The case of the soldier who killed a wounded terrorist continues to create a political storm in Israel. In my last post, I noted that if in fact the soldier did not have good reason to believe that the terrorist had a suicide belt, then he violated IDF orders that a wounded terrorist who does not pose a risk should not be harmed. As more information becomes available, I am becoming more and more persuaded that the position taken by army officials and Minister of Defense Ya’alon is correct in a narrow sense: the soldier’s action was not legally justified.
But the problem is not the soldier, although he will probably be punished. How can you have an army where soldiers can violate orders and not be punished?
The problem is the orders. The problem is that we are at a point in time when the moral principles that are supposed to guide our behavior have come into conflict with the demands of the geopolitical environment in which we must survive.
Jonathan Haidt argues persuasively that moral principles seem to us to be intuitively true, and then we try to justify them. We do this sometimes with rational arguments and with appeals to authority, including, in the case of Jews, the Torah and writings of the Sages. But the ultimate source of the intuitive feeling of rightness attached to laws like “do not murder” develops from an evolutionary process. Humans are clever, and they find ways to show how reason and authority justify what they intuitively ‘know’. But this happens after the fact.
A human culture creates a consensus for those moral principles that promote the survival of the culture. These values become part of the way people perceive the actions of others. They become intuitive. Cultures that internalize the wrong principles die out.
Like any evolutionary process, moral evolution takes place in response to environmental pressures. When the environment changes, existing principles and the rules that are derived from them have to change too. This is similar to what happens in biological evolution. If a population of animals or plants living in a particular region experiences a severe change in climate, either it adapts, moves or dies out.
Today Western cultures are under attack by an Islamic jihad. The Jewish people, who share many characteristics with both the West and the Islamic world, are also a target of the jihad. Unlike the short, intense wars of the 20th century, the jihad is prosecuting a long, low-level conflict which occasionally bursts into flame along the extensive seam between the Islamic world and the West. Israel is right on this seam, and because of both its ties to the West and the Jewish people’s historical relationship to Islam, it is a flashpoint for violence.
This conflict, which has affected Jews in the Land of Israel almost since the birth of Islam, has become part of the environment in which the Jewish people lives. The importance of compulsory military service to Israeli culture is just one of the ways the conflict shapes the fabric of our lives.
In the West – Europe and North America – cultural evolution has moved in a different direction than in Israel. Since 1945, it has been touched little by war, and the greatest challenge (especially in North America) has been dealing with what has been called ‘affluenza’, the disease of having too much of everything.
The wars of the 20th century were blamed on nationalism and ethnic particularism, and the reaction elevated values of universalism, empathy, equality, and concern for all humans over concern for one’s own group. In America, the old hierarchies changed drastically after WWII, which led directly to the civil rights movement, spawning a whole new moral vocabulary.
Israel, being a mixture of the West with the Middle East, has absorbed a certain amount of the new Western morality. But both the influence of more traditional Jewish beliefs and the reality of the conflict have resulted in a sharp divergence of attitudes. This was thrown into sharp relief by the affair of the soldier, which has given rise to both extreme condemnations of his act, and demonstrations in his favor.
There is a contradiction between the official position of the Army and government, which wish to be aligned with the ‘enlightened’ West, and the reality of the conflict. In this case, enlightenment means that once a terrorist has been rendered harmless, a soldier must instantly stop seeing him as a target for possibly deadly force, and instead see an injured human being that should receive medical treatment.
Under the best of conditions, it’s a difficult for a person to make this transition, but a conflict in which terror attacks are a daily occurrence and in which the soldiers that must respond are also a target of them makes it harder. Since the soldiers are not an isolated segment of the population as in the West, but are conscripts who are everyone’s children, it’s easy to understand the fury in the streets and on social media.
This is exacerbated by the strategy of the jihadists to exploit Israel’s concern for fighting according to moral principles in order to inflict more damage. So they attack our civilian population and use their own as human shields. They take advantage of Israel’s humanitarian aid for the population of Gaza to divert materials to build attack tunnels. And they take advantage of the propensity of the West to empathize with them – at the same time that other jihadists kill westerners in their own countries – to get them to apply pressure to Israel to fight back less aggressively.
What is happening is that the moral principles of the West, developed in an age of relative peace and affluence, weaken the society that espouses them when they must confront the Islamic jihad. This is seen quite clearly not only in Israel, but in Europe where the fabric of society is currently being torn by an invasion of Muslim migrants, who are actually being welcomed by some of their governments and elites.
In order to survive, a culture must adapt to its changing environment. Israel, unlike Europe, still has a strong particularist strain. In Europe, healthy nationalism has been snuffed out, decried as ‘right-wing extremism’, leaving only the true extremists to carry the banner of the Right. In Israel, Zionism – Jewish nationalism – isn’t dead, although the Left would like to kill it.
Israel can defeat the jihad, but in order to do so it has to adopt what the Left would call a more ‘primitive’ code of ethics, but in fact one that is adapted to the life-and-death struggle we are in. It should place the protection of all of our people, including soldiers, above all other considerations.
It would be better if we didn’t have to do this. It would be wonderful if we could cooperate with the Palestinian Arabs – there could be an economic miracle that everyone could participate in. Palestinian children could become scientists, doctors, or teachers of something other than hate. But that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a place where it is either us or them. They are killing our soldiers, our mothers and fathers and grandmothers. Even the young ones are taught to kill. We have to stop them, whatever it takes.
If we don’t evolve, we will be erased from history like the dinosaurs.