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How Remembrance Day and WW2 Gave Me Moral Clarity about Israel/Hamas War

By: Akos Balogh

Our social media feeds and televisions are filled with pictures of dead and dying Palestinian children.

It’s been gut-wrenching to watch. As a dad with kids, I’ve often had to switch the TV off and walk out of the room, emotional and near tears. It’s a tragic situation: A situation in which 1400 innocent Israelis were massacred in a single day – Israel’s 9/11 – and over 200 hostages including babies were taken by Hamas. And now, civilians in Gaza are dying, with one statistic saying that 2 out of every 5 Gazans killed are children.

How do we make sense of this tragedy?

Numerous commentators, politicians and journalists have stepped in to give their perspectives. Former President Barack Obama released a statement soon after the attacks,  which I found quite helpful.

But last week, Obama made remarks that resonate with many in the West. Speaking about the Palestine-Israel situation, he said:

If you want to solve the problem, then you have to take in the whole truth. And you then have to admit nobody’s hands are clean, that all of us are complicit to some degree,

Nobody’s hands are clean.

On this view, Hamas’ hands are not clean, and neither are the Israelis, he seems to be saying. While I do respect Obama in many ways, I do have concerns about this (popular) view that ‘nobody’s hands are clean’ when it comes to Israel and Hamas.[1]

And it was last Saturday during Remembrance Day that I understood why this moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas is so problematic.

On Remembrance Day, we remember the end of World War 1, and we give thanks for those that fought. More generally, as the West, even today amid cancel culture, where Western heroes like Churchill are increasingly suspect or even cancelled, we still have a high view of those who fought in both World War 1 and World War 2. We think of WW2 as a righteous war, fought against unspeakable evil (namely the Nazis, and to a lesser degree the Imperial Japanese).

And comparing our thinking of what happened in World War 2 helps us make sense of the Israel/Hamas war. Here’s how:

1) In WW2, over 800,000 German and Japanese civilians died from Allied attacks

As we see the horrifying pictures of dead and wounded Palestinian children killed in Israeli attacks, consider these statistics from World War 2:

Bombing by British and American forces killed between 330,000 and 900,000 Japanese civilians, not including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where 112,000 died.

In Nazi Germany, between 350,000 and 500,000 civilians died from (Western) Allied Bombing.

Thus, conservatively, the Western Allies killed around 800,000 German and Japanese civilians.

That’s a lot of dead children.

And that doesn’t include non-Axis civilians: for example, in the battle for Normandy, the Western Allies killed over 20,000 French civilians in collateral damage.

2) Despite this horrific toll from Allied attacks, nobody makes a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Western Allies.

People still believe the Nazis were in a different (and worse) moral category than the Western Allies.

Even though the Allied killed over 800,000 German and Japanese civilians – dwarfing the number of people killed in Gaza – nobody makes a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Western Allies.

Why not?

We recognise a sharp moral difference between civilians dying as a result of collateral damage (e.g. Allied bombing), versus genocidal state policies (the Nazis and Japanese).

3) While in one sense it would be correct to say that ‘Nobody’s hands are clean’ when it comes to the Western Allies and Nazis in WW2, this can lead to moral confusion.

Technically, when it comes to killing innocent civilians, the Western Allies do have blood on their hands.

German and Japanese babies died as the Allies bombed the Reich and Japan. French babies died as the Allies marched across Europe from Normandy to Berlin.

And that’s not to mention Allied actions that many consider morally controversial at best, and war crimes at worst, such as the bombing of Dresden in 1945, or the dropping of Nuclear weapons on Japan.

So yes, technically, ‘nobody’s hands were clean’ in WW2.

But while saying ‘nobody’s hands are clean’ in WW2 is technically correct, that statement can lead to moral confusion.

Why?

Because that statement doesn’t tell us if there was any significant moral difference between the two sides.

A significant moral difference would include things like targeting civilians for death as state policy (i.e. genocide), versus accidental deaths of civilians from collateral damage. It would include things like how they looked after enemy soldiers, and whether they followed the rules of war as state policy.[2]

Those are significant moral differences, which nearly everybody in the West recognises today, even 70 years later. But just because we don’t put the Western Allies in the same moral category as the Nazis, does that mean the Allies were beyond criticism?

