is not easy to speak against the howls of a bloodthirsty mob — and the bloodthirsty inner mob that wants to relieve the grief for a moment by converting it into hate. I was on a call a few weeks ago with a group of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. “If you speak out, they slap you down,” one said. They were afraid to say anything publicly, afraid to protest, and trying to think of more indirect forms of peace action.
In times of conflict, the advocate for peace draws more hatred than even the enemy. The enemy by his existence validates the drama that affirms the partisan’s role and identity (and, in the case of a nation, an agenda of domination or conquest). The more abhorrent the enemy’s acts, the better. But the peace advocate undermines that drama and the roles and justifications that it creates.