Bringing Philosophy to Life
Eyeless in Gaza
BRINGING PHIOLOSOPHY TO LIFE
#21: Eyeless in Gaza
On Saturday, November 4, 2023, a crowd of more than 100,000 people protested on behalf of Palestine in Washington, D.C., calling for an immediate cease fire in the war between Hamas and Israel as well as an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. At that time, the death toll in Gaza was said to be almost 10,000, two-thirds of them women and children (Democracy Now, November 6, 2023). This is the largest pro-Palestinian protest in the history of the United States. A week earlier, 1,000 people, mostly Jewish, staged a similar protest that shut down Grand Central Station in New York City during rush hour “to insist that President Biden push for a cease fire and that all the killings stop on both sides” (Michael Moore, “War No More,” Part 2—Substack, November 4, 2023). Major protests were also reported to have taken place in Indonesia, England, France, Germany, Greece, and elsewhere.
Recent military events in Palestine and Israel pose several philosophical questions that call for analysis, but the most urgent one concerns the moral justification for using deadly force. The primary philosophical concept related to the current war between Israel and Hamas is that of justice, a topic that has occupied philosophers for at least 2,500 years. I do not limit the term “philosopher” to those who have academic training or degrees in the field. For example, I would include a recent contribution to Substack by Robert Reich, who was educated as a lawyer, served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, and then taught social and economic policy at Harvard University, Brandeis University, and University of California at Berkely. Here is an excerpt from that blog that frames his philosophical analysis:
What Hamas did on October 7 was horrific. Israel’s attack on Gaza is barbaric. The occupation of the West Bank by Israeli settlers has inflicted hardship and cruelty on Palestinians. There is never any moral justification for the killing and maiming of innocent people.
I’m not suggesting bland “both-sides”-ism here. I believe that Israel has been tragically wrong, that its invasion of Gaza is a terrible mistake, and that it is morally unacceptable to consider certain people’s lives more valuable than other people’s lives.
But the central issue for us should not be who is wrong. All of us are complicit to some degree. The central issue now is how we move forward (Robert Reich, Substack, November 6, 2023).
In this piece, Reich is addressing the fact that his students currently fear each other, especially those who are from Palestine or Israel. Here is part of his advice to his students concerning how to respond to the present conflict:
I ask them not to be consumed by their own rage and fear.
I try to dissuade them from putting their energies and efforts into “statements” that reflect only part of the truth, or believe that demonstrations and petitions somehow legitimize their own points of view. I don’t want them to think that there is any easy way to a lasting peace.
Finally, I tell them that there is no ready formula for social justice. Social justice is a process. It requires the discovery — or the creation — of a shared sense of common good (Robert Reich, Substack, November 6, 2023).
In this blog, I will dig deeper into the concept of social justice and how it might help us understand the current conflict. I begin by suggesting what justice is not. First, justice is not retribution. This view of justice is especially relevant to the current conflict because of the familiar commands found in the book of Leviticus: “And whoever causes an injury to a neighbor must receive the same kind of injury in return: Broken bone for broken bone, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Anyone who injures another person must be injured in the same way in return.” (Leviticus, 24:17, New Century Version).
Refuting and rejecting this “eye for an eye” definition of justice has a long history both within the Judeo-Christian tradition and in other cultures. Perhaps the most convincing refutation comes from common sense. If we follow what is prescribed by that definition, everyone would eventually be blind. This idea inspired me to write the following haiku:
an eye for an eye
retribution as justice
eyeless in Gaza
A more elaborate poetic examination of this idea of justice was developed by Aeschylus, the ancient Greek tragic poet, in his trilogy called the Oresteia, which was first performed in 458 BCE. In that story, Agamemnon was killed by his wife Clytemnestra because he sacrificed their daughter to the gods. Their son, Orestes, then killed his mother and was pursued by the Furies, three goddesses of vengeance, who were responsible for enforcing retributive justice. Orestes went to Delphi to ask the Oracle of Apollo for advice about how to escape this vicious cycle. The Oracle told him to consult Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who arranged to put him on trial in Athens before a jury of Athenian citizens. Based on this story as told by Aeschylus, the idea of justice as retribution is replaced with the concept of justice as fairness, a rational process that becomes the rule of law—the foundation of Athenian democracy. The core of the idea of justice as fairness is the demand that it must be universal in order to have genuine moral force. It must apply to everyone.
This same way of thinking of justice as fairness is central to the concept of democracy that developed in the 18th century European enlightenment, which spawned the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In the 20th century, that idea of justice as fairness was developed in detail by the American philosopher John Rawls. The Athenian version of that idea of justice is a splendid example of how the insight of a poet like Aeschylus might be shared, analyzed, and justified by a philosopher. Plato’s examination of the idea of justice in The Republic not only rejects the concept of justice as retribution but presents and refutes several other theories as well. Plato’s characters in The Republic show why justice is not simply telling the truth and paying your debts (Cephalus); helping friends and harming enemies (Polemarchus), or the interest of the stronger (Thrasymachus). The positive vision of justice that emerges in the ten books of Plato’s Republic resembles the idea of justice that is implicit in the Oresteia. Properly interpreted, it is essentially the same idea of justice presented by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century and John Rawls in the 20th century. In The Republic, Plato’s characters Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus connect justice with goodness, which is the form that unites justice with the other forms that are central to republics—moderation, courage, and wisdom. The form of the good is universal, common to all people. Immanuel Kant developed that same basic concept of morality by explaining three different aspects of a single idea. In addition to being universal, the moral imperative must be freely chosen, must not be imposed from the outside, and it must incorporate the intrinsic value of all moral beings.