Not at all.

4) While the Western Allies were far more moral than the Nazis, they weren’t beyond legitimate moral critique.

The Western Allies had their moral failings.

I’ve already mentioned the controversial bombing of Dresden and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were instances of Allied soldiers committing crimes on and off the battlefield (albeit at a much smaller scale than German or Soviet soldiers).

But the Western countries themselves had serious moral issues. 1940s America had institutionalised racism in the form of Jim Crow laws in the South, and a segregated Army. Britain had colonial rule, and Australia had the Stolen Generation. No, this didn’t make them as bad as the Nazis. But the Western Allies of WW2 are not beyond moral critique.

So how does all this relate to Israel and Hamas?

5) There are clear parallels between the Western Allies’ campaign against Nazi Germany and Israel’s campaign against Hamas.

When it comes to Israel’s campaign against Hamas, there are clear parallels with the Western Allies fight against Nazi Germany:

In both cases, democracies were attacked unprovoked by an enemy with genocidal intentions.

In both cases, the democracy responded to the attack.

In both cases, by and large, the democracy abided by the rules of war, although there were instances where this did not happen.

In both cases, the democracy’s actions caused collateral damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

In making these comparisons, I’m not saying Israel is perfect and beyond legitimate criticism. It’s not. You can criticise  Israeli policy (e.g. Jewish Settlements in the West Bank), just like you could criticise the Western Allies for many of their policies.

On the flip side, Israel has a practice of warning Palestinians ahead of time that their building will be bombed, known as ‘roof knocking’, for the sake of limiting civilian casualties. The Western Allies had no such practice (did the US military warn the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of what was coming?). Thus, one could argue the IDF is more moral than the Western Allies, at least in its campaign against Hamas.[3]

6) Saying ‘Nobody’s hands are clean’ about Israel and Hamas is also correct in one sense, but quickly leads to moral confusion and moral equivalencing between Hamas and Israel

There is a sharp moral difference between targeting and massacring innocent civilians like Hamas (and the Nazis) did, as per their official state policy, versus civilians dying as collateral damage in Israel’s fighting of a war of self-defence.

Yes, one can criticise aspects of Israeli war policy (in the same way one could criticise aspects of Allied war policy in WW2), but that doesn’t mean that they’re in the same category as Hamas.

(I would argue that Hamas is as bad, or even worse, even more barbaric than the Nazis: the Nazis still had some semblance of Judeo-Christian shame inside many of them, as they tried to cover up the Holocaust. Hamas, on the other hand, live-streamed their massacre to the world).

And thus:

7) We need a better way of speaking about WW2, and the Israel/Hamas conflict, than ‘Nobody’s hands are clean’, if we’re to have moral clarity about what’s happening.

The problem of saying ‘nobody’s hands are clean’ between the Allies and the Nazis, and between Israel and Hamas, is that it says too much.

It implies both parties really are equally blameworthy, and equally guilty. Which, as we’ve seen above, is morally misleading. As historian Niall Ferguson said recently:

I find it extraordinary the moral equivalence that people suggest between terrorists murdering innocent women, children, babies, putting babies in ovens, and the Israeli Defense Forces retaliating in a way to target the perpetrators, going out of their way to minimize civilian casualties.’

8) A better way: While there might be mistakes that Israel has made (and is making) that are open to critique, that doesn’t make them morally equivalent to Hamas.

Israel can commit particular acts that are immoral, without becoming morally equivalent to Hamas, in the same way that Western Allies could commit morally problematic acts (e.g. Dresden), without becoming morally equivalent to the Nazis.

Without this moral clarity, we risk confusing democracies based on the rule of law with genocidal totalitarian regimes. At that point, we lose touch with reality, with serious downstream consequences. (Many university students and academics in the US and the West are at risk of doing just that).

And as Christians, we need to take moral clarity seriously, because God takes it seriously:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Thus, while we may raise moral concerns about Israel and the IDF, let’s be careful of using simplistic ‘nobody’s hands are clean’ type language. That language leads more to moral confusion than moral clarity.


Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash 

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