Gough Whitlam coined a memorable political phrase when he said, “only the impotent are pure”. It’s memorable because it’s so obviously true. And it tells us something intrinsic about the human condition and in particular about politics. If you’re involved in politics, your hands will get dirty, no matter how noble your intentions or how perfect your democracy.
Which brings me to Israel. How can people expect a democratic country, which is surrounded by millions of people who want to kill the Jews, to always behave perfectly when the alternative to defending themselves is extermination? There is no second chance for the Israelis. It’s survive or die.
Context is all in this situation. If Israel was nestled somewhere in the middle of the European Union, different standards would apply. As it is, its neighbours are Hezbollah, ISIS, Fatah and Hamas. And every country surrounding Israel has attacked Israel directly or allowed proxies to attack from their territory. Living constantly on an existential knife-edge means mistakes are bound to happen. What country can always behave perfectly under these circumstances? What human being can remain absolutely pure under these circumstances? And what moral person expects perfection from a democratic country under these circumstances?
The Israelis are acutely aware of how their fragile political situation compromises their morality. The Israeli media is replete with articles outlining in minute detail the often-terrible price that Israel pays ethically in defending itself. The Israelis parse every action they take, and there are as many opinions about the ethics and morality of Israeli defence policy as there are Israelis. It’s a never-ending conversation in Israel. In contrast, morality and ethics are not conversations in the countries surrounding Israel, or in the Palestinian Territories. There the usual conversations are invocations to hatred and murder.
Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the Palestinian Territories are ruled by criminal gangs who do not allow their people a democratic vote or the simple right to free speech. They are criminal regimes because they teach their children that the noblest action is to kill Jews – not Israelis, I stress, but Jews. In other words, death to the Jews is at the heart of their worldview. To put this in perspective, intentionally harming others is the definition of criminality. This is the case throughout most of the Muslim world, where democracy doesn’t exist and murderous anti-Semitism is the norm.
The extraordinary situation, then, and one that should be widely understood and publicised, is that the Israelis do not routinely behave like barbarians, which is an achievement considering the absolutely appalling intentions the surrounding populations have towards Israel. It’s hard to be decent all the time in the face of never-ending indecency. So, by all means, criticise Israeli actions, that’s one of the vital strengths of a democracy. But remember the Israelis are already doing a better job of criticising Israel than anyone else, and they’re doing it in full cognisance of the fact that their neighbours want to kill them.
The great Thomas Sowell has a simple question when confronted with the ethics of an economic or political situation: in comparison to what? The Israelis are paragons of virtue when contrasted with their neighbours. Nobody, even at his or her best, is pure in intent and perfect in deed when under existential threat. It’s impossible because human beings make mistakes. Impotence is not morality.
The disgrace is that a democratic country that wants to be left in peace is demonised when it defends itself.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.