| Outlook |

Beyond Deplorable

 The question of whose life is worth more contains another question that is too frequently ignored: To whom?

One of the low points of the recent World Economic Forum in Davos was Thomas Friedman’s interview of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The dependably despicable Friedman asked, “Do Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian, Muslim, and Christian lives, given the incredible asymmetry in [civilian] casualties?”

Blinken predictably answered, “No.” And the top headline in the next day’s Jerusalem Post read, “Blinken: Jewish lives don’t matter more than Palestinian ones.”

Friedman’s question implicitly bought into a common moral fallacy — one fostered over the years by his own paper, the New York Times, with its front-page graphics comparing Palestinian and Israeli casualties in any Gazan conflict. That comparison is based on the presumption that the side that suffers the greater number of civilian casualties is morally superior.

And that, Friedman seems to think, is true even when one side has invested billions of dollars in anti-rocket defenses to protect its civilian population and the other deliberately maximizes its own civilian casualties by using its population as human shields for its military operations. By the Friedman/New York Times standard, Nazi Germany was the morally superior side in World War II because many more German civilians died than American or British civilians.

Friedman also engages in one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes: Jews view non-Jews as subhumans, and as a consequence have no compunctions about killing or maiming them, whether by drawing blood for their Pesach matzos or by poisoning the wells.

On his most recent visit to Israel, Blinken amplified Friedman’s criticism of Israel for showing too little regard for Palestinian life: “Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7, and the hostages continue to be dehumanized every day. But that does not give Israel license to dehumanize others.” Of a piece was President Biden’s characterization of Israel’s military response to Hamas’s October 7 massacre as “over the top.”

Neither Blinken nor Biden has a drop of military experience or expertise, and therefore no basis for saying that Israel’s campaign to uproot Hamas — a goal the US has repeatedly said is fully legitimate — is unnecessarily dehumanizing Gazan residents. What evidence does he have that Israel devalues Palestinian lives, i.e., that it could achieve its just military goals in a different, less lethal fashion?

On what basis do they disagree with the testimony of two of the world’s leading experts in asymmetric warfare — John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and Col. Richard Kemp, former head of UN Expeditionary Forces in Afghanistan — that no country in the history of warfare has gone to such lengths to avoid civilian casualties as Israel has, and that the ratio of civilian to military deaths, even accepting Hamas’s own figures, is historically low?

Defaming Israel as an electoral ploy to hold progressive voters and to win the crucial battleground state of Michigan, with its large Palestinian-American population, at a time when every day brings news of a Jew beaten on the streets of an American city and of another campus declaring its support of BDS, is beyond deplorable.


FRIEDMAN’S QUESTION TO BLINKEN was rhetorical: He knew in advance what Blinken would answer, indeed what he had to answer. But there is more to the question than is contemplated by Thomas Friedman. The question of whose life is worth more contains another question that is too frequently ignored: To whom?

As an objective matter, the Torah establishes instances in which there are distinctions based on a particular relationship — e.g., priorities in tzedakah to one’s family, or to the poor of one’s city.

Take one example of the crucial role of perspective. Most of us can sympathize with the parents of hostages in Gaza for doing everything possible to secure the release of their loved ones, even advocating for one-sided prisoner exchanges and lengthy cease-fires that would allow Hamas to regroup (even if other hostage families reject those demands). But we would not want the government, which must take into account the short- and long-range security of all Israeli citizens, to adopt the perspective of those parents.

Traditionally, almost all human beings have given priority to those most closely related to them. And with the rise of the nation-state, a similar preference developed for one’s fellow citizens.

Contemporary political philosopher Yoram Hazony explicitly bases his “national conservatism” on the analogy between the nation-state and the family. The word patriotism derives from a Greek term for fellow members of one’s clan, patria, and from a Latin term for father, pater. Traditionally, one’s country has been referred to as the motherland.

As a citizen of Israel, for instance, I do not want my government to put the same value on my life and those of my loved ones that it does on the lives of our enemies, and that is regardless of any objective claims about the relative value of those lives.

That feeling was brought home clearly in 2001 when 13 IDF reservists were killed upon entering a booby-trapped home in Jenin. Every other country in the world would have bulldozed that home, in which it was assumed that terrorists were holed up, after giving those inside a warning to come out, rather than risking the lives of its soldiers. I was outraged that Israel had not done so out of excessive caution about possible Palestinian civilian casualties.