Assuming that justice is a function of fairness rather than retribution, it should be clear why “collective punishment” cannot be justified morally. In addition to being immoral, collective punishment is generally regarded as a war crime and is a violation of international law. That is true when it is employed by Hamas, as seems to be the case in the October 7 attack on Israel, or by Israel, as seems to be the case in the recent military actions by Israel in Palestine. From a moral perspective, collective justice is unfair and, therefore, unjust—contrary to the common good.
In another dialogue, Plato’s characters examine an aspect of justice that shows both Israel and Hamas to be on the wrong side of morality. Consider this exchange between Socrates and Polus:
Polus: As if you, Socrates, wouldn’t like to have the power to do what seems good to you in the state; you wouldn’t be jealous when you see a man killing or taking property or imprisoning anyone he pleases. Oh, no!
Socrates: Do you mean justly or unjustly?
Polus: In either case, is such a person not equally to be envied?
Socrates: That’s enough, Polus!
Polus: Why is that enough?
Socrates: Because you shouldn’t envy miserable people; you should pity them.
Polus: And the people I was talking about are miserable?
Socrates: Yes, certainly they are.
Polus: And so, you think that a person who slays anyone he likes, and justly slays him, is pitiable and miserable?
Socrates: No, I don’t think that any more than I think he is to be envied.
Polus: Weren’t you just saying that he is miserable?
Socrates: Yes, my friend, if he killed someone unjustly. In that case he is also to be pitied. But he is not to be envied if he killed unjustly.
Polus: At any rate you will agree that a person who is unjustly put to death is miserable and to be pitied?
Socrates: Not as much, Polus, as the one who kills him, and not as much as the one who is justly killed.
Polus: How can that be, Socrates?
Socrates: Because doing injustice is the greatest of evils.
Polus: Is that the greatest? Isn’t suffering injustice a greater evil?
Socrates: Certainly not.
Polus: Then would you rather suffer than do injustice?
Socrates: I wouldn’t like either, but if I have to choose between them, I’d rather suffer than do (Plato, Gorgias, translated by Albert A. Anderson, Agora Publications, Inc, Kindle Edition, Greek pages 468-469).
This is a complex issue that requires much more analysis than is possible in the current context. Logically, it is an extension of the demand for an “eye for an eye.” If justice is fairness, then being treated in an unfair way and treating others in an unfair way are both examples of injustice. It is worse to be unjust than it is to suffer injustice. What should be clear from this exchange is that if we are trying to assess the actions of both Hamas and Israel since October 7, 2023, both sides should be accused of injustice. Israel was treated unjustly by the Hamas terrorists on October 7, but if Socrates is right, it would be worse for Israel to do injustice than to suffer injustice. Unless Israel can establish the justice of military action that causes death and injury to thousands of women and children who are not directly involved in the war, then Israel is responding to injustice it has suffered by inflicting an even greater injustice on people who are not directly responsible for the terrorist attacks on October 7.
Philosophy thrives on dialogue, so this is only the beginning. The central moral question that needs to be examined concerns the definition of justice that the leaders of Israel who are directing the military activity can offer to justify their application of total war on the people of Gaza. So far, the primary justification they have offered is that Israel has a right to defend itself. Socrates, for one, would question whether that is a sound justification for the kind of destruction that is taking place in Gaza. Socrates, who fought bravely in the Athenian military, would support the right of people to defend themselves. In the case of the current war with Hamas, Israel has used its Iron Dome system, which is a good example of such defense. Here is the American Jewish Committee’s description of Iron Dome:
Iron Dome is an air defense missile system developed by two Israeli firms with support from the U.S. Its emphasis is on defense. It is never used to attack or retaliate and poses no threat to Palestinians. The strongest air defense system in the world has three components: a radar that detects incoming rockets; a command-and-control system that determines the threat level; and an interceptor that, if the system determines human lives or infrastructure are at risk, seeks to destroy the incoming rocket before it strikes (
From the moral perspective, the difference between defending and attacking is crucial. Although modern military technology complicates our ability to judge where defense ends and aggression begins, it is essential to distinguish between what is just and what is unjust. This is a major reason why two twentieth century philosophers, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., chose nonviolence rather than violence to confront injustice. King would surely have urged contemporary Palestinians to shun the violence used by Hamas and confront Israel’s occupation of its territory with nonviolence. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a recent interview on Democracy Now (November 2, 2023), reported on his recent visit to attend a literary conference in Palestine. Before that visit, he did not understand what he now sees as the similarity between how the people of Palestine are currently being treated and the way African Americans have been treated for 250 years. Coates explicitly cited the example of Martin Luther King’s embrace of nonviolence as a model for how the people of Palestine should act in the current crisis. I am not suggesting that the Israelis are currently willing or able to use nonviolent resistance” of the sort proposed by Gandhi to resolve the current war with Hamas. What we do know, however, is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to use nonviolent methods to advance the civil rights of Americans in the middle of the 20th century.
We need a new approach to deal with the unique challenges of our time, including nonviolent methods that go far beyond what Gandhi and his followers did to resist British soldiers in the streets of India and what King and his followers did by marching in Mississippi and Alabama. Political action, such as actually achieving a two-state solution to the existence of both Israel and Palestine in that geographical location, is an obvious way to seek justice for both nations without using violence. That would be a giant step forward.
Other nonviolent methods include negotiating the release of hostages, demanding the right to vote for all, enacting laws that promote the common good, and creating and supporting international organizations such as the United Nations designed to promote peace and avoid violent conflict. Above all, whatever methods are used should avoid actions or proposals that respond to injustice with even greater injustice. Finally, this approach should incorporate dialogue that opens people’s eyes rather than removing them.