The cost of moral equivalency

Yesterday I stood on one of the busiest street corners of our city for three hours, holding up the flag of Israel. I was one of about 100 supporters of Israel who were countered by 35-40 pro-Palestinian demonstrators. I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about peace lately, so my flag waving felt a bit dissonant. Also, the whole Gaza operation lies under the shadow of the terrible civilian casualty toll. Whatever truth may be revealed about that grim count as the fog of war lifts, it inevitably dampens my enthusiasm for demonstrating. And then, I actually found myself in agreement with a few of the counter-demonstration signs: “Free Gaza!” Amen (freedom from Hamas that is). “End the war on Gaza” Amen. “Justice for Palestine.” Amen to that too.

But of course with all these statements, the question is how to get there. I’m for peace and a better life for Palestinians, but I still felt compelled yesterday to stand with Israel, especially as so much criticism of Israel today is calling into question its very legitimacy and right to exist. Beyond that, I also felt the need to stand up against the moral equivalency that is so often invoked by those who view this conflict. It sounds neutral and above the fray, but in reality moral equivalency is one of the factors prolonging the fray.

The morning before the demonstration I saw this cartoon in the local paper (from It’s effective cartooning, but it’s part of the problem.

cagleWhen outsiders posture themselves as adults watching a juvenile and senseless conflict between “Israelis vs. Palestinians,” they soon decide that both sides are without moral or rational justification. As some parents do when breaking up a squabble among the kids, they decide that they’re both bad because they’re fighting. Never mind that one kid might be the bully or the instigator—you’re both going to your rooms. In the same way, some people look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decide that it’s so enduring, so filled with arguments and counter-arguments, with provocations and reprisals and more provocations, that it’s not worth trying to sort out the underlying issues at all, including the fact that Hamas has been rightly labeled as a terrorist organization. These observers have no interest in the history or religious-political context of the dispute, because they’re both too detailed and complicated.

In the cartoon, the “parents” disappear after the first panel. But in real life, the bombardment of news stories and media images keeps everyone engaged. In the absence of ethical or historical appraisal, however, the only thing left is to side with the party that’s getting beat up the most—or appearing to be beat up the most—regardless of the root of the conflict. Since there’s moral equivalency between the two sides, the side that sustains the most damage must be the one to support. Moral and rational deliberation gives way to watching YouTube postings and going with the image that grabs you the most.

So Hamas is scoring major points in the PR battle over Gaza, and I believe this is an impediment to peace. The conclusion of Operation Protective Edge could provide some momentum in the right direction if Hamas could somehow be demilitarized in exchange for the easing of restrictions on the residents of Gaza. Of course, Hamas would never demilitarize voluntarily, but there’s an opportunity for unprecedented pressure as Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and other Arab regimes seem to be ready to align on this point. It would take the added pressure of the West to make it happen, though, and this seems unlikely in the current climate of moral equivalency that ends up giving Hamas a free pass.

Too much to explain on a protest sign, but that’s one reason why I was standing on the street corner.


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