MUCH OF THE CURRENT rancor between populists and globalists revolves around precisely this question: Does the government of a nation have a duty to give precedence to the well-being of its own citizens, and do citizens of a particular country owe any unique duties to one another? That is most clearly seen in debates about immigration that have roiled Europe since the Syrian civil war began in 2016, and are doing the same in the United States today.

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to throw the gates of Europe open to refugees from the rest of the world and President Biden’s decision to do the same with respect to America’s southern border reflect a globalist perspective that does not recognize any distinctions between citizens of one country and those of another. From that point of view, it is unfair that American citizens should have access to more bounty by virtue of having been born in the United States than any poor person anywhere in the world.

Thus, Vice President Kamala Harris, after her disastrous first visit to the southern border, opined that the only way to slow the flow of illegal immigrants was to bring living standards in Guatemala closer to those of the United States — a utopian fantasy.

Unfortunately, it turns out, as Douglas Murray (The Strange Death of Europe), Christopher Caldwell (Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West), and others have argued, a country or continent cannot bring in millions of Muslim asylum-seekers and, at the same time, preserve the culture and values developed over centuries. Among the attitudes that those Muslims bring with them is a virulent anti-Semitism.

The recognition of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of assimilating masses of Muslim immigrants has fueled the rise of right-wing/populist parties in much of Western Europe — Italy, Spain, France, even Sweden — as well as in most of the Eastern European countries, which were formerly part of the Soviet bloc.

And the issue of immigration may well turn out to be the most important one in the 2024 American elections. One of Donald Trump’s more acute observations was: If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country. At least not a country defined by a feeling of something held in common between citizens — a shared history or commitment to the Constitution, in the case of the United States.

Members of a family know how they are connected to one another. But if an elderly maiden aunt suddenly decides to adopt her gardener and staff, other family members are unlikely to view them as relatives. And the same will be true if a country opens its gates to one and all, without some shared commitment, parallel to a ger’s acceptance of mitzvos to join the Jewish People.

And immigration is only one of many issues where the divide between those who proclaim their love of humanity in general (as in the old sweatshirt slogan, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand”) and those who identify primarily as citizens of a particular country have played out. Farmers in virtually every European country, and many less developed countries as well, are in open revolt against what they view as the priorities of global elites, such as global warming. They view those elites as imposing environmental restrictions on agriculture that take no account of their livelihoods or of their ability to produce plentiful food.

Similarly, Western European elites’ dream of an energy future based entirely on so-called renewables — wind and solar — replacing both carbon fuels and “clean” nuclear power has driven up energy costs beyond what many families can afford and has rendered many industries no longer viable. Those on the short end of the stick, unable to afford the elites’ luxury beliefs, feel betrayed by their fellow citizens.


ISRAEL IS TODAY the arguably the purest example of the traditional nation-state. Social cohesion, at least in times of war, is high; Israel consistently ranks near the top of the patriotism index in transnational surveys; and Judaism still provides a measure of shared purpose and identity. If the essence of national sovereignty is, in the words of Columbia’s Mark Lilla, “autonomy, which means in political terms the capacity to defend oneself,” then Israel has had by far more experience defending itself than any other country on earth over the past 75 years.

Israelis are immensely proud of their achievements as a nation. But Lilla already noted over two decades ago the irony of our poor timing: “Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state. Now they are criticized for having one.” With memories of two world wars still fresh, Europeans long ago identified nationalism as the greatest danger. Accordingly, one 2003 poll found 60% of Europeans viewed Israel, the nation-state par excellence, as the greatest threat to world peace.

The Guardian posed the question around the same time whether the price of the humanitarian impulse to give the Jews a state of their own after the Holocaust had not proven too high in terms of the suffering of the Palestinians. And that desire to remove Israel from the “river to the sea” has only grown stronger among progressive elites in Europe and the United States since then.

Which is why, for better or worse, Israel is likely to find its strongest allies going forward among the proud nation-states of Eastern Europe, long denied their own sovereignty, and among the populist parties in Western Europe and America.

Populism is not always a coherent ideology. Nor does identifying a particular policy or politician as populist provide any assurance that they are well-suited to addressing a wide array of social or political challenges. Protectionism, for instance, will drive up prices for the vast majority of the populations of the West.

But in Israel’s fight for its continued existence, those most likely to be supportive are those who, like us, are proud of their nation and determined to preserve its values and culture, not those who smirk at such terms as “American exceptionalism.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1001. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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